The Tennessee Vols have finally been awarded a Jon Rothstein phrase. If you’ve been keeping up with the CBS college basketball analyst, then you know the man has been working on a label for the Vols. A couple of weeks ago, Rothstein said that Rick Barnes and Co. were the “bully” of the SEC. Last week, he used some ferocious pups as an analogy (sorry, Smokey).
Tennessee Basketball. Nastier than a pack of dobermans.
— Jon Rothstein (@JonRothstein) January 7, 2021
According to the numbers, Rothstein is right.
Tennessee is holding conference opponents to just 63 points per game. And the Vols are making it difficult for teams to create efficiency inside the arc. SEC opponents are hitting just 14.5 2-point attempts per game, a mark that’s good for second in conference play.
But what worries most Big Orange fans is the fortune the Vols have had defending a 3-point attack. And it’s not just this season. This is a post-traumatic experience that fans on Rocky Top live through every time they see a team go 40 percent beyond the arc.
Why The Worry?
The Vol faithful relive horrific moments from 2018 and 2019 whenever opponents start dialing up from long distance. The most recent benchmark dates back to March of 2018. Tennessee was destined for a Sweet Sixteen trip. Two wins in the NCAA tournament would have been a major accomplishment for a team that surprised everyone.
But then, Sister Jean from Loyola sprinkled her Holy Water on her beloved Ramblers as the conference winners from the YMCA of Chicago went on to beat the Vols thanks to timely shots and a 40 percent mark from outside.
In 2019, Tennessee made it through two rounds. This time they were thirsty for more. It was a team capable of a Final Four trip, if not beyond.
But Purdue’s tax accountant, Ryan Cline, hit a blistering 7 of 10 3-pointers to help the Boilermakers past the Vols.
We won’t even mention Auburn hoisting 74 3-point attempts against the Vols in two games during the same season. The Tigers hit 38 percent of them. Auburn defeated Tennessee by 20 in the SEC championship game.
Anxiety is starting to settle in for some Vols fans in the present-day after the last three conference opponents have gone 41.2 percent from distance. Altogether, Tennessee is giving up the trey at a 36.7 percent clip in SEC play. If the season ended today, that would be the second-worst mark in the Rick Barnes era (2015-16).
Why Vols Fans Shouldn’t Worry
The fact that Tennessee’s biggest concern on defense is their opponent’s 3-point percentage is actually a good thing. The Vols are ninth in conference play regarding that category. Not bad when you consider they are top-5 in seemingly every other meaningful statistic.
And if it makes those on Rocky Top feel any better, our friend of Fan Run and basketball guru, Will Warren offers this quote from Ken Pomeroy.
"with the exception of free-throw accuracy, it’s the box-score event least influenced by the defense." – Ken Pomeroy on three-pointers
— Will Warren (@statsbywill) January 9, 2021
But if you look back at the numbers, Barnes seems to be doing something unique with this squad. Tennessee leads the SEC in blocks (26) and has held opponents to 63 points per game in conference play. The Vols have also reached a new mark for The Deacon. This team has become Ol’ Hickory’s first to force 20 turnovers or more in two conference games since his arrival in Knoxville. And Tennessee is only four conference games in, averaging 16.75 turnovers per game in SEC play.
On the flip side, the Vols are also taking care of the ball and making the most out of possessions. To go along with a third overall NET ranking, Tennessee is first in assist-rate (1.6) and turnovers per game (10) in the conference.
If conference play is any indicator, the Vols will be in great position come March. I get it; history elicits fear in fans and a need for them to see an alternative on the stat sheet. But if this season’s trajectory continues, this Tennessee team will be different regardless. Not just different, but better than in recent years.
The two-year stretch that flirted with Elite 8 appearances were fun for those in Orange. Averaging 80 points per game presented an exciting brand of basketball in Knoxville (2018-19). Not even those teams forced 20 turnovers in a single game.
What Barnes has created this season appears to be something special. Sure, the Vols will take their lumps. Their most dynamic players are either first or second-year players. But they have a veteran presence and the best defensive player in the game.
Rothstein is right. Tennessee has the heart of angry Dobermans (hopefully Smokey isn’t jealous?). They are the bullies on the block. These Vols are so profound, Jon might just put it on a shirt.
For Volunteer fans, Let Lady Luck run its course and ride with one of the best defenses in the country that is destined for unprecedented success.