Well...that was certainly a week.
Late game free throws doom Vols as they lose twice on buzzer beaters
Tennessee’s offensive execution has been rather offensive lately, but this past week, their late game collapses have felt like a Mike Tyson right hook to the jaw. The Vols saw themselves locked in a battle in Nashville on Wednesday against Vanderbilt as early game offensive struggles coupled with the Vols having no answers for Tyrin Lawrence led to another nail biter for Tennessee as a top-10 team at Memorial.
Tennessee gets a bucket from Nkamhoua with 52 seconds left, and after a miss from Liam Robbins, Vandy saw themselves in foul trouble late, and by that I mean they had a lot of fouls to give. A breakaway chance presented itself for Julian Phillips, but Phillips instead pulled the ball back and drained more clock, forcing Vanderbilt to foul. Santiago Vescovi saw himself with the ball as the Commodores finally got Tennessee into the bonus.
Vescovi, a near 90% late-game free throw shooter in his career coming into the season, has a chance to put the game away. However, he misses the front end, Vandy gets the rebound and calls a timeout. Jerry Stackhouse draws up the perfect play for the Commodores, and Ezra Manjon runs it to perfection. Manjon drives the ball and gets by his man, help comes, so he swings it to the opposite corner, and right as time expired, Tyrin Lawrence put his final stamp on the upset, hitting the three as the buzzer sounded.
As a Tennessee fan, you’ve just finished shaking off that buzzer beater at Vanderbilt as Saturday rolled around, only to get hit with a gut punch as Missouri hits eight first half threes and led 44-32 at halftime. You ice your ribs, maybe grab a beer and another slice of pizza as the Vols climb back from a 17-point deficit in the second half and actually grab a lead. At last, the drought was over, they scored 85 points and are up by three with 4.2 seconds left!
WHAM. Left hook. Vescovi misses another late free throw.
BAM. Right hook. He misses the second, but it doesn’t matter as Tobe Awaka gets called for an offensive foul.
Down the court come the Tigers and DeAndre Gholston. Gholston was hot all game, and as he crossed halfcourt, he heaved up a prayer...nothing but the bottom as the clock hit zeroes.
Regression is biting the Vols as a losing trend emerges
Like the grim reaper, regression inevitably came for the Vols in the worst way at the worst time defensively. Prior to the Vanderbilt game, Tennessee’s opponents were shooting just 21.9% from three. As good as their defense is, even every optimistic fan knew holding teams 12-percent below the national average just wasn’t sustainable throughout the season. Tennessee had only allowed one game where a team shot above the national average of 33.9% from deep, and that was at Florida who shot 35%, a game in which they lost.
The Vols went into Memorial Gym, and in came the regression monster. Vandy made 10 of their 25 threes, good for 40% en route to their upset win over the Vols. Against Missouri, it didn’t matter how contested the shot was, it was dropping for the Tigers. Missouri made 8-of-16 threes in the first half, and then followed that up with 6-of-10 in the second half, good for 14-of-26, 53.8%, from deep.
This brings us to a very concerning stat for Tennessee. The Vols are now 2-5 in games where their opponents shoot over 30% from three. It’s happened now three times in the last 10 days. Tennessee has lost all three games.
So what’s happening? Is it a freak trend that doesn’t really tie together, or is there something connecting all of this? Unfortunately, this trend is not really the fault of the defense. The connective tissue to this troubling trend is the offense.
In the seven games Tennessee has allowed their opponents to shoot over 30% from three, Tennessee’s offense has let them down close to every single time. There is one major exception, the Missouri game, but time and time again, the offense can’t pick up the slack when the defense isn’t historically good. These are the seven games:
*104.5 ORtg is the national average, per CBBAnalytics.com*
Offensive Rating is how many points a team would score per 100 possessions. It essentially takes points per game and puts everyone on an even playing field. 70 points versus Virginia compared to 70 points versus Alabama are very different offensive games, and this evens that playing field to a common denominator.
