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Are the Vols ‘Finnished’ without Nkamhoua?

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Moving... forward... minus Olivier

COLLEGE BASKETBALL: JAN 11 South Carolina at Tennessee Photo by Bryan Lynn/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Monday, Tennessee announced that the injury junior forward and Finland native Olivier Nkamhoua sustained during the South Carolina was going to require surgery, and that he’s gonna miss the rest of the season.

I’m not gonna go all doom-and-gloom on you here, but this is a big blow for the Vols. Nkamhoua was having, by far, the best season of his career. Offensively: after making just one triple in 54 career games, he’d turned into the Vols’ most accurate shooter from deep by draining 45 percent of his 3s, though his volume — 1.3 attempts per-game — makes one wonder if something near that level of proficiency was actually sustainable. He was Tennessee’s second-best rebounder (5.6 per game), its third-highest scorer (8.6) and one of two players who’d started every game of the year. While he hadn’t quite rounded into the final form of a go-to, back-to-the-basket scorer, recently we’d seen him get the ball on the block and turn the possession into two points via a turn-around 10-foot jumper. He had maybe his best game of the season against Texas A&M, filtering out performances like the USC Upstate contest, with 15 points and was en route to another strong game before the injury against the Gamecocks. No coincidence — we saw him score off entry passes with a few different post moves in both games.

On defense, Nkamhoua was the only big who operated well enough in space to navigate Tennessee’s switch-happy scheme without it inevitably ending in a guard-big mismatch for the offense. His defensive rating (90.4) was the highest of any true four-or-five man on the team and third of any player with enough minutes to qualify as a regular-rotation guy, and Nkamhoua’s switchability was a big piece of that pie. The only other piece bigger: his shot blocking.

My biggest concern about the defense preseason was how would it adjust to life without Yves Pons hovering near the hoops, constantly on the prowl for shots he could swat into oblivion. Nkamhoua wasn’t on Pons’ level — few are — but he was the closest thing the Vols had to a genuine rim protector. He led the team with 25 blocks in 22 games and is the only Vol who checked all the shot-blocking boxes. He’s tall enough to guard bigs and block an attempt at the point of attack, and he’s athletic enough to block a jumper after a hard close out or come from the weak side and erase a woulda-been easy bucket.

I reckon that’s enough lamenting about what Tennessee’s losing with Nkamhoua on the sidelines. What’s the solution? I figure the Vols can go a couple of ways, and we’re likely to see both of these in different iterations at various times for the rest of the year.

SMALL BALL

Though Rick Barnes said Nkamhoua’s minutes will go to Brandon Huntley-Hatfield, Jonas Aidoo and Jahmai Mashack, I don’t expect Tennessee’s main fix to be plugging another post player into Olivier’s spot. We’ll see that some, sure, but to me, it makes more sense to go small, slide Josiah-Jordan James down to the power forward spot and play another guard at the wing/ small forward/ three spot.

Considering Zeigler’s recent play, he’s my first option. Getting him in as the third guard means Tennessee basically has its most productive players on the floor at the same time. Between Kennedy Chandler, Santiago Vescovi, James and Zeigler, on average, that’s nearly 60 percent of the points, 41 percent of the rebounds, 71 percent of the assists, 75 percent of the steals and 33 percent of the blocks on a per-game basis.

While Chandler and Vescovi have been the jelly in the donut all year, recently James and Zeigler have been outstanding, dragging the offense through some cold spells with their unexpected flares of scoring. James and Zeigler are shooting 38 and 44 percent from 3, respectively, in the team’s last six games, and I’d like to really squeeze all the value possible out of this hot streak. This design also puts the three-most primary ball handlers on the floor at the same time, which, ideally, might help cut down on some of the inexplicable, throw-the-ball-to-no-one turnovers we’ve seen become all-too-common this year.

These four, with Uros continuing to start at center, is the lineup I expect to see the most of, and for good reason. Of any Tennessee lineup with at least 15 possessions played together this year, it’s this lineup that gives the Vols the best mix of offensive potency and defensive resistance. According to Evan Miya’s lineup data, this five’s produced the team’s highest offensive efficiency figure and it’s fourth-best defensive efficiency figure.

