Tennessee is obsessed with the mid-range jumper. Is this a problem in 2021?

Tennessee has a problem. Well, they have several problems, but you have to take them one at a time.

Tennessee’s offense is broken. It has been for most of conference play, minus a couple spare performances. Tennessee sits at an on-the-dot 1 PPP against SEC opponents, which ranks 11th out of 14 teams. They’ve posted an eFG% of 48.4%, which is 10th-best. They rank 10th in both 3PT% (32.5%) and 2PT% (48.2%). Things are not good. So why aren’t they good when they have the most talented, deep team of Rick Barnes’ tenure?

There are many different factors that go into the goodness or badness of an offense, and I’m not going to pretend to know all of them. But the first and foremost thing to me is a very obvious thing that stands out every time I check Simon Gerszberg’s top 20 teams on Shot Quality:

And something else that stands out when I sort by who gets the lowest amount of their shots directly at the rim or from deep:

It’s time for the mid-range debate in Knoxville again. The Worst Shot in Basketball, as deemed by nerds like me, has long been a staple of every Rick Barnes offense. When it works, as it did in 2018-19, you hear very few complaints about it. When it doesn’t, as it hasn’t in…well, every year but 2018-19, it becomes more and more of a criticism and less of a thing you’re willing to let a more traditional coach have.

For this specific article, I’ve broken down the mid-range debate into nine key questions. There’s three per page on the pages that follow. For this article, I reached out to several coaches I know, multiple analytics pals, and, yes, Jimmy Dykes. It’s very long, but I’ve tried to dive into each corner of the Tennessee Mid-Range Issue that I can possibly find. I hope it’s worth your time and mine.

The nine questions are linked below, or you can just click on page 2 after the bullet points end.

  1. Why does Tennessee take so many mid-range shots?
  2. Has Rick Barnes focused on three-level scoring for his full career? Has this worked for Tennessee (or Texas) before?
  3. Has Tennessee’s offense stopped working because of five-star freshman? John Fulkerson? Personnel shortcomings?
  4. Does Tennessee need more ball screens or modern sets?
  5. Should John Fulkerson (or Olivier Nkamhoua, or E.J. Anosike) have worked on becoming at least an okay three-point shooter?
  6. Does Tennessee hurt itself by putting bad combinations (double-big lineups, two or more non-shooters) on the floor?
  7. Can you still score if you have a big man that can’t shoot?
  8. Is the mid-range jumper a thing of the past for great offenses?
  9. Can you temporarily fix this with a lineup change?

Show Me My Opponent, 2020-21: Kentucky (#2)

Some fun stats for your Friday/Saturday enjoyment:

  • As of Saturday, it will have been 378 days since the Kentucky Wildcats last defeated the Tennessee Volunteers.
  • There were 11 total cases of COVID-19 in the United States when Kentucky last defeated Tennessee.
  • Absolutely nothing about the world has changed since that game happened. Nothin’!

Game information:

  • THE OPPONENT: Kentucky (7-13, 6-7).
  • THE TIME: 1 PM ET.
  • THE CHANNEL: CBS. Yes, seriously.
  • THE ANNOUNCERS: Not sure as of this time, but last week it was Ian Eagle (PBP) and Jim Spanarkel (color).
  • THE SPREAD: Not up yet; both KenPom and Torvik have Tennessee -7.

Click below to skip ahead to the section of your dreams.

NEXT PAGE: Loretta Lynn’s three best albums, in order: Coal Miner’s Daughter (1970); Writes ‘Em and Sings ‘Em (1970); I Remember Patsy (1977). Not the Jack White collaboration, which is okay.

Show Me My Opponent, 2020-21: South Carolina

Firstly, a very happy Ash Wednesday and Lent season to all who celebrate. I can’t wait for the first fish fry.

Secondly, there is a game tonight that was supposed to be played last night. I’m going ahead and letting you all know that, as of now, I have no idea if anyone will be out on Tennessee’s end. I have an idea via some local media hints, but the actual on-the-record announcement will not come until about an hour before tonight’s fixture. Be patient if I refer to a player that isn’t actually playing tonight; I have as much of a clue as you do as to their availability.

Anyway, it really is amazing how much one Final Four run can cover up. Frank Martin has still only made one NCAA Tournament in eight seasons at South Carolina, with this number very likely to grow to one in nine. To Martin’s credit, that’s the same number of NCAAT bids as the Gamecocks had from 1999 to 2012 prior to him becoming head coach, but I think pretty much everyone believed this would be a more successful pairing. Through 8.5 seasons, Martin has fewer 20+ win seasons (two) than Dave Odom (three), hasn’t had an offense rank better than 91st, and, again, has just the one NCAA Tournament run.

