Record: 28-3 (14-2)
Key Wins: @Xavier, Vanderbilt, @Memphis, @Mississippi State
Key Losses: N-Texas, @Kentucky, @Vanderbilt
Key Stat: The Volunteers have forced opponents into 90 turnovers while attempting to inbound the basketball this season, another 18 times opponents called timeout because they can’t get the ball in play.
Biggest Strengths: This Tennessee team could easily be the deepest team in the country, featuring a staggering 12 players who are averaging more than 11 minutes-per-game. Remarkably, their third, fourth or even fifth man off the bench would start for a lot of SEC teams.
Their extreme depth allows them the opportunity to pressure defensively the entire game and Bruce Pearl takes full advantage. The key to the Vol’s pressure is denial, which directly reflects the amount of turnovers they have forced while opponents try to inbound the basketball. In the Vol press everyone’s responsibility is to deny his man. If by chance their opponent gets the ball in play they quickly converge on an initial trap.
Not many teams switch from defense to offense as quickly and effectively as the Vols do. Offensively this team is loaded with weapons. Nearly everyone in the Tennessee rotation is quick, athletic and has the ability to knock down shots.
Tennessee excels in every aspect of the game. They lead the SEC in scoring (82.3 ppg), scoring margin (+13.4), assists (18.0 apg), steals (9.5 spg), turnover margin (+6.2), assist-to-turnover ratio (1.43) and 3-point defense (.297).
Biggest Weaknesses: In the Volunteer offense there is no such thing as a bad shot and Bruce Pearl would be the first to admit this. He wants to see his team get up and down the court and shoot from anywhere. The same philosophy applies whether his team is up 15, tied or down 20. The first good shot is the best shot.
I love the fact that Pearl gives his players the freedom to let it fly whenever, from wherever. No player wants to see the coaches’ scowl after they take a 23-footer with 28 seconds on the shot clock. However, this philosophy allows opponents to stay in games just as much as it allows the Volunteers to stay in games. The point being, if there is a ten or even fifteen point deficit in any Tennessee game do not get up on the couch because the tide could turn quickly. A couple missed shots are quickly converted to lay-ups and their opponent is right back in the game.
Most Important Player: Chris Lofton. Although Lofton’s All-American candidacy faded a little as he struggled from beyond the arc to start the season; he is still as deadly from deep. He has connected on 413 three-pointers in his career, which makes him the single best three-point shooter in the history of the Southeastern Conference. His shooting slump to start the year is apparently over. In his last fifteen games he is shooting 47-percent from beyond the arc, 61 of 130. Whether he has space or not, Lofton will find a way to get his shot off. Off-balance, with a hand in his face, it doesn’t matter, more often then not the senior will knock it down.
Lofton’s uncanny ability to knock down the long ball forces defenders to face-guard him consistently, which keeps them from helping on penetration. This opens up the offense for others and allows players like JuJuan Smith and Ramar Smith to create.
X-Factor: Tyler Smith. The transfer from Iowa does a little bit of everything for the Volunteers. He is leading his team in rebounding (6.8 per-game), assists (3.5 per-game) and field goal percentage (53-percent). Smith is also third on the team in scoring at 13.4 points-per-game.
Other than the dynamic statistics that he has put up this season, Smith adds a sense of toughness that the Volunteers lacked last season. His toughness is a perfect compliment to the finesse, up-and-down style that personifies the Volunteers.
Might Lose When: All teams that rely on the three as much as the Volunteers do are susceptible whenever shots aren’t falling. However, this year they have proven they can wins games even when the threes aren’t dropping. Recently, they shot below 27-percent from beyond the arc in back-to-back wins over Vanderbilt and Kentucky.
The key to beating this team is to turn their strength into a weakness. They are very aggressive on defense so offenses need to take advantage of this over-pursuit. You do this with back-cuts. Teams that have been successful offensively against the Vols have used the back-cut very effectively.
A tight whistle could also contribute to a Volunteer loss. Not only does this slow the pace of the game down but it also puts the Volunteers on the line, a place where the Volunteers struggle (65-percent).
Might Surprise You With: It is amazing the job Bruce Pearl has done in his three years at Tennessee. Despite their success in the previous two seasons they have yet to get out of the second round of the SEC tournament or advance past the Sweet 16 in the Big Dance.
This year they have shown maturity and the ability to win games when other teams are able to control the tempo. The addition of Tyler Smith gives them a low-post option in the half-court set, something they definitely lacked in the past. This team has proven that they can win games in the sixties, even though they would much rather score in the eighties.
Predicted finish in the NCAA’s: Elite Eight
Editor’s Note: I don’t think Tennessee has gotten the respect it has deserved all year long. Even when the Vols upset Memphis, voters were just itching to move Carolina back to the #1 line. In my mind, they’re clearly deserving of a number one seed. But I agree with Nick’s assessment that this team probably won’t quite get to the Final Four. Teams that substitute as much as UT have had a tough time making deep runs in Tournaments past…the ideal rotation is about eight players, in my opinion.