clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Voluntary Observations: Getting To Know The Tennessee Vols Before The Sweet Sixteen

Some early thoughts and observations on Tennessee basketball, and a discussion of what looks to be some of the biggest keys to the game.

Fouad will have your full game preview ready later this week, but with Michigan stepping back into the Sweet Sixteen for the second straight year, its worth taking a quick extra look at what lies ahead. Fouad has already started his look ahead to both Louisville and Kentucky (running tomorrow), but that is in no means meant to diminish Tennessee, a team that is actually favored to win the game according to Kenpom's rankings.

Yes, that is correct. Kenpom has Tennessee as the predicted winner of a one-point game over Michigan. Granted, this game is only four percentage points away from being 50/50 in his estimation, but it is still something you don't see every day in a 2/11 Sweet Sixteen matchup.

So let's get to the pressing questions:

How is an 11th seed one of Kenpom's top 10 teams?

This seems like a bit of an anomaly. Tennessee is the third best team in the fifth best conference and is still an advanced metrics darling. This is the same team that entered the tournament with a 21-12 (11-7 SEC) record and only one win against a team ranked in Kenpom's top-50. So are the Vols better than the record or just the beneficiaries of a weak schedule. Thankfully, Kenpom himself broke it down. Tennessee's strength in his rating system is based on how it wins and losses. Specifically:

They punch teams in the mouth and walk away. In the first 10 minutes of games against SEC teams, they outscored their opponents by an average of 5.3 points. In the first 10 minutes of their 12 SEC victories, they outscored opponents by an average of 8.8 points.

The Vols are quite skilled at engineering blowouts, and have done so against a significant portion of the schedule. When the Vols aren't winning big, the team is likely losing a close game. So the Vols have a resume built around a big scoring margin and a lot of wins that ceased being competitive early. Tennessee both wins and loses in the right way, and while a series of close losses is one thing to worry about, the way Tennessee wins games is staggering.

We should give equal time to the cases where Tennessee has benefited from good fortune and won close games. But just three of its 21 wins were by single digits, the closest call coming against Arkansas, which led by eight with 11 minutes left before the Vols closed strong for a seven-point win.

Tennessee's average scoring margin against conference opponents was just a shade under eight points per game, a value which you would normally associate with a team that won 15 or 16 of 20 games instead of 12. There's some reason to think that if we had more time with Tennessee, we would see a team that is obviously the SEC's third-best team, and not far from being its second-best.

Michigan may have the better record and seed, but the way Tennessee has played for much of this season points to a much stronger team than an 11-seed normally is.

So they punch people in the mouth early, is there anything else to be worried about?

Those offensive rebounding numbers. Michigan just got waxed on the boards against Texas, and the Longhorns are actually one spot lower than Tennessee nationally in OR%. If you're doing the math at home that means that Michigan just faced the fifth best offensive rebounding team and gave up over half of all rebound opportunities to the offense. Now Michigan gets to face the fourth best team in the nation.

On the season the Vols are pulling down just a hair under 40% of their missed shots thanks in large part to the two big guys in the middle. Jarnell Stokes is a 6'8 widebody (260 lbs) that is pulling down 15.3% of available offensive rebounds which is the 14th best individual OR% in the country. Next to him is similarly sized Jeronne Maymon that is nearly as effective (14%, 28th).

The good news is that these two are responsible for 64% of Tennessee's offensive rebounds, and Tennessee's two long perimeter players, Jordan McRae and Josh Richardson, each of whom is 6'6, both sport individual OR% of 3.0 or less (Zak Irvin is at 3.4 for comparison).

The bad news is that Michigan looks like it has a big defensive issue with Glenn Robinson likely forced to check one of the Stokes-Maymon duo at any given time. Robinson has been pushed around on the boards in the past when the matchup has skewed this direction, and with Jordan Morgan likely able to hold his own, Robinson will need to do a good job accounting for him man on defense after the shot goes up. Texas nearly willed its way back into the game by sending a barrage of shots at the backboard and trying to get a put back. Imagine if Tennessee does the same thing but actually hits a couple of those put back attempts. Scary.

What about the threes?

Ah yes, the great equalizer of college basketball and often the first thing mentioned — and for good reason — after a tournament upset, Michigan's got 'em, this we know. Tennessee is better than average in three point percentage defense while being very good at limiting three point opportunities, allowing just 27.2% of opponent shots to come from behind the arc. With length on the outside in McRae and Richardson, it isn't hard to believe that Tennesse does a good job contesting shots around the perimeter.

But that isn't the question. Michigan is going to be Michigan and it will find its three point chances. What about Tennessee?

The Vols aren't as helptess a three point shooting team as Texas was, and Michigan probably can't expect a Wofford-ian 1/19 from outside the arc. Tennessee as a team shoots a below average 31.9 percent from the arc, but the three players with the majority of the attempts are all the best shooters, and that includes the Vol's high usage offensive catalyst, Jordan McRae. On 215 attempts he has hit 36% of them. His success shooting from outside is a big predicator of Tennessee success. He has only shot 33% or better from outside in three of Tennessee's losses, and in wins he shot 33% or better 16 of 24 games.

Antonio Barton is more in the mold of "just a shooter" with nearly 60% of his shot attempts being outside shots. The Vol's third perimeter player, Richardson, shoots threes on 35% of his attempts.

While offensive rebounding is going to be a big factor in this one, whoever has the hot hand from outside will likely walk away victorious. Michigan can withstand just about anything if its shooters are hitting from outside, but the offense can sputter for long stretches if those shots aren't falling. Tennessee has enough firepower and will probably have some open looks as Michigan packs the paint on defense. If Tennessee can make Michigan pay for that, this game could end up getting out of hand early, just like Tennessee likes to do.