But that one run resulted in a Final Four the school will remember forever. It’s amazing how one small sample size can cover up a lot of forgettable moments in the much larger sample size. Fandom is a strange thing.

Game Information:

  • THE OPPONENT: South Carolina (5-9, 3-7).
  • THE TIME: 9 PM ET.
  • THE CHANNEL: SEC Network.
  • THE ANNOUNCERS: Tom Hart (PBP) and JON SUNDVOLD!!! (color). The most relaxing voice in the game.
  • THE SPREAD: Tennessee -11.5.

To move ahead to a different section, click below.

NEXT PAGE: Cities in South Carolina, ranked: 1. Charleston 2. Greenville 3. (void)

Show Me My Opponent, 2020-21: LSU

Here’s what I wrote last year when Tennessee played LSU in January, two months before the world ended:

“Largely, I think Will Wade’s a good coach. Good guy, well…that’s a debate for another day. Undeniably, though, he’s given LSU a lot of firsts, ones that they probably didn’t expect just two-plus years in. Now, he gets to live out the ultimate challenge of a coach: what happens after all those firsts?”

Obviously, we’ll never know how the 2019-20 edition of the team would’ve performed in the NCAA Tournament, but the year after the best year since Big Baby, the Tigers looked like they’d just follow it right up the next season. 21 games in, LSU was 17-4 and a perfect 8-0. They’d won 24 of their last 26 SEC regular season games. Even though an alarming amount of these were close, and even though LSU suffered three losses to teams ranked outside of the KenPom Top 50, it really did look like Will Wade was going to run it back.

Then, out of nowhere, they lost to a Vanderbilt team that hadn’t won an SEC game in two years. Then, out of something moderately predictable, given that they never got higher than #28 on KenPom, the wheels fell off and the luck ran out. LSU finished the 2019-20 season by losing six of their final ten games, giving up 90+ points three different times and ranking #179 overall defensively by season’s end. It was pretty rough, and it made sense that if an NCAA tournament had existed, LSU probably wouldn’t have escaped the first weekend as an 8 or 9 seed.

One year later, LSU sits at 7-4 in SEC play (same as Tennessee) and 12-6 overall. To Wade’s credit, the Tigers only have one loss to a sub-50 team: Kentucky. Still, the same problems that led to the demise of the 2019-20 team are pretty prominent with this group. LSU ranks 146th in adjusted defensive efficiency. They own one win against a team in the KenPom top 40. This is despite having a roster where the entire starting lineup are former top 100 recruits. So, yeah, I don’t quite know what’s happening after all those firsts.

Game information:

  • THE OPPONENT: LSU (12-6, 7-4).
  • THE TIME: 2 PM ET. Please pray for the writer of this article, who is doing a 7-mile run in the rain at 12.
  • THE CHANNEL: ESPN.
  • THE ANNOUNCERS: I don’t know PBP as of the time of writing, but I do know Jimmy Dykes is the color commentator.
  • THE SPREAD: Vegas not available yet. Tennessee is -1 on KenPom and -2.2 on Torvik.

Click below to skip ahead to your preferred section.

NEXT PAGE: Musicians from Louisiana, ranked: 1. Louis Armstrong 2. Fats Domino 3. Dr. John 4. Lucinda Williams 5. Allen Toussaint

Show Me My Opponent, 2020-21: Georgia

Well I guess we’re doing this one instead. Tennessee was supposed to play Florida as part of a revenge game of sorts at 7 PM tonight, but instead, they draw a Georgia program that currently saddles up at 90th at KenPom. This is not to say that Georgia can’t have an unusually good performance, obviously! It’s just to say that going from playing #28 in a legitimately important game to playing a team with zero wins against Top 50 competition is quite the bummer.

Anyway, Georgia is anchored by Tom Crean, the former Indiana coach who made all the goofy faces you see on your timeline every time he wins or loses an important fixture. To Crean’s credit, twice in his coaching career he’s done a full-on program turnaround. His Indiana one was more impressive, but don’t forget about a double-turnaround at Marquette. The Golden Eagles had Dwyane Wade, of course, but what you may not remember is Crean’s final Marquette team finishing up at #14 in KenPom and making the Round of 32.

At Georgia, things have…not really turned around yet. Georgia has gotten incrementally better through 2.5 seasons (132nd, 96th, 90th) but has yet to take the grand leap that recruiting Anthony Edwards suggested or having four Top 100 recruits on this year’s roster would’ve theoretically suggested. Tom Crean’s next miracle is taking a while.

Game information section:

  • THE OPPONENT: Georgia (12-6, 5-6).
  • THE TIME: 8 PM ET.
  • THE CHANNEL: ESPN2.
  • THE ANNOUNCERS: Tom Hart (PBP) and Jimmy Dykes (color).
  • THE SPREAD: Tennessee -12.

