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How Tennessee’s Defense Went From Exceptional To Elite

KNOXVILLE, TN – MARCH 03, 2018 – The Tennessee Volunteers during the game between the Georgia Bulldogs and the Tennessee Volunteers at Thompson-Boling Arena in Knoxville, TN. Photo By Kyle Zedaker/Tennessee Athletics

There was a subtle shift, one so small that you probably don’t notice it over the course of time. It didn’t require rocket science or an influx of extreme skill. You’d notice something, but it was never a world-shifter. You probably go back to your phone, like everyone else does. The phone’s attractive. It’s shiny.

Perhaps that’s the antithesis of the Tennessee basketball defense in 2018: it is most certainly not shiny. It occupies the same amount of dirt and nastiness as the mud pits you can drive past in any rural town in this state. Rev up a four-wheeler, run through that stuff, and you’ll come out grimy and nasty and weirdly hurting all over. You don’t realize it at first, because several possessions involve players flying all over the court like the glitches on Madden games that cause a player to run a 2.2 second 40 yard dash.

The arms fly. The feet flail in every direction but north and south, seemingly. The tallest always seem to be in the right place at the right time.

Every participant in orange (or white, at home)’s first instinct after an Event is to sprint down the court at full speed, determined like a bat out of Hell to beat the opponent in any way possible.

It is remarkable that this, of all teams, ranks fourth nationally in Adjusted Defensive Efficiency on Tennessee has had precisely one defensive unit rank higher than 40th since Bruce Pearl’s departure (the 2014 Sweet Sixteen team, of course). The program became known for other things: embarrassing losses where they couldn’t hit 50 (and sometimes 40 points); legally questionable coaches; being known for nothing as an irrelevant entity. Tennessee hasn’t been thought of as any sort of defensive powerhouse since the 2010 Elite Eight team, which still ranks as Tennessee’s best per-possession unit since, probably, the mid-1990s Kevin O’Neill teams.

None of the players were known as defensive stoppers. Zero members of Tennessee’s 2017-18 roster had ranked in the top 20 of Defensive Win Shares in the SEC in any prior season. Grant Williams was a Box Plus-Minus monster, but his defensive lapses were uncomfortably frequent. KenPom projected Tennessee’s defense to be the 37th-best unit in the nation: good, but nothing special, sort of like the team itself was projected.

But: from the start of the season, everyone was just…better. And it started with the gawky Canadian we’ve profiled before.

Kyle Alexander, a previously invisible 14-minutes-a-game player, became a defensive star. Lineups with Alexander this year, per College Basketball Reference, allowed 0.884 points per defensive possession when adjusted for schedule. On possessions that end with Alexander guarding the shooter or ball-handler (meaning he’s within 4 feet of the shooter), opponents shoot just 35.5%…which is good enough for fifth-best on the team. Openly hilarious.

In fact, on shots where the opponent is guarded, Tennessee allows them to shoot a solid 34.3%, per Synergy Sports. They already rank 20th nationally in opponent field goal percentage. Not bad! And for the first 19 games of the season – meaning up to and including the second Vanderbilt game and prior to Iowa State – they allowed opponents to shoot 41.2% from the field and 33.7% from three.

Both of those, obviously, are pretty good. Extrapolated to a full season, they’d rank 40th and 108th, respectively. And, for a while, that was more than good enough: through 19 games, Tennessee had the 16th-best defense in America, per Bart Torvik. They were very, very good. Even better, they had the 28th-best offense to back it up. On nights when the defense didn’t quite bring it – the first Vanderbilt game especially sticks out – the offense was at least sometimes able to carry them to a win.

Since January 26th, the offense hasn’t been the same. It’s been the 70th-best offense in America over the last month and a half. Why? Two reasons: Tennessee has stopped going to the rim, where they’ve been most efficient, nearly as much (30.3% of shots at the rim from Iowa State on; 35.1% previously); as such, Kyle Alexander went from the third-most valuable player over the first 19 games to the fifth-most over the final 11. (A note here: post/’hook’ shots are typically called “Other Twos”, but Tennessee attempts nearly half of theirs within five feet of the rim. I feel fine including these as sorta-kinda rim shots.)

Also, remember how Jordan Bowden was the best freaking three-point shooter on earth for about two months? He was helping air-lift a Tennessee team from outside and hitting an insane 59.1% of catch-and-shoot opportunities where there wasn’t a defender within four feet. The national average is 38.4%. Tennessee, as a team, was hitting 46.5% of these shots, which would’ve tied for ninth nationally if it lasted the full season. This, from a team that hadn’t beaten 221st in three-point shooting in six years. We should’ve known they’d collapse to…a perfectly normal rate of 39.1% since.

Anyway, that and an unusually poor rate on two-point shots in general is why Tennessee’s offense is in a slump. If Tennessee had simply stayed very good, exceptional, not-quite-great, enjoyable on defense, they would have played at a rate of about the 30th-best team in America the rest of the way. The 30th-best team likely loses the Kentucky and Georgia games. Instead, they’ve been a borderline top 10 team since, because the defense just went freaking supernova. BLOODBATH OBLITERATION:

I mean my God. So, here’s the short of it: Tennessee, very quietly and then very loudly, became one of the five best defensive teams in America. It isn’t because everyone else sucked, either: over the final 11 games, they came 1.9 points per possession short of tying Virginia – VIRGINIA – for #1 in defensive efficiency. Yes, this is literal insanity.

