For the first time since Bruce Pearl came to Knoxville, the Tennessee basketball team suddenly finds itself in a bit of a slump.
Consecutive losses to Kansas and Gonzaga—two unranked, yet legitimate teams—including the Vols’ first home loss since March 2006, leave Tennessee in a bit of limbo. While Pearl still has a full stable of talented athletes, these clearly aren’t last year’s Tennessee Volunteers.
But that’s fine. The Vols just need to understand this and move on. This year’s Tennessee team has a ton of potential; it probably possesses more overall talent than last year’s edition, which at one point was ranked No. 1 in the country.
If the Volunteers adhere to the following three steps, they will find themselves in the Sweet 16 again in March.
1. Get the ball inside.
Chris Lofton, the superstar shooting guard of Pearl’s first three years, is gone. Bomber JaJuan Smith is gone too. Tennessee simply does not have the same firepower in the backcourt that it is accustomed to having.
What the Vols do have, though, are Tyler Smith and Wayne Chism: two frontcourt players who are capable of dominating any game. Against Gonzaga, Smith and Chism combined for 32 points and 27 rebounds. Chism, who absolutely owned the paint in the second half, had 19 rebounds himself, and there’s a good chance at least half of those came on the offensive end.
But despite the inside presence these two players represent, Pearl’s flex offense rarely runs through them. Sure, they get their chances naturally through the offense, but too many possessions this year have ended with poor three-point shooters taking deep shots.
Smith gets some opportunities to go one-on-one and is usually successful when given the chance. Chism often has very good post position and does not get the ball enough when he does. He has grown a tremendous amount as a player, as shown by big performances against Gonzaga, Marquette, and Kansas (he had six blocks in the loss); now he just needs to get the ball more.
Aside from Cameron Tatum and, on occasion, Scotty Hopson, the Vols simply don’t have the shooters they are accustomed to having. For the first time under Pearl, their strength is in the paint. And that’s where the ball needs to go.
2. Regain their defensive identity.
Pearl’s teams are known for their aggressive, trapping style. Over the years, the Vols have consistently forced a tremendous amount of open-court turnovers, leading to easy baskets and large runs.
This year, not so much. Sure, the aggression is still there at times, and Tennessee is as good as ever at forcing turnovers on inbounds plays. But the intense full-court pressure that last year led to consecutive turnovers and quick 10-point swings isn’t there.
And why not? JaJuan Smith was a great pressure defender, but Lofton wasn’t, and Scotty Hopson and Emmanuel Negedu certainly don’t lack athleticism. If Pearl isn’t letting his team press as much, it’s probably because they lack discipline.
But at this point, the Vols can’t really guard anybody. So it’s worth giving the press a shot.
3. Understand their roles.
The Vols are getting much better at this—Chism, for example is playing inside more, and Hopson is taking fewer bad shots—but they still have a long way to go.
As J.P. Prince showed last night, he should never take deep shots. Ever. Even if the defense leaves him wide open. Sure, that makes him a bit of an offensive liability, and if that’s the case, maybe he shouldn’t be on the floor as much—Hopson is probably a better option now that he has gained more discipline.
Tyler Smith and Bobby Maze are picking their spots more, which is a good thing when the offense is functioning smoothly. When it isn’t, they are probably being a bit too selective.
But what the Vols really need to do is get the ball in Chism’s hands. Not at the three-point line, but in the paint. He doesn’t have to shoot every time; let the defense react, leaving Tatum open for a shot, Smith for a drive, or one of the many other talented Vols close to the basket.
The Volunteers have hit a bit of a rough stretch lately. But conference play hasn’t even started, and Tennessee is a young team that has plenty of time to turn their season around. The signs of improvement are already there, even in defeat—the Vols just have to complete the transformation on offense and get back to their roots on defense.