Click below to go to a different section.

NEXT PAGE: We do not have enough time to rank the best musicians from Georgia. That would take a while!

Show Me My Opponent, 2020-21: Kentucky (#1)

As with any game at Rupp Arena, this one has a lot going for it. It’s incredibly important for both teams, and both could really use a win. For Tennessee, this is a chance for several firsts. Rick Barnes can become the only active coach in basketball to win three games at Rupp Arena. Tennessee’s seniors (Fulkerson and Pons) can become the first duo to ever win three games at Rupp Arena. While Kentucky is down this year, Tennessee needs to win as many games as possible to restore national relevance after a rough patch in SEC play.

With a win here, Tennessee can add a second Quad 2 win (yes, Quad 2), which may not seem all that important but is much better than a loss. Bart Torvik’s DayCast tool has the following to say: if Tennessee wins, they become much more likely to get back into 3 seed territory. With a loss, you’re still looking at a 4 or 5 seed. This is important, because 4 and 5 seeds are not quite as bulletproof in the Round of 64 as 3 seeds are. Plus, it increases the chance that you draw an 11 seed in the Round of 32. Considering 6 seeds are just 19-21 across the last 10 Tournaments versus their 11 seed counterparts, you have to love the idea of becoming a 3 seed again.

With a win here, Kentucky moves to 6-11 instead of 5-12 in their worst season in a century.

The below game information section is provided as a courtesy of Google and Tennessee’s game notes.

  • THE OPPONENT: Kentucky (5-11, 4-5).
  • THE TIME: 8 PM Eastern.
  • THE CHANNEL: ESPN.
  • THE ANNOUNCERS: Bob Wischusen (PBP) and Dick Vitale (color).
  • THE SPREAD: Tennessee -4. I don’t bet so I don’t normally pay attention to this, but someone on Twitter said this is the second time in three decades Tennessee has been favored at Rupp, so I’m rolling with it.

Click ahead to the section of your dreams. Or if you’re tired of reading, which is understandable.

NEXT PAGE: Musicians from Kentucky, ranked: 1. Bill Monroe 2. Loretta Lynn 3. Osborne Brothers 4. Tom T. Hall 5. Everly Brothers (who are also from Knoxville, sort of)

Show Me My Opponent, 2020-21: Mississippi

If you think I can’t get some jokes off about a school that can’t figure out if it’s the Rebels or the Black Bears and has a coach named Kermit, you’re wrong. Just kidding, this is mostly joke-free; I have to leave those to the professionals.

Kermit Davis did more for Middle Tennessee basketball than most coaches do in their lifetime. Upon arrival in 2002, Davis took over a program just two seasons removed from going 1-15 in Sun Belt play. They hadn’t participated in the NCAA Tournament since 1989. There was no “culture” to speak around MTSU basketball, other than it being a profoundly mediocre experience for all involved. What Davis had to do was perform one of the most gradual rebuilds I can recall. Across his first nine seasons at MTSU, the Blue Raiders never won fewer than 15 games. They also never won more than 19.

Then 2011-2012 came, MTSU went 14-2 in Sun Belt play, and the school was forever changed. From that season to Kermit’s final run in 2017-18, MTSU not only won its first NCAA Tournament game in 27 years (as a 15 seed!), they came right back the next year and did it again. He got them ranked for the first time in school history. They won 24+ games six times in his final seven seasons. The job he did was objectively better than just about any other job done in the same time frame.

Kermit was born in Mississippi, played for his dad at Mississippi State, and after a 32-year break, moved back to Mississippi to coach an Ole Miss program with a similar lack of historical success. Seeing as Kermit is one of the nicest guys in basketball, I’ll be watching to see if he can pull two MTSUs in one career. It takes time.

The following game information section exists.

  • THE OPPONENT: Mississippi (8-8, 3-6).
  • THE TIME: 7 PM ET.
  • THE CHANNEL: ESPN2.
  • THE ANNOUNCERS: Kevin Fitzgerald (PBP) and Dane Bradshaw (color)!
  • THE SPREAD: Tennessee -4.5.

Click below to skip ahead to your preferred section.

NEXT PAGE: Musicians from Mississippi, ranked: 1. Robert Johnson 2. Mississippi John Hurt 3. Howlin’ Wolf 4. Elvis Presley 5. John Lee Hooker and I could have gone to 15. A lot easier than Kansas!

Show Me My Opponent, 2020-21: Kansas

If you have followed college basketball even loosely over the last 30 years, it is pretty much impossible to ever feel bad for the Kansas Jayhawks unless you’re a fan of the Kansas Jayhawks. They won 14 regular season Big 12 titles in a row. They won a national championship in 2008. They’ve made five Final Fours in my lifetime to Tennessee’s zero. In 10 of the last 18 NCAA Tournaments, they’ve at least gone to the Elite Eight. How could anyone feel bad for Kansas?