So, yeah: why, how, and WHAT?

Why: Tennessee’s offense began to stagnate, so the defense had to elevate. Tennessee allowed just one performance by any opponent over the final 11 games (take a wild guess which one) that was worse than the national average in defensive efficiency and field goal percentage. They’d allowed five such games in the first 19 and 12 of those games in 2016-17. And this was after they were already really good.

How: A solid and fine perimeter defense became one of the nation’s best. Seriously.

Prior to the Iowa State game, Tennessee wasn’t doing poorly on three-point defense, but they weren’t exactly electric: around 35% of catch-and-shoot opportunities went without a defender within four feet, and opponents were hitting 40.2% of those, which is above the national average. Why does this matter? With a worse defense the previous year, (predominantly) three-point catch-and-shooters hit just 34.5% of their unguarded shots. With an even worse defense in 2015-16: 36.1%. Did Tennessee suddenly get worse at letting opponents shoot against air? Not really; it was just bad luck.

So how’d Tennessee react? They got angry and decided to stop giving up open threes. Since the Vanderbilt game, just 31.7% of opponent threes don’t have a defender within four feet. Opponents are now hitting just 27.3% of those. Good luck? Sure! On the other hand, Tennessee is obliterating three-point attempts when they’re guarding them, too. The guarded three-point percentage dropped from 32.7% to 27.4%, and Tennessee has become elite because of it. The overall allowed three-point percentage of 27.3% would be second-best nationally over a full season behind Grand Canyon.

Also, Jesus Lord Almighty, people shooting over Admiral Schofield are 4 for 27 from three since January 27 and 10 for 50 overall. Very cool and normal that he didn’t receive All-Defense honors!

What: Tennessee’s perimeter defense has helped conceal a bit of a secret: the Vols are forcing opponents into much worse shots than they were before. Over the first 19 games when the margin was 10 or less either way, 40.9% of opponent shots came at the rim. To their credit, the big guys down low were brutal against these – 90th-percentile nationally – but that’s a lot of shots. Plus, only 22.6% of shots were two-pointers away from the rim and 36.5% were from three. No wonder Arkansas beat them. So they changed, like a good orange chameleon.

Since the Iowa State game, it’s evened out considerably in that same metric: 35.1% of shots at the rim, 30.2% other two-pointers, 34.6% from three. That’s a giant shift. In the analytics age, the amount of teams willing to take plenty of mid-range jumpers is dwindling rapidly – the national average this year was about 26.4% for two-point jumper attempts versus the rest of field goals. To actually improve your standing in this in conference play is great, though it’s at least partially because Tennessee’s final 11 opponents were more mid-range reliant than normal (an average of 29.6%). Still: the fact Tennessee has made this shift is very, very encouraging.

So, now what? Tennessee faces an opponent they’ve already deflated and obliterated once in Mississippi State today. Teams are typically afraid of driving on MSU, as Abdul Ado and Aric Holman represent twin towers down low and one of the highest block rates in America.  But when it comes to them on offense? Tennessee’s got this. Mississippi State will desperately try to push the pace: they’re in the 84th-percentile nationally in transition, but just 49th-percentile in half-court offense and utterly horrific at hitting jumpers. MSU is best off the pick-and-roll – they rank in the 78th-percentile nationally or higher in all PNR categories – but Tennessee also ranks as the best team in the SEC at defending the PNR.

In the first meeting between the two, MSU was able to find space rarely, if ever. The Bulldogs took 51 shots from the field; 37 of those had a Tennessee defender within four feet. They shot 12 of 37 on guarded shots (32.4%) (8 of 14 unguarded) and had just nine transition attempts all game: 5 of 5 from two, 0 of 4 from three. That’s phenomenal, considering MSU’s transition and half-court splits. Better yet, Tennessee hit 50% of their guarded shots (19 of 38) and shot a perfect 100% inside the arc on shots without a primary defender (8 of 8). The odds of that happening twice are low; Tennessee won’t win this by 22 again. But until MSU either figures out a way to get open more or Tennessee can’t force as many jumpers (60% of MSU’s field goal attempts in Game One were jump shots, with just 33% of attempts coming at the rim), I’m not sure how they can make up the difference offensively. It would take probably eight or more threes (happened just six times in SEC play) and several successful pick-and-rolls (against Top 25 defenses, they shot 39.4% on PNR-based plays; against everyone else, 45.2%) to do so.

Over the last eight years, just one SEC champion has posted anything above a 93.9 adjusted defensive efficiency in conference play, per Bart Torvik. There’s just three teams that meet that mark in 2018’s offense-heavy landscape: Tennessee, Alabama, and Florida. Tennessee may have Florida to worry about Saturday. If so, be comforted in knowing they’re the third-worst team in the SEC within five feet of the rim and they’re due for some serious three-point regression.

For the Tournament as a whole, there’s been the one previously-mentioned constant over the last eight years: a great defense wins championships. Plus, not since 2009 has a team lower than the 3 seed won the title; this would seem to indicate there’s but two serious contenders for the SEC crown and they’ll likely play each other Saturday. Something tells me the team capable of bludgeoning opponents to death on the perimeter by a thousand cuts and pencil stabs has decent odds against a team more reliant than most on making threes to win games (Florida is 11-3 when they shoot 40% or better from three, 9-8 when they don’t).

If nothing else, Tennessee’s defense is one of the toughest to crack in the nation, and that’ll play well in March regardless of the opponent.


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