Gonzaga and Baylor have stood atop the men's college basketball hierarchy in 2020-21, but there's no shame in being a second-tier team. Those two are still viewed as likely candidates to have an extended stay in the NCAA tournament, and Tennessee looked like it deserved that billing early this season.
While the Volunteers lagged a bit on the scoring end, they showed year-to-year improvement in three-point shooting and offensive rebounding. That's a strong combination for a defense-led team.
And that unit seemed incredible.
Led by Yves Pons—the reigning SEC Defensive Player of the Year—and 5-star freshman Keon Johnson, the Vols locked up opponents through 11 games. They ceded only a 30.3 percent three-point clip while forcing 16.7 turnovers per game. That strength carried Tennessee to a 10-1 record and No. 6 ranking in the AP Top 25.
Since that promising start, however, the Vols have dropped five of their 11 games and plummeted to 25th in the poll.
Tennessee is awfully inconsistent on the perimeter and now committing a bunch of turnovers. The Vols' half-court offense can be painful to watch. The defense has lapses too, but it can't be expected to prop up a mediocre scoring attack all season.
Optimism for the second Elite Eight run—or even first Final Four trip—in program history has steadily faded. Instead, Tennessee has become a vulnerable team and is increasingly unlikely to navigate the first weekend of March Madness.
Maybe not even its first game.
Yes, the defense—which ranks third nationally, per KenPom.com—has earned a high level of respect. If the bracket falls nicely, Rick Barnes' team can still have a successful NCAA tournament. How exactly you define success for this roster is subjective, but let's consider it a Sweet 16 trip.
That qualifier must be granted; we don't know the bracket, after all. The wrong matchup, though, could be devastating.
Much of the Volunteers' scoring issues can be attributed to shot selection. They attempt two-point jumpers at the 21st-highest rate in the country, according to Hoop-Math.com, but convert just 38.3 percent of them. That is 213rd out of 347 teams.
If they're not consistently hitting mid-range shots, the perimeter isn't making up for it. Tennessee's 34.3 long-range clip is 152nd in the nation. Victor Bailey Jr. and Santiago Vescovi are decent options but regularly have 1-of-4 kind of nights.
Any lingering optimist can point to a 63.2 clip in shots at the rim, and that's a quality rate!
But those attempts account for just 30.5 percent of Tennessee's total shots, which ranks 308th nationally, and makes this a circular discussion. The Vols aren't shooting at the rim enough, yet it's the only thing they do well. They shoot a bunch of two-point jumpers and are pretty bad at them.
Turnovers aren't helping, either. They averaged 9.6 giveaways in the first 11 games but are up to 13.8 in the last 11 contests. Worst of all, as Barnes noted following a recent win over Vanderbilt, many of the turnovers are self-inflicted errors.
Fixing those problems isn't as simple as saying, "shoot closer more often." The offense is used to operating in this inefficient fashion, and changing that will not happen overnight. Pivoting the offense from running through 6'9" forward John Fulkerson to the backcourt is a good start, but it might be too late.
At this point of the year, Tennessee doesn't have time to spare. The last two games are against Auburn and Florida, then the SEC tournament looms the second week of March. The Vols might be limited to three or four games before March Madness.
Simply put, it's unwise to expect dramatic improvements.
Tennessee is pegged as No. 5 seed—the dreaded No. 5 vs. 12 game—in the NCAA field, per Bracket Matrix. Ten of the last 12 NCAA tourneys have included at least one 5 vs. 12 upset. And if the Vols move anywhere, given their small remaining schedule, it's probably down. The No. 11 upset of a No. 6 is even more popular.
As the Volunteers search for late fixes, it's become difficult to not consider them a prime candidate to join that group.