The old adage goes something like “defense wins championships,” right?
Well. that’s not been the case for Rick Barnes and the Vols. Still, defense is and will continue to be how UT wins games. So with conference play kicking off in a few days, I thought we’d take a look at Tennessee’s defense so far this season.
The Vols are currently 10-3 and riding a six-game winning streak since their three-game losing skid. A “good loss,” is essentially an oxymoron, but UT fans have come to expect rigorous non-conference schedules under Rick Barnes. And right now, the teams Tennessee lost to — Purdue, Kansas and UNC — are all ranked 17th or higher in Bart Torvik’s team rankings and have a combined five losses in 40 games. So, while a loss is a loss — all losses aren’t created equally and those three aren’t bad ones to have on the resumé.
Since then, UT’s played two quality opponents in Illinois (ranked just below the Vols in Torvik’s rankings at No. 9) and a scrappy, 9-3 NC State team that led UT by as many as six points during the game.
A brief aside: The Volunteer offense looked back to form on Tuesday night in the 87-50 drubbing of Norfolk State, with 23 assists on 30 baskets, eight combined 3s from Zakai Zeigler and Santiago Vescovi on just 14 attempts, 15 points from Dalton Knecht and a 10-point, 11-rebound double-double from Tobe Awaka. Knecht made just one of his four attempts from deep, but got to the hoop, drew some fouls and hit all six of his free throws. The offense turned it over just 11 times, with three coming from Freddie Dilione and two from Jonas Aidoo, who apparently strained his calf in the team’s first practice after Christmas break, according to Grant Ramey’s On3 article.
I don’t know how much useful information can be gleaned from the win, considering the opponent, but it does present a blueprint for something other than an early end to the season come March.
If UT hopes to make noise in the SEC, much less get to the later rounds of the NCAA tournament, the team’s defense will have to remain elite. Old dogs, new tricks — that’s just what Rick Barnes does. Since his arrival, here are how his teams finished in national team defense efficiency rankings:
- 2017: 50th
- 2018: 6th
- 2019: 42nd
- 2020: 57th
- 2021: 27th
- 2022: 3rd
- 2023: 1st
Right now, they’re rated as the second-best in the country and are fifth-best in opponents’ effective field-goal percentage at 42.9. They allow just more than 64 points per-game, which ranks them 26ths nationally. Currently, the Vols have four players averaging one steal or more per-game (Josiah-Jordan James, Zakai Zeigler, Jordan Gainey, Santi Vescovi), with two more at .8 and .9 (Jonas Aidoo and Jahmai Mashack, respectively). Aidoo is having a career-year blocking shots in the middle of the defense, averaging 1.5 per-game with at least one rejection in all but three games and multiple blocks in seven of 13 games.
Tobe Awaka has been a bit of a revelation in the shot-blocking department, though it began late last season. He had just three blocks through UT’s first 15 games last year but tallied eight in the final 18 games. This season, he’s averaging one per-game, but since he doesn’t play the minutes that the other guys do, it’s helpful to look at his per-40 minute numbers, which just evens the playing field for guys who don’t log the same kind of playing time the starters do. Awaka leads the team in blocks per-40 minutes at 3, and, unsurprisingly, leads the team in rebounds per 40 at 13, meaning he snatches 13 boards for every 40 minutes he plays. A little off topic there, but his development has just been outstanding.
The Vols also have four players with defensive ratings under 92.2 in Aidoo, Awaka, James and Mashack. Obviously the NBA is an entirely different game and the rules are made to encourage more points, but the average DRting there is 116.4. (I only used that comparison because I couldn’t find a site that ranks individual collegiate DRtings.)
Those are-great stats, but there’s room for improvement if this team is to eventually be an Elite Eight or Final Four candidate. The team’s gotten more than 20 turnovers just once so far this year, and it’s had six games when the opposing team gave the ball away 13 times or fewer and the first time it happened was the second game of the season.
At this point last season, UT averaged 17.2 TOs per-game and had caused 20 or more turnovers four times and hit the 19 mark twice more. That ‘22-’23 squad went 10 games before it turned the opponent over less than 13 times.
Overall, for the season, UT ranks just 84th in the NCAA averaging 19.2 steals per-game. I’d argue that most of the statistical slips can be attributed to the team’s two leading guards and their respective issues. Santi hasn’t been himself all year, and he finally went and explained to Barnes that he’s been worn out. That would explain the sixth-year senior’s slow start — especially on defense, where results come from effort. He’s averaged nearly two steals per-game over the past two seasons and that figure is down to just one this year. His running mate, Zakai Zeigler seems to just be rounding into form after the last-season ACL tear last year, as he started the year with just four snatches in seven games, while he’s totaled 16 in the last six contests. He’s the head of the snake on defense, and his on-ball pressure and anticipation in passing lanes is crucial to the team’s defensive performance. Those two set the tone defensively, and it looks like they’re finding their form in time for a solid performance against some very good SEC teams.
Tennessee’s defense also has one of the worst opposing team free-throw rates in the country. Free-throw rate just measures a team’s ability to get to the line (total FTs attempted divided by total field goals attempted), and the Vols rank 278th in the country, with opponents posting a 37.7 mark. For context, Creighton leads the nation, allowing a 13.9 figure. Again, I expect that figure to improve as Santi and Zakai continue to rev up their games.
Something that could likely be of considerable importance during league play is 3-point defense. Currently, the Vols rank 32nd nationally by allowing opponents to hit just 29 percent of their 3-point attempts. But UT will face three teams currently inside the country’s 13 top outside shooting teams in: UK, which ranks third and hits nearly 42 percent of its 3s; Ole Miss, a team that’s surprised some folks this year, is still undefeated and hits 40.3 percent of its triples for eighth in the nation and Alabama, which sits at 13th overall and makes just below 40 percent of its long balls.
Nearly 47 percent of the Tide’s shots are 3s and they currently have the NCAA’s No. 1 most efficient offense that averages nearly 93 points per-game. With some folks predicting the SEC to get nine teams into the NCAA Tournament, anything can happen, but these will be the most important games on the Vols’ SEC slate. We’ll find out early how UT matches up, as Ole Miss is the first game back after winter break on January 6th, and then Tennessee takes on the Tide on January 20th, with both games at TBA.