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Three Things: LSU

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I coulda easily picked five reasons why the Vols lost

NCAA Basketball: Tennessee at Louisiana State Stephen Lew-USA TODAY Sports

Tennessee lost 67-79 to LSU Saturday, and here are three things.

Don’t let me get in the way of y’all and your pitchforks

The Vols lost a 12-point game to LSU in Baton Rouge Saturday, and during the game, at least on Twitter, there was a pretty large contingent of folks ready to help pack Rick Barnes’ bags on his way outta town. The discontented roar quieted a bit as the Vols nicked a 20-point lead down to as few as five, but Tennessee got out-played, out-athlete-ed, out-hustled, out-effort-ed and out-coached, and now fans are convinced the team is soft, and the game has passed Rick Barnes by.

LSU’s a good team, and it was a sold-out and rowdy crowd that was energized by a gnarly Tari Eason dunk on Olivier Nkamhoua, an Eric Gaines block on a Uros Plavsic dunk attempt and multiple, careless Tennessee turnovers that led to easy Tiger buckets.

I’m not trying to minimize the loss — It’s just important to keep in mind that basketball seasons have more than 30 games, and it’s not all that surprising to get a few, less-than-inspired efforts in any given season. I don’t like to characterize the entire team or the staff by one game, no matter how good or bad things looked. Basketball season always has ebbs and flows, and it’s a good idea to be mindful of the bigger picture. That’s all.

It’s been a rough stretch, and there are some pretty concerning aspects of Tennessee’s play recently that could end up being canaries in the coalmine of this season going awry. But I’m going to give the fellas a chance to iron things out.

Point-of-attack defense

Rick Barnes is now 0-4 against Will Wade in Baton Rouge, and Tennessee seems to consistently struggle staying in front of the Tiger guards, be it JaVonte Smart the last three years, Cam Thomas in Baton Rouge last time or Missouri transfer Xavier Pinson Saturday (did y’all see Thomas’ game-winning floater from this weekend? Dude has stupid, ice-cold scoring talent just flowing through his veins). As has become the norm in this series, Tennessee’s defense, previously ranked second in the NCAA, spent most of the night on its heels. In the play below, you’ll see LSU using a high ball screen, but keep your eyes on Kennedy Chandler and John Fulkerson.

The Vols’ duo looks to be on different pages, or, in this case, actually the same page... ? Chandler chases Pinson, but Fulkerson stays with Pinson, too. Pinson waits for Fulkerson to turn his back and re-find his man and then just follows the path Fulky cleared right into the paint. If you’re gonna switch on the pick and roll, then do it. If not, then don’t. This miscue left an LSU player wide open behind the arc. The tactic, either consciously or unconsciously, deployed by Pinson here is something former SB Nation writer Mike Prada has coined as Chris Paul’s hide-and-seek move. * giggle *

In this next example, Pinson uses one cross-over dribble and the threat of the double-drag screens to the far side to get Zakai Zeigler’s leverage outta wack.

Check out all this open floor in front of Pinson:

By the time Pinson reaches the lane, he’s drawn three defenders and kicks it out for an easy triple.

When players have Pinson’s speed, defenders clearly need to be ready for him to drive to the hoop. Well, then here’s a counter to that threat:

Pinson got Zeigler’s momentum going toward the baseline and then crossed back and pulled up for a silky 3. Thank GOODNESS Zakai didn’t fall.

Second (and third) chance points

The Vols haven’t been a great rebounding team since Grant Williams left, though this season they’ve shown marked improvement on the defensive side and have moved up from the 203rd-best team last season to 119th this year (via Bart Torvik). But, LSU has just so many athletes. They’re big and quick, and they jump high, and they jump fast. Tennessee, especially in the post, is more, well, uhh, limited in those terms, and as such, doesn’t have much room for mental lapses or toe-stubs of focus when it comes to securing boards. Against the Tigers, the Vols had several “oops,” moments that led to extra shot attempts for LSU.

Below, LSU’s Eric Gaines has multiple Vols chasing him around, but the two players I want you to watch are No. 30 in orange, Josiah-Jordan James, and No. 13 in white, Tari Eason.

When Gaines lets his shot go, Eason is at the free-throw line. By the time the shot hits the rim, he’s slithered past No. 30, James, and Vescovi — as neither Vol bothered to put a body on him for a box out. The lion’s share of the blame here goes to James, as the Vols are playing man defense, and Eason is his man here. It was a somewhat surprisingly catch on film as James, even at 6-foot-6, led UT in rebounding last season, ranks third in boards per-game this year and due to his limited offensive acumen, really provides most of his utility through defense and rebounding.

In the next example, Tennessee’s playing zone, and rebounding is traditionally a bit more challenging in a zone defense because each player doesn’t have a default matchup and thereby somebody he knows he has to get a body on.

Before this shot is even released, LSU’s Darius Days takes off like a scalded dog for the hoop and skirts past three Vols — Justin Powell, Vescovi and Uros Plavsic — on his way to the rebound and easy put back. When the ball’s on the way, you can see Powell looking for his man as Days runs by. And while I’d like to see him make that adjustment on the fly and at least try to impede Days path, I can see where his head was at in the moment. Vescovi and Plavsic end up both bodying up the same player and thusly highlighting why, indeed, it’s more difficult rebounding in a zone defense.

Earlier, when I said Tennessee got “got out-played, out-athlete-ed, out-hustled, out-effort-ed...” well, this is good example of why this game gave me such an impression.

Last example here, and another instance of LSU just wanting it more. I typically prefer not to use terms like “wanting it more,” just because they’re kinda overused and generic and there’s often another, more accurate rationale floating around somewhere. But, ya know, it fits and here we are.

Tennessee’s defense is flying around, but that’s not always a positive descriptor. You’re gonna see some over-pursuit and guys jumping a bit haphazardly at ball fakes. LSU gets one rebound off an unlucky Santi tip — when Tennessee had three guys near the ball to the Tigers’ one — and then another rebound from LSU’s Days that leads to yet another score that could and should have been prevented.

The most obvious culprit here, again: James. He’s asked to make a tough adjustment quick here, from thinking he’s going to contest Fudge’s attempt at the rim to realizing he’s gotta body up Days, but still — it doesn’t look like James even makes at attempt to seal Days, which gives LSU’s resident blue hair an uncontested tip in.

Tennessee’s point-of-attack defense and inability to keep LSU off the offensive glass aren’t the only two reasons the Vols lost. The guys looked a bit timid on several occasions and somewhat shell-shocked at LSU’s effort and energy.

And then, overall, they just did not shoot it well, again. This game marked Tennessee’s fourth-straight game of sub-40 percent field goal shooting and its fourth-straight game shooting worse than 30 percent from deep. The Vols are 2-2 in that stretch, but the defense and 27 Ole Miss turnovers bailed UT out in one of those games, while the Vols rode a blistering hot start against Arizona to a win before Christmas. The squad should maybe be counting themselves lucky it’s 10-4 right now instead of 8-6.

The Vols have a chance to right the ship against 10-4 South Carolina this week before traveling to 12-3 Kentucky this weekend.