Last season, Tennessee finished the year out at 25-11 with another disappointing loss in the NCAA Tournament — as a four seed — to a scrappy, ninth-seeded Florida Atlantic team in the Sweet Sixteen. The most troubling part was that the Vols had just beaten a fifth-seeded Duke team that had two, eventual first-round NBA picks on its roster and had won 27 games during the season.
So, the next Elite Eight appearance that Tennessee fans have yearned for since Bruce Pearl took his 2009-2010 team to the program’s first Elite Eight appearance in school history eluded them again. But, the Vols still finished the season ranked 20th in the country, third in opponents points-per game allowed (57.9), third in opponents’ shooting percentage (37.3) and 12th in offensive rebounds per-game (11.4). (Stats via teamrankings.com)
On the flip side, UT finished 175th out of 363 teams, scoring just 70.8 points per-game, 96th in offensive efficiency and 211th in effective field-goal percentage.
Sophomore PG Zakai Ziegler proved to be more than just a favorite-spark plug, but also a defensive menace who led the team in steals per-game (2) and swiped more basketballs than the Hamburglar swiped burgers. He also filled the lead-guard void on the team, but there were still often long stretches without buckets and too much dribbling and too little passing. I expect his 31-percent shooting figure from deep to take an uptick this season, which Tennessee needs as it relied on the 3-point shot so often that on nights when they weren’t dropping, the team struggled to put the ball in the hoop. Lacking a backup to the point guard position, the Vols found themselves playing ring-around-the-rosy at the lead initiator spot, with Zeigler, Santiago Vescovi, Josiah-Jordan James and Jahmai Mashack all filling the role at one point or another.
Senior forward Olivier Nkamhoua was maddeningly inconsistent — with the Duke game and the FAU game acting as a microcosm for his season. Against Duke, the 6-8 forward dropped 27 points, five rebounds, went 10-13 from the field, 3-4f from the free-throw line and nailed 3-4 shots from beyond the arc.
Career game for Olivier Nkamhoua with 27 points propelling Tennessee into the Sweet 16 over Duke. Brought huge, unexpected shot-making (3/4 3P) as well as outstanding energy defensively and on the glass. Earned himself some money and can keep it going at MSG next weekend. pic.twitter.com/KjxDTZhkgI— Jonathan Givony (@DraftExpress) March 18, 2023
Unfortunately, Olivier did not “keep it going at MSG...” Against FAU, Nkamhoua was nearly a no show. Six points on 2-9 shooting, going 0-2 from. He did have four rebounds and four assists. I imagine most Vols expected a drop off in Olivier’s stat line, considering we’d watched him do that kinda thing all year long, but I don’t know that anybody expected him to nearly just disappear.
In the Vols 36 games, he scored in double figures exactly half the time (18). There’s just no room for that kind of inconsistency from a fifth-year guy on a team with championship aspirations.
I’m not just hating on Nkamhoua for the fun of it, as he wasn’t the only Vol who saw his numbers drop last year. Santi scored about a point less per-game than the season prior and shot 37 percent from long range after clearing the 40-percent mark with Chandler coming on at the end of ‘21-22 and taking some of the ball-handling responsibilities away from Vescovi. And then Triple-J just could not stay healthy last season. My concern: James was not the same last year after having a knee scope surgery in the previous offseason, and the list of injuries he’s sustained as a Vol has piled up. So is the knee right, or is it something that’s gonna be “load managed,” all year?
I’m not a doctor, so it’s best that we just hope he comes back as a premier team leader, with a dash of 3-and-D ability and the skills to run the offense if needed. He shot a career-high 37-percent from deep his freshman year, but we’ve only seen that number drop since, all the way down to 31 percent last year — but conversely, his free-throw percentage has gone up every season, from 78 percent as a freshman to 86 percent last season in the 24 games he played. Free-throw percentage and 3-point attempt volume are typically considered the best indicators for if a player will develop a dependable shot from downtown, and James attempted 5.3 bombs a game last season, so perhaps there’s hope yet that he comes back this year, owning the mid-range (from where he shot it at nearly 50 percent in ‘21-’22) and hitting shots like this one he nailed against No. 4 Michigan State in the recent exhibition game that the Vols won 89-88:
But — it’s a new year, with some familiar faces, with Vescovi and James both returning for their sixth season, joining junior post player Jonas Aidoo, sophomore post player Tobe Awaka, guard/ wing Jahmai Mashack and redshirt-freshman guard/ wing DJ Jefferson and early-enrollee redshirt freshman Freddie Dilione as players returning from last year’s team.
