The Tennessee basketball team is rolling. Even after an embarrassing loss to Alabama, they’ve won 9 of their last 11 games and are on pace for their best regular season since the Bruce Pearl era. Tuesday night, the Vols went into Rupp Arena and knocked off Kentucky, winning in Lexington for the first time since 2006 and sweeping the Wildcats for the first time since the 1998-99 season.
The loss to Alabama was disheartening, but in the grand scheme of things it isn’t that damaging. Good teams are defined by how they respond to adversity. This can be a character building loss for a young Vols team. They’ve played a top-heavy SEC schedule and are in good position to pad their record in the final month of the season.
When you first think of Tennessee hoops, names like Grant Williams and Admiral Schofield come to mind. I’m here to tell you that Kyle Alexander is the most important player to this team’s success, and he’s the glue that holds the team together.
Alexander is a 6-foot-11 junior from Ontario, Canada. In high school, he played soccer and volleyball all the way up until his Junior year, when he decided to try basketball. It ended up sticking, and he came to Tennessee as a very raw three-star in 2015.
During his first year on campus, Alexander was only 200 pounds, just two years into his basketball career, and he desperately needed to redshirt. But Tennessee lacked any sort of big man presence when he came in, and he was forced into action immediately.
The results were not good. He was bullied by stronger players in the post, he lacked muscle, and he didn’t have much lower body strength.
Fans were frustrated at times, but he had only been playing basketball for three years at that point. He was still raw.
Alexander’s sophomore year was better, but it still wasn’t great. But his year, as a junior, he has blossomed into an above average starter, and he has improved more than any player on the team.
When Kyle Alexander plays well, the team plays well. And Alexander has pretty much played well all year.
Per Basketball-Reference.com, his player efficiency rating of 23.2 is the best on the team, just above Grant Williams. That rating is also top 15 in the conference. For reference, the best player efficiency rating former UConn star Kemba Walker ever posted in college was 29.2. Alexander’s score isn’t far behind that.
Alexander’s impact has been irreplaceable on both ends of the floor.
A simple glance at Alexander’s season stat line isn’t going to overwhelm anybody. He averages just six points per game, 5.6 rebounds per game, and just under one assist a game. However, if you dive deeper into the numbers, the impact he has becomes clear.
Offensively, he is highly efficient. Since the SEC opener, he is 32-of-39 from the field. His free throw shooting is up to 73 percent this year after making just 50 percent last year. If you adjust his stats per 40 minutes, he would be in double digits for both rebounds and points.
In the six losses suffered this season, Alexander only played more than 20 regulation minutes in one of them. When he scores in double digits, the Vols have only lost one time. He is top 10 in the SEC in offensive rebounds with 58 total. His offensive rebound percentage of 13.6, according to sports reference, is first in the SEC.
His box plus/minus of 14.1 is tops in the SEC. BPM relies on a player’s box score information and the team’s overall performance to estimate a player’s performance relative to league average.
His offensive rating, which is a statistical estimate of points scored or produced per 100 possessions, is second in the country according to the Ken Pomeroy ratings.
Alexander’s impact defensively has been even greater. He is a force in the paint and a very smart defender. His reliability as a secondary defender allows the Volunteer guards to be more aggressive and go for more steals. He has an ability to affect the opposing offense even without a block or steal. Alexander’s defensive box plus/minus is 2nd in the SEC and 8th in the country.
Alexander has a knack for altering shots. Even during his freshman year he blocked 31 shots. This year he averages 2.1 blocks per game during conference play, and he already has 45 blocks on the season through 24 games. He averages 5.5 blocks per 100 possessions, one of the top rates in the country. His block percentage of 10.9, which is the percentage of two-point field goals a player blocks while on floor, is the best in the SEC and top 10 in the country. And his defensive rating of 93.5 is top 10 in the SEC.
In conference, Alexander’s defensive impact has been evident. Since December 30th in games where Kyle Alexander plays 21 or more minutes, the Vols have given up an average of just 62.87 points a game. In games where Alexander has played 20 minutes or less, the Vols have let up an average of 76.2 points per game.
There are only two players in the country who play at 20-plus minutes per game with a defensive rating under 95, offensive rebound percentage over 10 percent, defensive box plus/minus over 9, and an overall box plus/minus over 14. One of them is Michigan State’s Jaren Jackson, a projected top 10 pick in next year’s draft. The other is Kyle Alexander.
If Alexander had not improved at the level he did this offseason, then Tennessee’s basketball team wouldn’t be as good as they have been today.
Saturday, Tennessee played what might have been their worst game in the Rick Barnes era. Afterwards, Barnes said of Alexander’s performance, “Kyle Alexander might have played his worst game since he was a freshman.”
It’s no coincidence that Alexander’s worst game was also the Vols’ worst game. The team goes as he goes. When he’s bad, they’re bad, and they can’t afford another bad game from him. He’s not the best overall player on the roster, but he is the most important factor in the Vols’ success this season.