There’s chatter around that Barnes is gonna start Powell at small forward against Mississippi State, and I understand the rationale there, too. Zeigler’s spark off the bench has been integral to the Vols’ recent winning streak — I mean, Tennessee was mired in a toss-up looking game against South Carolina until Zeigler popped off for 18 second-half points. Maybe don’t mess with that dynamic. Powell’s a guy who I think fans are waiting for the light to ding on for. He’s been iffy defensively — like, he’s got the second-worst defensive rating on the team so far this year — but the Vols are good enough on that end to hide one guy’s deficiencies in the name of main-lining in some offense. He’s a 40-plus percent shooter from deep who doesn’t turn the ball over very often. Maybe getting forced into a bigger role that inherently comes with a longer leash can be a catalyst for Powell looking more like the guy who was so valuable to Auburn early last season.

Typically, with three-and-four guard lineups, there’s the chance that the opposing team has a size advantage in the post beginning that’s apt to end up a rebounding advantage, conclusion, too. But Tennessee’s uniquely equipped to deal with such a conundrum. In Vescovi and James, the Vols have two of their top board getters who don’t play mostly in the front court. Santi’s part of an uncommon genus. His 4.5 boards per-game are fourth on the team, and when you factor in his 3-point percentage and volume, he’s one of just 17 NCAA guards who snags at least four rebounds and hits 35 percent or more of his 3s (at least 150 attempted).

And then At 6-6, James is one of the best rebounding wings in the country. He leads the Vols in rebounds per-game at 5.7 and led the team on a per-game basis last season, too. In fact, he was less than a half-board per-game away from leading the team his freshman season as well. If Tennessee wants to go a bit smaller, it can, but these two will have to keep up their pace on the glass.

PLUG ‘N PLAY

This is what Barnes described in his last media session. Tennessee could just keep things relatively status quo — though status quo seems to be a moving target with Barnes substitution patterns this season — and redistribute Nkamhoua’s 22 minutes per-game to Aidoo, BHH and Mashack.

Playing Aidoo and Hatfield at power forward, paired with John Fulkerson and Plavsic at center, lets Tennessee keep two bigs on the floor and makes sense from a traditionalist standpoint. Get tall guys and put them near the rim, right?

It’s just difficult for me to buy into this as a viable solution, given the evidence from the first 22 games. Aidoo was highly-touted out of high school and has a desirable skillset for a modern-day big man. He’s long, tall, athletic and has good touch from deep. But a preseason injury compounded by the bout with Mono just obliterated any chance of getting him ready, mentally or physically, for the season. I think the plan was to redshirt him, but that’s out the window now. It’s anybody’s guess how he’ll look given some extended minutes, and Barnes has high expectations, especially on defense, so I don’t expect much here.

Hatfield is the less-ambiguous quantity in this pairing, given that he’s logged enough minutes to get a more statistically-significant cross section of his play. Still, he’s averaging just 10-ish minutes per-game, so I looked at his per-minute numbers to get a better sense of his productivity. His per-40 minute stats grade out on relatively the same plain as John Fulkerson’s, plus his defensive rating is the best of any big man on the roster after Nkamhoua.

Fulkerson’s numbers this season are no gold standard — coming off that elbow to the face in the SEC Tournament last year, a broken thumb earlier this season and a more recent stint with COVID, the super senior has spent most of the year looking like he’s a pen with the ink running out. He’s still there. We know it’s him, and occasionally he even looks like the guy we remember. But most of the time, it just doesn’t write right.

Obviously, we don’t know what Hatfield’s numbers will look like with more playing time. But similar to Powell, maybe something will click.

Overall, the glitch with this approach, outside of just an overall downgrade from having Nkamhoua on the floor, is likely spacing. Until either Aidoo or BHH steps out and pops in a 25 footer, teams are probably gonna play the percentages and dare them to shoot. Even the threat of Olivier shooting a 3 was enough to draw a defender out of the paint and declutter the space around the hoop for Chandler or Zeigler’s drives.

Tennessee plays Mississippi State tonight at 9 PM (groan), and the game plan for replacing Nkamhoua’s production is likely to be always matchup dependent, to an extent. State has two potentially problematic big men in 6-foot-10 Garrison Brooks and 6-foot-10 Tolu Smith. Smith’s played in just nine games this year due to a few different injuries, but he’s averaging 13 points and nearly seven rebounds when he’s played and had 11 and six in the Bulldogs last game. Maybe Barnes rolls with bigger guys for more minutes tonight to counter Mississippi State’s size inside? I dunno.

This is a late-night game away from Thompson-Boling Arena, and the only times Tennessee’s lost this season have been outside of Knoxville. Obviously, this is the first game without Nkamhoua, and the Vols will be adjusting. Then, Iverson Molinar is liable to go off, too, which could be drastically bad for Tennessee.

However tonight’s game goes, keep in mind there’s seven more games for UT to figure things out before the SEC Tournament.