Out with old, in with the new
Having watched the team last year and cited the offensive numbers, it’s pretty clear what Vols Head Coach went to the transfer portal for — scoring and shot making. He signed senior, 6-6 wing Dalton Knecht from Northern Colorado and 6-3 shooting guard Jordan Gainey from South Carolina Upstate. Barnes also brought in 6-4/ 6-5 combo guard Freddie Dilione from the 2022 class and had him reclassify so he could spend the entirety of last year with the team.
Freddie was the No. 1-rated player in North Carolina in the class of 2022, even though neither Duke nor North Carolina seemed to seriously pursue him. There’s a lot to be excited about with Dilione, especially considering the redshirt year he got to spend with the team and just adjust to college life.
Here’s what 247 Sports’ Director of Scouting Adam Finkelstein said about Dilione during his evaluation in the ‘22 cycle:
“Dilione is in the mist of evolving from a volume scoring wing into a more legitimate big guard,” Finkelstein said.
“At 6-foot-5 with a naturally strong and almost fully mature frame, he has the size and strength to play, and ultimately defend, all three perimeter positions. His best individual offense typically comes either in the open floor or when coming off ball-screens, where he can get downhill and utilize his size and strength to create mismatches and make plays. There are no glaring mechanical deficiencies in his shot, but he has historically been a steaky shooter, typically in correlation to his overall shot-selection as he can have stretches where he hunts his looks and settles for contested ones. This summer though, his game went to new levels as he become a more willing passer, utilized his size to see over top of the defense, and proved his ability to make good reads when he was willing. Dilione is older for his grade and close to maxed out physically, but his best upside is tied to becoming a primary ball-handler on a full-time basis, where his size becomes that much more of an asset. That continued transition will rely both on his mentality and also his ability to take care of the ball, as he had a very high turnover rate in 3SSB play. He also needs to show a more consistent approach on the defensive end of the floor.
I don’t know the exact timetable on Zeigler’s return from the torn ACL in March of last season, but Dilione sounds like the perfect running mate for Zakai on the floor. Their skills seem to complement each other in ways that should pay dividends for the Vols. And anybody who can take ball-handling responsibilities from Vescovi is a plus, as we’ve seen that Santi is at his best running off screens for open looks from deep. Dilione fared reasonably well in the Vols’ run of exhibition games this season. In Italy, the box scores were a bit tough to find, but Dillione scored in double figures in all three games (13, 10, 10) and had a 10-point, 10-assist double double in the second game.
Dilione understandably struggled in the Vols’ win against the Spartans, scoring just five points with three turnovers, three fouls and just one assist in 14 minutes off the bench. In the exhibition finale against Lenoir-Rhyne, Dilione led the team in minutes for bench players with 20 but struggled again. Two points on 1-4 shooting (0-1 from 3) to go with three assists, two turnovers and one rebound.
They’re just exhibition games, so I’m not putting much stock into them. But Tennessee’s going to need him to play better than that while it awaits Ziegler’s return.
Barnes also added four-star combo guard Cameron Carr, four-star big man JP Estrella and three-star forward Cade Phillips off the recruiting trail. According to UT Sports dot com, Estrella’s added 30-ish pounds to his 6-11 frame since he enrolled, while Phillips checks in at 6-9, 212 pounds. I don’t imagine we’ll see much of Phillips this season, as he needs time to get his body ready for the rigors of an SEC schedule.
Knecht-4, or, uhh, I mean Knecht-3, and what’s lost may be re-Gaineyed
The preseason games gave us previews of what to expect from Knecht and Gainey, and the early returns look like they’re both going to be integral pieces to this year’s squad.
Admittedly, I was more-than-skeptical about both additions, considering the jump in competition with Knecht from Northern Colorado and Gainey from USC Upstate. But against Izzo and Michigan State, the duo combined for 48 points, seven 3s, 10 rebounds and 10 assists. They led the team to the one-point win on the road against a top-5 ranked team without arguably two of the Vols’ most important players in Zeigler (injury) and Vescovi, who sat out dealing with a family matter.
