Tennessee was eliminated from the SEC Tournament Saturday by losing 73-68 to Alabama. Here are three things.
Like Candles on a Birthday Cake, Vols Blew it
The Vols led for more than 33 of the 40 live-game minutes against the Tide, and even stretched that lead out to as many as 15 points in the second half but still lost the game. So, what happened?
Sure, Davonte Gaines missed two free throws that would have put the Vols up one point with 25 seconds left, but it’s not really fair, or accurate, to pin blame on one player for something he did or didn’t do in a 40-minute long game that features numerous other players. Let’s get that out of the way now.
However, I’m absolutely not absolving Gaines of fault — he had the chance to give the Vols the lead and fell short. So he certainly carries some of the weight for the defeat, but the loss doesn’t fall squarely on his shoulders. There are plenty of other places to look if you’re wanting to assign blame, and the most glaring issue was ball control.
Tennessee turned the ball over a season-high 19 times against the Tide after notching just 11 giveaways in each of the two previous games, both wins over the Florida Gators. Alabama converted those 19 giveaways into 14 points. Vols’ Head Coach Rick Barnes said the team was fatigued and that played a part in some of the carelessness with the ball in the second half. I guess I buy that, to an extent...? Sure, Tennessee played two games in two days, and both were close and strenuous (mentally and physically) contests, But it had a week off before the game against Florida Saturday and then 10 days between the Auburn game and that first game against UF on March 7th. And yes, without John Fulkerson, the rotation was a man short playing Alabama.
But really, the Vols have been pretty reckless with the ball during the last two-ish months of the season. They started the season 10-1 and averaged just 9.6 turnovers per game in that stretch with five games of single-digit turnover totals. Since then, the per-game turnover average has ticked up to 13.7, and Tennessee gave it away more than 10 times in each game while going 8-7 in that stretch. Tennessee’s two freshmen, Keon Johnson and Jaden Springer, are particularly hurting the Vols in this department. They had five giveaways a piece against ‘Bama, which accounted for 53 percent of UT’s total turnovers, and have averaged 5.7 (Johnson: 2.8, Springer: 2.9) since SEC play started.
Obviously the quality of competition rose, so that’s a factor, but the Vols have to be tighter with the ball than they were against Bama to make a run in the NCAA Tournament.
In a general sense, shooting was again an issue for the Vols, which is especially disappointing when you watched the team go nearly 50 percent from the field in the first half and then follow that with a paltry 9-26 (34.6) effort in the game’s final 20 minutes.
Tennessee was especially poor on the easy shots — according to CBB Analytics, the Vols hit just four of their nine attempts from inside four feet. That 44-percent mark is the lowest FG percentage from that range since the 42.9-percent figure the offense posted against Missouri on January 23rd.
(CBB Analytics requires a subscription, so I’m going to screenshot the information instead of linking it. I don’t normally like to give away the information that people work hard to compile, but in this instance I felt it was important to give you the illustration to reinforce the words.)
In the image, you can see that the offense also shot 18 percent on mid-range two-point shots, making 2-11 after attempting just nine shots total from that range in the two previous wins against Florida. You can like or dislike the mid-range two as a shot — I certainly don’t enjoy that debate, but we can all agree that when it’s not going in it’s bad news for the Vols. And to make matters worse, by looking at these numbers, Tennessee had one of its better shooting nights in the paint. That leads me to wonder if, maybe, just a couple of those mid-range two attempts were instead shot attempts from inside the paint, would the game’s outcome have been different? ...If ifs and buts were candy and nuts...
No Likey No Fulky
Tennessee basketball played a game without John Fulkerson for the first time since the 2018-2019 season, and it kinda looks like the Vols will be without him for at least a little while longer. He had surgery on the facial fracture he got from Omar Payne’s cheap-shot elbow in Tennessee’s SEC Tournament victory against Florida.
Officially, a spokesperson for the team said there’s been no decision on Fulky’s availability for the Big Dance and the team will continue to evaluate his status. My Opinion: he had surgery to repair the fracture in his face, and there’s recovery time involved with any surgical procedure. And, there isn’t an immediate fix for the likely concussion he also sustained when Payne’s elbow connected flush with Fulkerson’s temple. There’s no way the medical staff rushes him back — I’d be nothing short of surprised to see him play anytime in the rest of Tennessee’s season, however long that ends up being.
All things considered, the Vols did pretty well sans Fulky. Losing by six to KenPom’s 8th-best team without the second-best rebounder, fourth-best scorer and top post player is more than just a moral victory. Though the sample size doesn’t get much smaller, — just one game — it’s still some evidence that Tennessee can run with the country’s best teams even down its premier big man.
There are obviously areas in which the other players will have to pick up slack, and rebounding might just be at the top of that list. Vescovi, Johnson and Springer all usually play guard or on the wing and average a combined 10.7 rebounds per game, but they totaled a surprising 18 against the Tide. Josiah-Jordan James, in just 17 minutes, grabbed six boards while even BIG UROS chipped in with three rebounds in his 17 minutes.
Small Ball Could be Big
Without Fulky, Tennessee started basically four guards alongside Yves Pons: Vescovi, Johnson, Springer and James. Tennessee started this group in the one game this season in which Fulkerson didn’t start, LSU, and again against Alabama. It’s a grouping that fans began anticipating before the season began, with visualizations of the Vols playing a new brand of basketball that’s strictly orange and white blurs blocking shots on defense and throwing down alley oops on offense.
Of course, that never fully materialized, but this specific rendition of 2021’s small-ball Vols have certainly had their success. Altogether, per hoop-explorer, this group has played 87 total possessions together, and at 126.4, it has the second-highest points per-possession figure of any configuration that’s played a minimum of 25 possessions.
Also, perhaps most importantly — considering the thorn in this team’s offensive side is turning the ball over — this particular lineup has the lowest turnover percentage of any lineup Barnes has used this season (minimum 25 possessions). Hoop-explorer uses KemPom’s strength of schedule data, and this group also has the highest strength of schedule figure, meaning that its compiled the numbers I mentioned while also facing the highest “weighted offensive or defensive efficiencies of the lineups’ opponents,” according to the description given of that column on hoop-explorer. Basically, that lineup’s scored the most points per possession and has the lowest percentage of turnovers relative to its total possessions against better competition than that of the other lineups the Vols have faced.