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Three thoughts on Tennessee’s offensive issues

It was a rough week for putting the ball in the hoop for the Vols

NCAA Basketball: Auburn at Tennessee Randy Sartin-USA TODAY Sports

In this week’s edition of Roundball Round-Up, we are going to talk Vols and their offensive struggles over the last week and why they’re a cause for concern moving forward.

Vols fall victim to Swamp people, win rock fight against Auburn

It was not a great week for Rick Barnes’s squad. Splitting a pair of games by losing at Florida and squeaking by Auburn at home, the worries about this team are beginning to resurface as the competition they face gets increasingly harder.

Something that seemed to get glossed over in large part because Tennessee was beating teams so badly it didn’t seem to matter is how the Vols are about to face a big step up in quality of competition. At the start of SEC play, Tennessee didn’t play a single ranked team for a month straight, going 7-1 in that span. That lone loss was to Kentucky at home in Tennessee’s lone game against a KenPom top 50 opponent as of this writing. In fact, the average ranking of the SEC opponents Tennessee played was 102.3 with Kentucky being the one fringe tournament team in the mix.

To the Vols’ credit, they were stellar. Their 54.7% effective field goal mark was top 40 over that December 28 to January 25 span, their 114.4 adjusted offensive efficiency ranked 32nd. Both very respectable marks when you have the best defense in the country.

Tennessee defensively held SEC opponents to 55.1 points per game and 23.9% from three point range in that eight game span, and only Ole Miss and Kentucky cracked 30% from deep (remember this).

So why the concern? Why is the proverbial sky falling now? For starters, it’s not, but we should diagnose why Tennessee continues to struggle in their biggest spots this season and why it’s worrisome heading towards March.

1. Three point offense: Inconsistency and over-reliance

Tennessee’s three point shooting has carried and crushed them this season. They rank in the top third of the country in three point attempt rate (rate of field goal attempts that are threes) at 39.7%. They’re one of just 23 power conference teams with a rate above 39%, but among those 23 teams, they have the fifth lowest three point percentage at 32.3% after going 7-for-46 from deep their past two games.

However, it’s not just that they’ve been poor shooting the three, it’s about how inconsistent the deep ball has been, and how they’re getting their looks of late.

As you can see, this season is a bit reminiscent of last season when Tennessee was scorching until they weren’t, but the peaks are consistently not quite as high, and the valleys are much lower.

In games against power conference-level teams this season, the Vols are shooting 31.3% from deep, slightly below their season average, while their three-point attempt rate sits at 38.3% in these games, also just below season average. For reference, among power conference teams with at least a 38% three point attempt rate, Tennessee’s 31.3% from deep would rank third lowest.

Just looking at the graph, you can see how much their ability to make the three fluctuates. The USC and Kansas games were a day apart, and they shot 16.7% against USC and 44.4% against Kansas. In fact, Tennessee eclipsed that 31.3% average in nine of these 17 games, and in those nine games, they shot 40.1% from beyond the arc. That’s nearly a nine-percent difference. It’s those eight games, however, where they didn’t. In those eight games, the Vols shot 21.6% from deep. Four times they shot 20% or worse. That’s unconscionably bad.

A big reason for that is how often this team is hoisting threes late in shot clocks or taking contested threes and not getting their looks within the flow of the offense the way they were earlier in SEC play. Remember earlier when I mentioned how Ole Miss and Kentucky were the only teams in SEC play prior to the Florida game to crack 30% from three against Tennessee? With Florida shooting 35% from deep, a season worst allowed by the Vols defense, it moved Tennessee to 2-3 on the season when opponents shoot over 30% from deep. They’ve only allowed one game above the national average in three point percentage, so it’s a glaring indictment on this offense’s inability to hold up its end of the bargain when its defense isn’t playing at a super human level.

One last thing I want to touch on with last year’s team is the run they went on. From February 12 throughout the NCAA Tournament, the Vols shot 39.3% from deep on over 20 attempts per game. They were unconscious from deep. Only twice did they dip below 30% from three. This iteration of Tennessee basketball is capable of doing that, however, one main thing has to change in order for that to happen: spreading the wealth.