And yet: here I am, typing that I did feel really bad for the 2019-20 version of Kansas. The Jayhawks finished the regular season at #1 on KenPom by over three full points, the widest gap between #1 and #2 since Kentucky had a 4.4-point edge on the field heading into the 2015 NCAA Tournament. (At the time, it really did make sense.) If the NCAA Tournament had gone on, they would’ve been the favorite to win it all and bring home a second championship for Bill Self. In terms of pure Efficiency Margin, it was the third-best team Bill Self has ever coached (2007-08 and 2009-10 a bit ahead) and one of the best teams in school history.

And then…the NCAA Tournament never happened. Devon Dotson and Udoka Azubuike left for professional pastures; Isaiah Moss graduated; Bill Self suddenly had to replace two of the 10 or so most impactful players in all of college basketball with nothing to show for it. Objectively, that’s brutal. So, yeah, I do hurt for them, in the way you would hurt for the Green Bay Packers or something. This year’s team isn’t anywhere near what last season’s was, but if nothing else, they will get to see this team play on a Turner Sports affiliate in March.

The following game information section is included to relieve pressure from Grant Ramey’s mentions.

  • THE OPPONENT: #15 Kansas (11-5, 4-4).
  • THE TIME: 6 PM ET.
  • THE CHANNEL: ESPN.
  • THE ANNOUNCERS: Bob Wischusen (PBP) and Dick Vitale (color).
  • THE SPREAD: Is not up as of publishing time, but is Tennessee -2 on KenPom and Tennessee -4.3 on Bart Torvik.

If you’d like to skip ahead to a certain section, click below:

NEXT PAGE: Musicians/artists from Kansas, ranked: 1. Charlie Parker (born on the Kansas side of KC) 2. Gene Clark (went to HS in Kansas) 3. Janelle Monae (actually from Kansas!)

Show Me My Opponent, 2020-21: Mississippi State

Back during the 2014 and/or 2015 coaching searches, I remember there being a fairly strong desire from online Tennessee fans for Ben Howland. After all, Howland had just been let go by UCLA after the 2013 season, and it isn’t every day there’s a coach on the market with three consecutive Final Four appearances, especially when they’re as recent as 2006-2008. (At the time, this was recent.) Perhaps what we didn’t know – or chose to not see – was that after the final of those Final Four appearances, the UCLA program cratered. They went 117th-52nd-58th-46th on KenPom over his final four seasons, didn’t escape the second round, and were instantly better under new HC Steve Alford.

Howland got scooped up by Mississippi State, who needed literally anything they could get after the Rick Ray error. Again, at the time, it felt like the Bulldogs were seen as making the better hire between them and Tennessee heading into the 2015-16 season. Over 5.5 seasons, Mississippi State has finished inside the KenPom top 40 once, has made one NCAA Tournament, and bombed out to Liberty in the first round. Rick Barnes, whether you like him or not, is headed towards posting his third top-20 finish at Tennessee and has the third-best defense in the country. Funny how these things work out.

Game Information:

  • THE OPPONENT: Mississippi State (9-7, 4-4).
  • THE TIME: 7 PM ET.
  • THE CHANNEL: SEC Network.
  • THE ANNOUNCERS (by request): Tom Hart PBP, Jimmy Dykes color.
  • THE SPREAD: Tennessee -9.5.

If you’d like to skip ahead to a certain section, click below.

NEXT PAGE: Jimmy, if you’re reading this, the world needs to know who drew your Conor McGregor tattoos

Show Me My Opponent, 2020-21: Missouri (#2)

You remember this team. It’s the one Tennessee played and beat by 20 just over three weeks ago. That was pretty easy! I have a feeling this will be a little less easy. Such performances probably represent the absolute peak of what Tennessee can do on a basketball court, but undeniably, a win is needed after Tennessee’s Tuesday implosion. In some ways, it’s like the reverse of the first game: you’ve got to bring the fans back up to earth instead of having to keep them grounded.

The below game information section is included to relieve pressure from the mentions of such esteemed writers as Grant Ramey and…probably just Grant Ramey.

  • THE OPPONENT: #19 Missouri (9-2, 3-2).
  • THE TIME: 8:30 PM ET???? For some reason?
  • THE CHANNEL: SEC Network.
  • THE SPREAD: Tennessee -7.5.

If you’d like to skip ahead to a certain section, click below:

NEXT PAGE: Hey Jon Sundvold I hope you’re reading this. Can you call more games involving Tennessee? I did not realize that you sounded exactly like David Letterman and I would like to hear more of it