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

Defense

1. Has Tennessee been able to force more turnovers with a deeper backcourt?

An extreme affirmative. Again, it’s not as if Tennessee’s competition has been terribly stiff; exactly one opponent ranks in the KenPom Top 75 offensively (Colorado, 29th) and four of six opponents possess a game-to-game turnover percentage worse than 22%. Tennessee’s expected TO% forced against this schedule, if they had an average defense, would be 21.2%. They’re sitting at 25.9%, 15th-best in the nation.

As I hypothesized in November, I thought the backcourt might be able to force a higher-than-expected amount of turnovers due to having much more depth than normal. Said depth would enable the players on the court to be much more aggressive, more like the 2017-18 Vols than the 2018-19 edition. Of course, I’m not sure I expected anything about this defense to be this good this quickly. What Tennessee’s done through six games would’ve been the equivalent of the 2017-18 team forcing turnovers on 22.9% of possessions. That would’ve ranked fifth nationally.

I don’t think Tennessee’s going to continue to force turnovers on almost 26% of possessions the rest of the way; only two teams in all of America did that last season, and they (Stephen F. Austin and Merrimack) play much weaker competition. Tennessee’s schedule actually doesn’t host a ton of turnover-averse teams on it; the best so far is Arkansas, who barely ranks inside the top 40 of offensive turnover prevention. Even if Tennessee regresses to only forcing 2-3% more turnovers than expected, not 4.7%, they’ll still have at minimum a top 30 defense in turnover production, which would be their highest ranking since the Tyndall year and only the second time in the last 13 seasons they’ve done it.

2. How’s the team functioning with JJJ/Pons/Fulk on the court?

Excellently, and forcing a ton of jumpers. Due to Rick Barnes doing a lot of weird lineup rotating so far this season, this three-man combo has only seen the court together for 102 possessions in six games. (I’m willing to bet it’ll be way higher in SEC play.) Tennessee’s allowing a luck/schedule-adjusted number of 0.831 PPP to opponents, which is actually a tiny bit worse than when they’re off…but 0.831 PPP is nothing to be worried about.

The key here is this: when this three-man lineup is on the court, opponents only get 26.2% of their shots at the rim, and 53.6% of all shots are three-pointers against a very stingy defense:

Along with that, they’re a very smart trio of players. They rarely foul at all, allowing a Free Throw Rate of barely 10.7%. (That means for every field goal attempt the opponent has, they average 0.107 free throw attempts. The national average is 0.329.) Also, they force turnovers on 27.5% of their possessions on the court together:

What a lovely trio of players to get to watch each night.

3. What’s Tennessee’s best defensive lineup?

Need more data, but so far, the starting lineup of Vescovi/Bailey/James/Pons/Fulkerson. Again, these numbers are based off of six games, one of which looks to be against an actual NCAA Tournament-level team (Colorado). Take them with a grain of salt, and don’t stress too much over them. All that being said, here’s how Tennessee’s four lineups with at least 15 possessions of data are looking. All numbers below are luck and schedule-adjusted, per Hoop Explorer.

  • Vescovi, Bailey, James, Pons, Fulkerson: 0.737 PPP allowed in 66 possessions
  • Vescovi, Johnson, Springer, Pons, Fulkerson: 0.754 PPP allowed in 25 possessions
  • Bailey, Springer, James, Anosike, Fulkerson: 0.831 PPP allowed in 17 possessions
  • Vescovi, Bailey, Springer, Pons, Fulkerson: 0.869 PPP allowed in 18 possessions

All four of those numbers are fantastic, by the way. Even 0.869 PPP allowed over a full season would’ve ranked third-best in the nation last year. That being said, I wanted to ask some of my best friends – the Patrons of Reed’s Ranch – for their input. Out of six Patrons who responded, five named the following five-man lineup as the one they’d expect to be the best: Bailey, Johnson, James, Pons, Fulkerson.

It’s certainly a fascinating lineup to think about, of course. The lineup only has six possessions on the court together this season, all against Cincinnati. It didn’t go so well in that one – Tennessee got outscored 7-0 – but it’s also a tiny sample size. Per Evan Miyakawa, who runs an amazing site on basketball analytics, lineups with Keon Johnson are holding the opponent to just over 0.75 PPP, and Johnson is involved in all five of Tennessee’s best defensive two-man combos. Number one on this list? Johnson and Bailey, who’ve been on the court together for 66 defensive possessions and have held opponents to 0.64 PPP. (This number is heavily influenced by a hilariously low 13.6% 3PT% allowed, but even when adjusted for luck, it’s still about four points better per 100 possessions than other lineups.) 

4. Has Tennessee fixed their defensive rebounding issues?

Looks like it…but they also need to play better competition to find out. Uh, pretty simple one to figure out! Tennessee’s played six teams so far. They play 20 different teams (some twice) on their schedule. Of those 20, here’s where Tennessee’s six opponents rank thus far in offensive rebounding: 14th, 16th, 17th, 18th, 19th, 20th. Tennessee’s closest thing to a real test here was the Colorado game, where they did get out-rebounded by one whole offensive rebound. That said, three of Colorado’s rebounds came on one possession.

Outside of that game, Tennessee has rough-housed weaker competition with ease. Here’s how the last five games have gone:

  • Cincinnati: 33.3% OREB%, 16.2% OREB% allowed
  • Appalachian State: 50% OREB%, 25% OREB% allowed
  • Tennessee Tech: 37.5% OREB%, 15.4% OREB% allowed
  • Saint Joseph’s: 38.2% OREB%, 15.8% OREB% allowed
  • USC Upstate: 43.5% OREB%, 18.5% OREB% allowed

To quote some philosopher somewhere, it’s not nothing. If Tennessee were a national-average defensive rebounding team – and to be certain, they largely haven’t been that under Rick Barnes – they would’ve allowed roughly a 25.4% opponent OREB% thus far. They’re sitting at 21%, about 4.4% better than average, which is a fantastic sign. 

Not once during Barnes’ tenure has Tennessee finished above the national average in opponent OREB%, and I don’t know that they’ll do it this year. The remainder of Tennessee’s schedule currently averages an insane 34.4% OREB%, and seven SEC opponents rank in the top 40 nationally in offensive rebounding. It’s a brutal schedule in this regard. That being said, if they hold consistent at being even 3% better than the average opponent at defensive rebounding, it would still be easily the best result of Barnes’ tenure and limit a huge component of opposing shot volume.

Thanks for reading. If you like this post and want to see more in its style, let me know at @statsbywill on Twitter or statsbywill@gmail.com.

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