Where Rick Barnes wants to see Vols improve as SEC play begins

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    Tennessee basketball has gotten off to a great start this season. The Vols enter conference play on Wednesday night as one of just four undefeated teams in the SEC. In the AP Poll, they’ve climbed from their preseason ranking of No. 15 to No. 7.

    Defense has led the way for Tennessee during its hot start. UT’s defense ranks third in the country in defensive efficiency according to Ken Pomeroy’s college basketball rankings. According to KenPom, the Vols are first in the SEC in defensive efficiency, allowing just 87.0 points per 100 possessions so far this season. College teams average close to 70 possessions per game.

    Tennessee is tied with Ole Miss for the NCAA lead in scoring defense, allowing just 52.7 points per game. The Vols have been able to do so by forcing 17.7 turnovers per game and converting those turnovers into 19.7 points per game. Tennessee’s turnover margin stands at +7.5 which ranks ninth nationally.

    While UT’s offense hasn’t been as dominant as its defense, it’s still been efficient. The Vols ranked 33rd nationally in adjusted offensive efficiency according to KenPom, good enough for third-best in the SEC behind LSU and Florida.

    In some games this season, it hasn’t felt as if Tennessee has a flaw. Vols head basketball coach Rick Barnes would disagree with that sentiment. When he was asked by a reporter on Monday where he wants to see his time improve as conference play arrives, he didn’t point to anything on the offensive or defensive end.

    “The key would be the C-word,” Barnes said. “Consistency.”

    “That’s with everyone. I don’t think we’ve had one guy that’s been absolutely consistent. I would say our most consistent player has been Josiah (Jordan James). Overall, him and Santi (Santiago Vescovi) are two guys who have been fairly consistent, but the other guys haven’t been as consistent as I know they have to be and what I think they will become. We also need to continue to take care of the ball at a high rate percentage wise and rebound the ball. If we do that—and try to keep playing good, solid defense.”

    James has been Tennessee’s most efficient player through its first six games this season. He leads the Vols in offensive rebounding (2.8 per game) and total rebounding (6.5 rebounds), shares the team lead in steals (1.5 steals), ranks second in 3-point percentage (.438) and assists (2.8 assists), and is fourth in scoring (10.0 points). James has also been nearly perfect at the free throw line, making 15 of his 16 attempts this season.

    “He (James) has started to develop the game he needs and feels comfortable with,” Barnes responded when asked why James has been the most consistent. “He’s improved more as a shooter and his decisions have been more consistent. He’s rebounding on both ends.

    “Even his voice — he probably has a good of voice as there is on the team, because again you can have a voice when you have earned the respect of your teammates and with the work that he puts in every day, it is obvious his teammates respect him. But, he has been consistent in being able to take care of the scouting report and rebound the ball as well as do all of the things we ask him to do.”

    Tennessee will look to remain undefeated and begin conference play with a win on Wednesday night when it takes on No. 12 Missouri (6-0) at 9 p.m. ET. The game will broadcast from Mizzou Arena on the SEC Network.

    The Vols will return home following their matchup with former UT head coach Cuonzo Martin and play back-to-back games at Thompson-Boling Arena against Alabama and Arkansas.