With State being the most obvious toughest test of the preseason, the two shined in just every game Tennessee played in the offseason. Knecht led the team in scoring on the Italy trip, averaging 16.3 points per-game with stove-top hot shooting numbers at 53 percent from the field and 48 percent from beyond the arc. From what I could tell from the box scores of the exhibition games, both Gainey and Knecht scored at least 10 points if not closer to 13-16 in each of the six contests. Knecht was lights out from deep, but Gainey kept the pace, hitting 16 3s over the six games.
Here’s two of Gainey’s four 4 against State:
Both also add a dash of ball-handling ability, which, again, is going to be paramount to the team’s early-season success. If one, both or either can simply help get the ball across the half-court line at times, it will be helpful filling in until Zeigler’s return.
The Vols finished last year 104th in the country in turnovers per-offensive play (15.1 percent) and 129th in turnovers per-game with 12. UT had 20 turnovers against Michigan State, and 12 of the 14 first-half turnovers came from the guards. Understandable, to an extent, with neither Zakai nor Santi on the floor. Gainey and Knecht combined for eight turnovers, with Gainey having six but adding six assists helped put some salve on the wound.
They also combined for 10 assists, which is probably more important for Tennessee as a team than the turnover numbers. The Vols play their best basketball when the assist numbers are up. If you’ve followed us on Twitter, you know I always say we don’t lose when we hit the 20-assist mark. I haven’t actually done the math, but UT finished last year ninth in the country with 16.7 assists per-game and second in the country in assists per field goal made (.66). During the preseason, Knecht and Gainey averaged a combined 4.5 assists per-game, and went only one game with neither play notching a helper, but it was Knecht and it was in one of the games when he scored 28, so I think we can give him a ... pass ...
Here’s Knecht’s highlights from the Michigan State game in case you missed it — with the win sealed by a Gainey free throw with 1.9 second left and an Aidoo steal on the subsequent inbounds pass:
To Tobe or to not Tobe isn’t the question
We’ll finish this off with a nod to the big men, but especially to incoming sophomore Tobe Awaka. Awaka was an incredible find by the staff — he played at the same high school as Ziegler and the staff got him to enroll early, too. And it didn’t take long to see why. He’s not as round as Charles Barkley, or as tall as Oscar Tshiebwe, but he’s got that same kinda nose for the ball when it comes off the glass.
Tennessee finished sixth in the nation last season in offensive rebounding percentage (35.5), meaning the Vols got the offensive rebound on a missed shot more than one-third of their chances. And Awaka was a huge part of that.
Since Awaka only played about 10 minutes per-game last year, we’re not going to look at his traditional counting stats, as they wouldn’t paint an accurate picture of how often he just managed to be where the ball was when it came off the rim from a missed shot.
So, instead, we’re going to look at his per-40 minute figures, which breaks the numbers down to a by-the-minute basis instead of basing the stats on entire games.
As an early-enrollee, true freshman, Awaka led the team with 14.6 total rebounds per-40 minutes, and the next closest player was Jonas Aidoo at 10.7. Awaka’s listed at 6-8, while Aidoo is listed at 6-11.
In the exhibition games, we got a dose of somebody who opposing coaches are going to have to gameplan around his ability to rebound. In six total games, Awaka played 76 minutes, not playing more than 20 minutes in a single game, and had 37 total rebounds, of which 17 came off a Tennessee missed shot.
Here are some of his highlights from last year, and this year, Awaka’s going to have progressed his way into more playing time. I can’t wait.
I’m guessing this team is likely going to get out to a slow start but get better as the season progresses. It looks like Knecht and Gainey are gonna be legitimate weapons offensively, and they can both help keep Santi off the ball where he’s at his best. Awaka is going to be a monster on the boards, and if Jonas Aidoo can start hitting that 3-point shot that I know he can hit, the Vols start to look like a team that has a chance to get back to the Elite Eight.
No disrespect to Jahmai Mashack, as he’s the team’s second-best defender behind Aidoo in terms of defensive rating, but his ability to guard 1-3 makes him a huge asset on that side of the floor. I didn’t get to him as much as I would have liked in this piece, but I’ll say this: I hope his ball-handling continues to progress, though I’d prefer Tennessee to not need him to handle it. I think he’s better suited as a cutter to the basket than playing out of position as the team’s offensive initiator.
We know this team is going to be built on its defense, but maybe this can be the year that the Vols have enough options on offense so there aren’t so many long stretches without buckets. I reckon we’ll see soon enough.