After each week of the season that Tennessee plays at least two games, “The Starting Five” on Monday will analyze the previous week of play from the Big Orange while highlighting questions Tennessee is facing in the coming weeks in five subheadings.
Tennessee went 2-0 on the week, earning a blowout win over Presbyterian before defeating Colorado by double digit in the Vols’ first true road game of the season.
The schedule stays challenging for Tennessee this week as the Vols head to New York City to face Texas Tech before returning home to face North Carolina- Greensboro.
It’s on to the starting five.
Josiah Jordan James Returns
After missing matchups against North Carolina, Tennessee Tech and Presbyterian, Josiah Jordan James returned to the lineup against Colorado.
Two weeks after tearing ligaments in his finger, James played 26 minutes off the bench and scored five points on two-of-three shooting. Like most of James’ performances, the bulk of the junior’s production came without scoring.
James grabbed nine rebounds, blocked four shots and recorded two steals in the 69-54 road win.
The win in Boulder was a perfect example of why James is so important to Tennessee. The junior leader was calm and collected all game and made the simple plays that don’t show up on the stat sheet.
James is the lynchpin for a Tennessee defense that’s been much better than expected so far this season. The Vols have held their first seven opponents to 62.0 points per game and rank third in the nation in defensive efficiency on KenPom.
James’ return gives Tennessee abundant lineup flexibility. Uros Plavsic played 11 minutes per game in the three games the South Carolina native missed and played just five on Saturday.
The six-foot-six forward is one of Tennessee’s best rim protectors and rebounders allowing Rick Barnes to play him at the four spot often. James at the four gives Tennessee its best offensive potential, especially when the junior is shooting the way he’s capable.
Creating Steals Becoming A Surprising Strength
As mentioned above, Tennessee’s defense has been better than expected three weeks into the season. That’s even with its best defender missing three of its seven games. So why have the Vols had so much success there?
Part of the success is because Tennessee’s guards have been better playing on-ball defense than I expected. Through getting into elite shape and playing incredibly hard, Santiago Vescovi has taken another step forward defensively and is night-and-day different from the defender that arrived in Knoxville in December of 2019.
Kennedy Chandler and Zakai Zeigler have both held up as perimeter defenders despite their smaller size.
Still, maybe the biggest difference in this Tennessee team is its ability to create steals. The Vols are averaging 10.3 steals per game, the 17th most in division one.
Creating steals and forcing turnovers hasn’t been a strength of Barnes and Mike Schwartz’ defense in Knoxville. In Barnes’ six seasons in Knoxville, Tennessee is averaging six steals per game. Last season’s 7.3 steals per game is the most Tennessee has averaged in a season under Barnes.
Chandler has been the best at forcing turnovers, recording 17 steals so far this season and seven in the wins over Presbyterian and Colorado. Vescovi and James have also each recorded double digit steals so far this season.
Some of Tennessee’s success creating steals is due to playing four tier four opponents so far this season. However, the Vols recorded nine steals in power five wins over North Carolina and Colorado.
Is This Tennessee’s Deepest Team In The Rick Barnes Era?
Tennessee has consistently had short benches throughout the Rick Barnes era. Barnes’ first two teams — which didn’t make the NCAA Tournament — played nine and 11 players 12 or more minutes a game.
On paper those are two extremely deep teams but the deep benches were more of a result of Barnes using the bench as a motivator and very few players earning enough trust to play major minutes.
The three Tennessee teams that have made the NCAA Tournament under Barnes’ guidance have all had seven players play over 12 minutes a game. The 31-win, 2018-19 team may have played seven players 12-plus minutes a game but John Fulkerson played just 12 minutes and four players played over 30 minutes a game.
This Tennessee team looks like it may buck that trend. So far, nine Tennessee players are averaging over 16 minutes per game while Uros Plavsic has been a high usage 10th man, playing 9.6 minutes per game.
So yeah, Tennessee is playing a lot of different players right now. However, that can be par for the course early in a college basketball season.