2. Where are Vescovi and Phillips?

With the Vols going small recently, they’ve found more looks inside for Olivier Nkamhoua. Over the last three games, Nkamhoua’s usage has jumped up to 30%, up almost 10% from his season average of 20.4%. However, the Florida and Auburn games have been two of Nkamhoua’s worst this season. In those two games, he’s a combined 8-of-29 from the field. Couple that with the Vols shooting 15.2% from deep outside of him, it’s been ugly.

Going small was supposed to open up driving lanes for kick-outs for more open threes because Nkamhoua is a more viable threat to shoot than Uros Plavsic, thus not clogging the paint with a defender at all times, but that simply hasn’t been the case at all of late. The only players consistently able to get in the lane with both a chance to shoot or kick have been Zakai Zeigler and Julian Phillips, and even Zeigler has had his issues finishing around the rim while Phillips just isn’t getting the touches to do so.

Phillips is Tennessee’s most dynamic player offensively, yet his usage rating with this small ball lineup is down from 20.8% to 15.8%, and it’s dropped below 10% over the last three games. For someone supposed to flourish more within this type of structure, both he and Santiago Vescovi’s touches (19.7% down to 14.5% in small ball lineup) have withered.

3. Barnes needs to stop forcing the Grant Williams role on Olivier Nkamhoua

The Grant Williams era saw Rick Barnes’ motion offense at its best. Williams’ rim running early duck-ins on top of his ability to get the ball out top on drive-and-trails and attack the hoop or knock down the occasional three and dribble-pull-up jumpers made him so lethal. Williams also being a willing passer made that offense click. Barnes is insistent that Olivier Nkamhoua is fit for that role, but, frankly, he’s not. If this team is going to play through Nkamhoua as much as it appears Rick Barnes wants to, however, they’re going to have to break the stagnation outside, and it will involve Nkamhoua having to be a willing passer from inside and not force the turnaround fadeaway shots that got Tennessee in the early hole against Auburn.

Cuts to the hoop, screens away from the ball to free up shooters, backside slips to the basket, finding Nkamhoua’s lines of vision. For a motion offense, this team simply stands around way too much when the ball gets inside the paint. Great three point shooting teams are not made from their ability to hit contested threes which this team feels so content in taking, it’s from the ability to move without the ball and making a defense move to create open looks.

This is a very good team, but we need to stop pretending the flaws 1) aren’t there and 2) aren’t as problematic as they’ve become. Tennessee has already begun their major step up in competition the rest of the way, and the mistakes they were able to get away with against the LSU’s and Georgia’s of the SEC are simply not cutting it now. They’re as elite defensively as you’re going to see, but the offense has to correct their mistakes to help out that side of the ball.

And finally, a look at the top of the SEC standings

SEC Standings

Team Conf. Record Record Pts/G PA/Gm NET KenPom
Team Conf. Record Record Pts/G PA/Gm NET KenPom
Alabama 10-0 20-3 83.1 68.7 3 5
Tennessee 8-2 19-4 72.3 54.6 2 2
Texas A&M 8-2 16-7 74.7 66.2 40 38
Auburn 7-3 17-6 72.0 63.8 30 24
Kentucky 7-3 16-7 75.2 66.8 31 33
Florida 6-4 13-10 71.3 64.8 43 39
Arkansas 5-5 16-7 74.4 65.2 29 27
Missouri 5-5 17-6 81.9 74.8 48 54
Vanderbilt 4-6 11-12 70.7 72.0 107 100
Georgia 4-6 14-9 69.7 68.7 126 118
Mississippi State 3-7 15-8 65.5 58.7 46 45
Ole Miss 1-9 9-14 67.3 68.0 124 107
LSU 1-9 12-11 67.1 69.0 138 126
South Carolina 1-9 8-15 63.7 72.7 276 243