Outside of one slip-up against Kentucky — and more on that later — Tennessee is rolling. The Volunteers are strolling through the bottom dwellers in the SEC, beating conference foes by 30 points on the regular. This Tennessee defense is probably the best we’ve seen in the Rick Barnes era, and it’s powered the Vols to a 17-3 overall record.
As things currently stand, Tennessee is in line for a No. 1 seed. They’re ranked No. 4 in the AP Poll, and remain No. 2 in KenPom and the NCAA’s NET rankings.
Their next big test awaits on Saturday evening, as they welcome No. 10 Texas to town. ESPN’s College Gameday will be in attendance, and Jay Bilas previewed the matchup ahead of his arrival.
Bilas had high praise for Tennessee.
“There’s nothing, no weakness you can point to and say, ‘oh, this is going to be an an impediment to Tennessee winning the National Championship,” said Bilas of Tennessee’s NCAA Tournament forecast.
He went on to say what we were all thinking, however.
“I think the issue that Tennessee and a lot of teams have is are they going to be consistent game to game in making shots,” Bilas continued. “And you know, last time I had them live was against Kentucky and they they just couldn’t make any shots. Their defense was good. They held Kentucky to 30 some percent from the field and down in the sixties. It was a slugfest of a game and incredibly physical.
“Their offense didn’t match their defense. They had some turnovers that led to some run-outs and some easy baskets the other way, but not enough that their offense couldn’t overcome it.”
That’s exactly what bit Tennessee last season in the NCAA Tournament against Michigan. The Volunteers were white hot, coming off of an SEC Tournament title. And then boom — Tennessee shot 2-18 from three-point range and the 11th-seeded Wolverines pulled off the upset.
It seems like Tennessee is good for one of these offensive clunkers every few weeks. We saw it against Colorado early in the year and we saw it against Kentucky a couple of weeks ago.
Is this year different? It could be, thanks to that relentless defense. Tennessee has been KenPom’s top-ranked defense for several weeks now, and they showed us why once again on Wednesday. Tennessee held Georgia to just 41 points, forcing 20 turnovers in the process.
“Rick’s teams always do a great job of on-ball pressure,” Bilas said of Tennessee’s defense. “They put a ton of pressure on the ball and they make it very difficult to get into offense. And with that kind of ball pressure it also makes it difficult to make passes, and that’s one of the reasons they guard the post really well is their post defenders are obviously very good, but they also put pressure on the ball, which is the the first part of post defense of making it difficult to see in. And they do a great job of being in gaps.”
Per KenPom’s metrics, Tennessee’s No. 1 defense is paired with the nation’s 40th best offense. This group really doesn’t have that one guy that they can count on to go get a basket when they need it, and they’ve been prone to some dry shooting nights in the past. Can the defense make up for one of those nights in March?
We’re going to find out in about eight weeks.