Quarterly Review #1: Tennessee’s answering these preseason questions very well

Offense

1. Is Tennessee taking good shots?

Yes. As was the case with the 2018-19 Vols, Tennessee’s “good” shots probably wouldn’t be most teams’ good shots. Without context, 35% of their shots being non-rim twos would be a very stressful thing to most analytically-minded coaches I know, and I still have to break my brain a bit to make it work for me. This being said, Tennessee’s non-rim twos look a little different than most.

Per CBB Analytics, 56.2% of all Tennessee shots thus far have been taken in the paint. Out of 86 high-major college basketball teams, this is tied for the fourth-highest rate. Tennessee’s “issue,” if you can call it that, is that they don’t really get a ton of shots directly at the rim. A relatively low percentage of Tennessee’s shots – 32.7% – come within three feet of the rim, per Synergy.

That being said: Tennessee gets a ton of shots within 10 feet. 57.7% of all Tennessee shot attempts are within 10 feet of the basket, which is, again, one of the highest rates out there. Guys like John Fulkerson and Jaden Springer are 4-10 feet specialists, and if you can hit these shots as well as Tennessee can, you’re allowed to take a ton of them.

Nationally, teams average a 43.9% hit rate on 4-10 foot shots, but Tennessee sits at 48.2%, which is just about where they were during the magical 2018-19 season. Most importantly, Tennessee really doesn’t take as many 11+ foot mid-range twos as it feels at times. The Vols do take 14.2% of their shots outside the paint but inside the arc, which is about 0.9% above the national average. They’re especially fond of the baseline jumper, a decision I have to admit drives me nuts but appears to be a good one:

So, I think Tennessee’s answering this question pretty well, and the stats back it up. Shot Quality actually has Tennessee in the 98th-percentile in offensive shot selection and 8th overall in the nation. Not bad!

2. How are the new pieces fitting in?

Pretty well, for the most part. Rick Barnes, through six games, is choosing to bring both of the five-star freshmen off the bench. That feels pretty unique for modern college basketball, but Jaden Springer and Keon Johnson came to a university that had the luxury of having four legitimate starter-level players that are at least two years ahead of both players. Most schools aren’t built in this fashion, which makes the Tennessee situation quite unusual.

That being said, they’ve both added a lot in their time as co-sixth men:

Barnes has been pretty consistent in bringing both players into the game together about 2-3 minutes in, tweaking the lineup after that as he sees fit. Thus far, Springer’s been the more impressive offensive player, taking the third-most shots on the team and scoring at will at the rim. Johnson’s been shakier due to a lack of outside shooting, but he appears to be equally as good at getting to and finishing at the rim.

The other two “newcomers”, Victor Bailey, Jr. and E.J. Anosike, have had campaigns of varying success. Through six games, Bailey has looked like Tennessee’s best player at times, ripping the nets up from downtown:

Anosike has, to put it frankly, struggled at times. I don’t quite get why he appears to not be allowed to shoot threes; even making a few this year would help stretch Tennessee’s offensive spacing further and force opponents into positions they don’t want to be in. That said, he is Tennessee’s most skilled offensive rebounder in a decade:

I like them all, which shouldn’t come as a surprise.

3. Is Tennessee doing their best to limit turnovers?

Even better than I expected. Like, well above what I anticipated. Tennessee has played two good defenses so far and both held Tennessee to pretty poor days offensively, but to be fair, Tennessee also missed a lot of shots they’re typically better at hitting. After the first ugly win against Colorado, though, Tennessee’s had almost no serious trouble with turnovers. 

Through a month-plus of college basketball, the national average for offensive turnover percentage is 19.7%. Tennessee sits at 14.7% on the season, the 14th-best rate in America, and has fallen below that 19.7% rate in five straight games. Now, it’s obviously worth noting that precisely one defense – Colorado – on Tennessee’s six game schedule ranks in the top 100 nationally in defensive turnover rate.

Still, Tennessee would’ve been expected to turn it over on about 18.5% of possessions on average, meaning they’re still beating their schedule by about 4%. That adds up over the course of a season; even if Tennessee regresses a bit by way of playing much better defenses, they’re still on pace to have a turnover rate well below the national average. (The remainder of Tennessee’s schedule forces turnovers on roughly 21.3% of possessions.) 

Two things also sit in their corner here: traditionally, turnovers slowly fall over the course of a full season, and Tennessee’s been such a good offensive rebounding program under Barnes that even a slip on turnovers could be countered by staying strong on the boards.

4. Has anyone besides Vescovi and Bailey stepped up from three?

Yes: Josiah-Jordan James and Jaden Springer. Which is giant. James was the second-best shooter on the team last year, but his results from mid-range were so bad that I honestly wondered at times if it was kind of a mirage. The report on Springer (and Keon Johnson) coming in was that he’d struggle to get it going at times from outside. Luckily for Tennessee, both couldn’t be further from the truth thus far.

As I requested in the offseason, Tennessee is doing a great job getting James wide-open looks from three in catch-and-shoot situations. James is on pace to touch his same number of catch-and-shoot attempts from last season despite likely playing in six fewer regular reason games. He’s taken great advantage, making 8 of his 16 catch-and-shoot attempts. (One was a two-pointer.) Springer, meanwhile, hasn’t taken a ton of threes but appears to have a good stroke. It’s all you can ask for, and it means Tennessee can currently run out a lineup where four of the five players on the floor are shooting 36% or better from three.

5. Is Tennessee limiting double-non-shooter lineups?

More so than last year, but with a caveat. As I mentioned in the preview, Tennessee spent an alarming amount of time in conference play – 41% of all possessions, in fact – with lineups on the floor that had two players who didn’t shoot threes. As we’re seeing with Kentucky, that’s not exactly ideal in modern college basketball. I thought E.J. Anosike might help resolve this, but through six games, he hasn’t attempted a single three. Still, Tennessee’s double-non-shooter quandary is down to 31.3% of all possessions and has had a giant amount of success at the rim so far:

These double-non-shooter lineups are crushing it offensively, with a luck and schedule-adjusted 1.33 PPP on 127 possessions. Even against weaker competition, this is a much better sign than I’d anticipated. Tennessee simply gets way, way more looks within five feet of the basket when they’ve got multiple big guys on the court. Unfortunately, this has also led to Tennessee’s defense being much worse with a double-big lineup than without, which was also the case last year. I’d still like to see this number get down to 25% at all possible, and it can be heavily reduced if Anosike or Corey Walker (when he returns) starts taking a few threes.

NEXT PAGE: If you like the offense, you’re gonna go buckwild over the defense

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