— vs. Colorado: 78-66 L | 30.8% 3PT for COL | 84.8 ORtg for Vols
— vs. USC: 73-66 W (OT) | 33.3% 3PT for USC | 100.9 ORtg for Vols
— @ Ole Miss: 63-59 W | 32% 3PT for Ole Miss | 97.5 ORtg for Vols
— vs. Kentucky: 63-56 L | 31.3% 3PT for UK | 84.0 ORtg for Vols
— @ Florida: 67-54 L | 35% 3PT for Florida | 85.5 ORtg for Vols
— @ Vanderbilt: 66-65 L | 40% 3PT for Vandy | 112.6 ORtg for Vols
— vs. Missouri: 86-85 L | 53.8% 3PT for Mizzou | 135.5 ORtg for Vols
As you can see above, only twice did Tennessee’s offense even reach the national average, and that was against the 265th (Vandy) and 244th (Missouri) ranked defenses in raw defensive rating in the country.
Overall, the underperforming of Tennessee’s offense is not just limited to these seven games. Their performances against power conference teams should be sounding off every alarm bell possible.
All opponent defensive ratings are adjusted to just their games against power conference teams to balance the graph a bit. Essentially, we’re now comparing Tennessee’s single game performance compared to their opponent’s defensive play against power conference or KenPom top 50 teams only.
On the season, Tennessee’s raw offensive rating in these 19 games (what the graph goes by) is 105.9 per cbbanalytics.com. However, they’ve only reached that mark in 8 of the 19. There’s some tough defenses in here. Colorado, Kansas, Arizona, Maryland, Mississippi State, Texas, Florida, and Auburn are all top 50 defenses in the country, but this offense is still underwhelms even outside of those games.
Defensive slide: Is it fatigue or is there something deeper?
Okay, now we’ll talk about the defense. The dog days of February are here. The Vols are 1-3 this month. Though the offense has looked better these past two games, they don’t have a W to show for it. It’s very apparent that this defense has been less than stellar this past week, so what happened? Before this week of heartbreaking losses, Tennessee had an 88.1 defensive rating against power conference opponents, by far the best in the country. This past week? 126.2, the worst mark of any team in the country over the last seven days.
It really goes back farther than that, too. In the loss to Florida, Colin Castleton was getting whatever he wanted inside, scoring 20 and getting to the line at will. Overall, Tennessee, prior to the Vandy and Missouri games, were allowing teams to shoot just 36.8% in the paint and 23.4% from three in power conference games. Teams were getting just 14.7% of their looks inside the paint. In the Vanderbilt and Missouri games, however, they got 21.4% of their looks in the paint, and they allowed 20 made threes on 38 attempts (47.1%).
What created this kind of disparity? Early success shooting threes.
Tennessee had not faced a single team that made 40% of their threes until this past week, and once that regression hit, it completely shook their defensive foundation. On pick and rolls against Missouri, after the Tigers hit a few threes, extension help from Nkamhoua and Aidoo continued to stretch further and further out, and that led to a handful of easy looks inside that Tennessee normally doesn’t give up. Missouri took 20 shots in the paint or at the rim, finding ways to get cutters open and get mismatches on guards down low. It certainly didn’t help that even when the Vols had the Tigers clamped on defense, they would throw up a shot a coach would dream of a possession ending in defensively and they’d go in.
Against Vanderbilt, it was Tennessee’s three point defense that created open driving lanes. Vandy got into the paint a lot, and while they didn’t find the same success Missouri did shooting wise, that’s not where they beat Tennessee. The Commodores were able to take advantage of Tennessee’s guards overextending their their closeouts, and they made full use of dribble hand-offs as quasi-screens, blowing by for a layup, dump-off, or kick-out for three.
Unbalanced looks from Vanderbilt gave Tennessee a ton of problems. They would overload one side with three perimeter players and use Liam Robbins in a pick-and-roll or do a dribble hand-off, and when Vandy’s guards were getting open driving lanes, it caused Tennessee’s lone backside defender to dive to the paint and help with no one above them to rotate down and pick up their now open man. The was how they got their points and how won the game on the final shot.
A lot has to change, and while there are positives to look at here such as getting very good production from Tyreke Key as they stop forcing a point guard role on him and let him shoot, they still lost twice. Alabama and Kentucky loom this week, and Texas A&M at College Station the week after is not going to be easy either. It’s time to see if the pressure creates a diamond like it seemed to a year ago.