Here’s why this Tennessee team is different. First, the Vols have played three high major opponents already this season and Tennessee struggled enough with Tennessee Tech that the back of its bench didn’t get much playing time.
Secondly, Tennessee has three freshmen playing major minutes. Kennedy Chandler is the best player on the roster, Brandon Huntley-Hatfield is the Vols’ first big man off the bench. Neither of them are going to see their minutes decrease rapidly once SEC play begins.
Zakai Zeigler is Tennessee’s backup point guard and could see minute reductions. Still, I expect Zeigler to play at least 12 minutes per game.
Lastly, behind Chandler, James and Santiago Vescovi there isn’t a ton of separation in Tennessee’s main rotation players.
Much like Barnes’ first two teams, that lack of separation will allow Barnes to use the bench as a motivator. Unlike Barnes’ first two teams, the Vols rotation players are more talented.
Whether it’s a good thing or a bad thing to have a deep bench when the tournament rolls around is up for debate, but this Tennessee team is likely to be the Vols’ deepest in years.
Can Justin Powell Shoot Well Consistently?
It was an up-and-down week for Tennessee sophomore guard Justin Powell. After missing the Tennessee Tech game with the flu, Powell returned against Presbyterian, making all five of his three-point attempts in a 15-point performance.
However, Powell struggled against Colorado, making one-of-eight shot attempts.
Throughout preseason practice, Powell looked like the best shooter on Tennessee’s roster and one of the best shooters in the SEC.
Six games into his Tennessee career the results have been completely mixed.
Against UT-Martin, East Tennessee and Presbyterian, Powell is shooting 11-of-14 (79%) from three-point range while averaging 13 points per game. Against Villanova, North Carolina and Colorado, Powell is shooting one-of-12 (8%) from three-point range while averaging six points per game.
The obvious note is Powell is shooting well against low level opponents and struggling against good ones. Three games is way too small of a sample size to suggest Powell struggles against good teams or “isn’t clutch”.
Powell’s poor performances also all came away from Thompson-Boling Arena. Again, three games is too small of a sample size to draw any major conclusions, but this one seems more logical to describe Powell’s inconsistency.
Still, I’m completely in wait-and-see mode with those two issues. My question is how consistent can Powell be. Expecting Powell to shoot exceptionally every game is unrealistic, but if he’s a complete non factor from deep in half of Tennessee’s games that’s a big blow to UT’s offense.
So far, Powell has been either exceptional or poor from three-point range. I expect that to even out throughout the year. More two-of-four games from three-point range and less four-of-five games. More one-of-three games and less zero-of-three games.
The other main question is how effective can Powell be when his shot isn’t falling. The Auburn transfer missed all three of his triples against North Carolina but was excellent off the ball, scoring eight points mostly on cuts to the basket.
Powell continues to get better on the defensive end too. That would be a huge separator for him from Victor Bailey Jr who has a much larger sample size as a streaky shooter.
Will Tennessee’s Offense Rise To The Occasion In New York City?
So far, Tennessee’s rejuvenated offense has made major improvements this season. The Vols are fifth in the SEC, scoring 80.1 points per game. Tennessee is also 29th in offensive efficiency in KenPom. That’s a major improvement to its 85th ranked offense a season ago.
Still, the Vols haven’t faced a lot of good defenses so far this season. The three power five opponents Tennessee has played rank 45th, 82nd and 86th in defensive efficiency in KenPom.
That means Tennessee’s matchup with Texas Tech and KenPom’s 19th best defense will be the Vols’ offense’s biggest challenge of the season to date.
The Red Raiders’ program is predicated on playing elite defense and making everything difficult for their opponents.
I don’t know how Tennessee’s offense will perform in Madison Square Garden, but it will be very telling on just how much the Vols’ offense has improved. If Tennessee can go to a neutral site venue and have a strong offensive showing against the Big 12’s second best defense, then the Vols have a team that can win an elite SEC.