Tennessee has been the No. 1 team in college basketball since January 21st of this year. Yet the Vols have still been overlooked time and again by a team ranked lower than them.
No. 2 Duke (19-2, 7-1 ACC) was the top-ranked team in college basketball after the first week of the basketball season, fell to No. 3 after a loss to Gonzaga, then reclaimed the No. 1 spot on December 24th. They held that ranking till a loss at home in overtime to Syracuse. That following Monday is when the Vols (20-1, 8-0 SEC) overtook them for the top spot in the polls.
Despite that, Duke and their roster of young star players such as Zion Williamson, RJ Barrett, Tre Jones, and Cam Reddish tend to get more attention than the top-ranked Vols. But according to one ESPN analyst, the Vols are the better team than the Blue Devils this season.
During ESPN’s Get Up! morning show, host Mike Greenberg had college basketball analyst Sean Farnham on to talk about Tennessee. Greenberg started off the segment comparing some stats between the Vols and Blue Devils, pointing out that Tennessee was better than Duke at overall offensive efficiency, three-point shooting, and assist percentage.
But Duke gets more coverage, so they’re the better team, right?
“Duke has Zion and RJ Barrett, and we’ve heard of them, so obviously they’re the better team, right?’ Greenberg asked Farnham.
And Farnham’s response was an emphatic, “Wrong.”
“Tennessee is a better team, and there are a number of metrics that you can look at that make you understand just how good this Tennessee basketball team is,” Farnham responded. “To put it in perspective: They scored 93 points Saturday (against Texas A&M) with only four free throws attempted. They’ve got great depth and much better experience.”
Duke consistently starts four true freshmen in the aforementioned Williamson, Barrett, Reddish, and Jones. They’ve also given starts to a trio of juniors in Marques Bolden, Javin DeLaurier, and Jack White. But the majority of their offense (74.7 percent of their points) have come from their quartet of freshmen.
That’s not the case at all for Tennessee.
The Vols haven’t even played a true freshman all season, and all six of their top scorers are juniors or older.
That experience is a big reason why Farnham believes the Vols are a better team than Duke and why he thinks they have a better chance of having success in the NCAA Tournament.
“Since ’06, only three of those national champions have had a single freshman starter,” Farnham added. “No freshman has even scored for Tennessee so far this season.”
Not only does Farnham believe Tennessee’s experience separates them from Duke, but their consistency when it comes to shooting threes also makes them better.
“From beyond the arc, we saw against Syracuse how it hurt Duke,” Farnham stated. “That is not a problem with the Tennessee Volunteers. They’ve got (Lamonte) Turner, they’ve got (Jordan) Bowden, they’ve got Jordan Bone. These guys combined are shooting 45 percent from beyond the arc in SEC play.
“They do an outstanding job of spacing the floor, playing off their interior, and in the NCAA Tournament, you have to have to have guards that can make shots. They’ve got multiple guys.”
In Duke’s 95-91 overtime loss to Syracuse, the Blue Devils were an abysmal 9-of-43 from the behind the three-point line for the game. Jack White missed all 10 of his three-point attempts, and RJ Barrett was just 4-of-17 from distance.
As a team, Duke is only making 30.9 percent of their threes this season. Tennessee, however, is making 36.3 percent of their three-pointers as a team. They’ve connected on 38.3 percent of their threes in SEC play, which is the second-best percentage in conference play so far this season.
Duke, meanwhile, has made just 28.9 percent of their threes in eight ACC games.
Farnham is also a big believer in point guard play, and he thinks Tennessee has one of the best floor generals in college basketball.
“Jordan Bone is one of the best point guards in the country,” Farnham added. “He’s sixth in the nation in assist-to-turnover ratio, and he can turn it on just like he did on Saturday. Nineteen of the final 28 points that Tennessee scored — in what was a two-point game — came off of his fingertips, whether it was an assist or whether it was his perimeter shot.
“He’s got an outstanding feel for his team.”
Bone was named the SEC Co-Player of the Week on Monday, and he was also named as one of the 10 finalists for the Bob Cousy Award, the award given annually to college basketball’s top point guard.
Duke’s Tre Jones has been an efficient point guard for the Blue Devils as well, but the true freshman isn’t the scoring threat that Bone is, and he hasn’t been quite the same since his injury he sustained during the Syracuse game.
But that’s not all Tennessee has, according to Farnham. They also have legitimate star power on their roster.
“Point guards win national championships, but so do stars,” Farnham said. “And they’ve got a pair of stars in Grant Williams and Admiral Schofield that have man strength. That showed up against the best frontcourt in the country, the Gonzaga Bulldogs, earlier in December — who, by the way, also beat Duke.”
Tennessee toppled then-No. 1 Gonzaga back on December 9th in Phoenix, Arizona by a score of 76-73. That outcome was thanks in large part to the efforts of Williams and Schofield. Williams totaled a double-double with 16 points and 12 rebounds while also dishing out seven assists, and Schofield exploded for 30 points, including making six of his 10 three-pointers in that game. Schofield took over the game late in the second half, scoring 23 of the Vols’ final 33 points, including the final 11 points of the game for Tennessee.
It’s clear that Farnham is a big believer in Tennessee, and he thinks the Vols are a better team than the Blue Devils right now. And the polls agree with him.