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?

This one stat will, in fact, not change your life

Chances are, during Championship Week, you’ll be hearing the following statistic left and right:

“Every champion other than 2014 Connecticut in the KenPom era has ranked in the top 20 of offensive and defensive efficiency.”

On its face, this is a correct stat. If you were to click on kenpom.com right now, you would see that 17 of the last 18 champions, minus 2014 UConn, did indeed rank in the top 20 of both categories. I’ll even ignore Dan Dakich saying during the Green Bay/Northern Kentucky game that every champion has ranked in the top 20 of both; he is 94.4% accurate, at least, under this definition.

However: we have a clear issue that seemingly no one at ESPN, CBS, or the variety of networks that broadcast college basketball seem to be discussing. The KenPom rankings referenced are end-of-season rankings, not pre-tournament rankings. So, yeah, no wonder every champion ended up in the top 20! Here’s the actual pre-tournament rankings for every champion in the KenPom era.

  • 2002: Maryland – 5th AdjO, 11th AdjD, 3rd overall
  • 2003: Syracuse – 16th AdjO, 33rd AdjD, 20th overall
  • 2004: Connecticut – 14th AdjO, 7th AdjD, 5th overall
  • 2005: North Carolina – 4th AdjO, 6th AdjD, 2nd overall
  • 2006: Florida – 14th AdjO, 18th AdjD, 6th overall
  • 2007: Florida – 1st AdjO, 14th AdjD, 2nd overall
  • 2008: Kansas – 1st AdjO, 3rd AdjD, 1st overall
  • 2009: North Carolina – 1st AdjO, 39th AdjD, 3rd overall
  • 2010: Duke – 4th AdjO, 5th AdjD, 2nd overall
  • 2011: Connecticut – 22nd AdjO, 25th AdjD, 16th overall
  • 2012: Kentucky – 2nd AdjO, 6th AdjD, 1st overall
  • 2013: Louisville – 17th AdjO, 1st AdjD, 2nd overall
  • 2014: Connecticut – 58th AdjO, 12th AdjD, 25th overall
  • 2015: Duke – 3rd AdjO, 37th AdjD, 6th overall
  • 2016: Villanova – 15th AdjO, 7th AdjD, 5th overall
  • 2017: North Carolina – 4th AdjO, 25th AdjD, 3rd overall
  • 2018: Villanova – 1st AdjO, 23rd AdjD, 2nd overall
  • 2019: Virginia – 2nd AdjO, 5th AdjD, 1st overall

So, in fact, only 11 of the 18 champions in the KenPom era – barely over half – offered both a top 20 offense and top 20 defense. Generally, the side of the ball that’s been lacking is defense; other than 2003 Syracuse and the two Connecticuts, the other four teams with sub-20 defenses all entered with offenses ranked 4th or higher. Even 2014 Connecticut and 2003 Syracuse did at least have one side of the ball in the top 20, with UConn having one of the strongest defenses in the field.

This particular talking point has irked me for some time. In an era where four of the last six champions didn’t have top 20 units on both sides of the ball, it seems extremely silly to keep promoting this to viewers and giving them the wrong idea. Is it better for a team to be well-rounded on both sides of the ball? Obviously, yes. But it’s not the thing that decides a champion.

Here are several other statistics, all of which are actually true and are more accurate than the one ESPN is using, that I would suggest broadcasters and college basketball tastemakers use.

  • In the KenPom era, 15 of 18 champions ranked in the top six nationally prior to the Tournament beginning.
  • Seven of the last eight champions have had at least one side of the ball rank in the top seven nationally.
  • 17 of the 18 champions in the KenPom era, other than 2014 Connecticut, had both a top 40 offensive and defensive efficiency.
  • The #1 overall KenPom team has won the Tournament only three times in 18 years.

Are we good? We’re good. Let’s keep this from happening all March long.