The Starting Five: Texas Tech and UNC Greensboro

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    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.

    The Vols went 1-1 on the week, falling to Texas Tech in Madison Square Garden before beating UNC Greensboro.

    The Vols fell to No. 18 in the AP Poll but have held steady at No. 10 in KenPom.

    Now, on to the starting five.

    Chandler Turns In Worst Week Of Young Career

    Freshman point guard Kennedy Chandler has been Tennessee’s best player just over a month into the season.

    However, the former five-star turned the worst week of his young career. Chandler totaled 18 points on six-of-22 shooting while adding 11 assists, five rebounds and six turnovers.

    It was far from a horrible week for Chandler, but compared to his 47% shooting from the field on the season it was an inefficient showing. Five of Chandler’s six turnovers on the week came in the loss to Texas Tech — by far the best defensive team the Vols have faced this season.

    How Tennessee can perform without Chandler carrying the offensive load is one of the biggest questions I have about this team. This week provided some clarity. 

    Against Texas Tech, the Vols struggled horribly, totaling just 44 points in regulation thanks to an abysmal six-of-39 shooting from three-point range. 

    Against UNCG, Tennessee’s offense was strong. The Vols scored 76 points and an impressive 1.267 points per possession. The jump was in large part due to 37% shooting from three-point range. 

    Obviously there is a major difference in athleticism and talent between the two teams — though UNCG has the second highest rated defensive efficiency of the non-power six teams Tennessee has played.

    My biggest takeaway from Tennessee’s offense without Chandler is that the Vols are likely to be three-point reliant. Without Chandler’s ability to get to the basket, Tennessee doesn’t have much reliable inside scoring.

    Vols Defense Has Been Fantastic

    One of the biggest questions I had about this Tennessee team entering the season was how big of a step back they’d take defensively. It felt inevitable after losing the SEC’s best shot blocker Yves Pons and a pair of elite wing defenders Keon Johnson and Jaden Springer.

    A month into the season, not only has Tennessee’s defense not taken a step back, it’s taken a small step forward.

    Last season, the Vols ranked fifth in the country in adjusted defensive efficiency on KenPom. Nine games into the season, Tennessee’s defense ranks first nationally with an incredible 85.9 grade.

    That level of production is nothing short of breathtaking considering the personnel losses Tennessee suffered.

    The Vols were dominant defensively in the 1-1 week, shutting down Texas Tech before holding UNCG 32 points under its season average.

    Nine games isn’t a full season, but Tennessee has played good teams and been absolutely dominant with its defense. That’s a huge testament to Rick Barnes, Mike Schwatz and all of Tennessee’s players that have bought in on that end of the floor.

    Instate Rivalry Renewed On Saturday

    One of my favorite college basketball rivalries is renewed Saturday when Memphis and Tennessee meet at Bridgestone Arena in Nashville

    It’s the third and final game in a contract between the state of Tennessee’s two premier programs.

    Barnes and Tennessee have shown no desire to renew the contract after Memphis’ coach Penny Hardaway’s offhand remarks about Barnes following the 2018 matchup. As I wrote at my former employer a few years ago, I think that decision is a bad and weak one by Tennessee.

    Hopefully the two teams will meet again on the hardwood soon, but there’s no guaranteeing that. So, I’m going to enjoy this last scheduled matchup between the two schools this Saturday. 

    Tennessee and Memphis split the first two games of the three-game series and Saturday’s game will be the tiebreaker.

    The matchup doesn’t have the hype it had entering the season as due to Memphis’ struggles. The Tigers have lost four straight games with three coming against teams not expected to make the NCAA Tournament. 

    Memphis’ program appears to be in some degree of turmoil as Hardaway has called out the camaraderie and leadership of his team.

    Still, the Tigers are strong on defense and between the rivalry matchup and the Vols’ shooting inconsistency, this could very easily be a tight game.

    Can Brandon Huntley-Hatfield Provide Consistency?

    In Tennessee’s two game road trip to Colorado and to New York City to face Texas Tech, Brandon Huntley-Hatfield didn’t play a large role, totaling just 12 minutes in the two games.

    Heading into the weekend matchup with UNCG, Barnes said Huntley-Hatfield turned in his two of his best practices of the season. 

    That showed up on the court with Huntley-Hatfield scoring a game high 12 points while grabbing two rebounds.

    It’s clear that the 6-foot-10 power forward is Tennessee’s most talented big man. With the Vols needing more consistent inside scoring, Huntley-Hatfield fits the bill and could be a game changer for this team.

    Still, Huntley-Hatfield knows what those who have followed Barnes for some time know. If you want to earn consistent playing time, you have to play defense, rebound and practice well.

    “I was trying to show coach that I wasn’t going to complain or be in my feelings about playing time,” Huntley-Hatfield said. “I am trying to come in every day and improve. I feel like he is seeing that, and I’m trying to do that every day. I’m keeping my head down and doing what I need to do to help the team win.” 

    There’s not a player on Tennessee’s team that affects its potential as much as the talented freshman. If Huntley-Hatfield can show consistency in practice it will likely lead to the court and change the ceiling of this UT team.

    What To Make of Tennessee’s Perimeter Shooting?

    As stated earlier, Tennessee’s been reliant on its three-point shooting when Chandler isn’t scoring at the basket or setting up easy looks for the Vols’ big men.

    So, how good of a three-point shooting team is Tennessee?

    That’s a hard question to answer. 

    Tennessee’s 33.2% shooting from three-point range ranks 189th out of 350 division one teams. A decent, but not good, percentage for a team that’s shooting a lot of triples.

    However, the basic numbers don’t tell the whole story. Tennessee is shooting 60-of-148 (40.5%) from three-point range at Thompson-Boling Arena and 23-of-112 (20.5%) from three-point range on the road.

    40.5% would rank eighth nationally while 20.5% would rank dead last in the country. So, why the discrepancy between shooting at home and on the road?

    I asked both Barnes and Santiago Vescovi that question following the UNCG game and neither had an explanation.

    It could be as simple as the comfortability of shooting at home. It could be the fact that Tenenssee has played five mid or low major teams at Thompson-Boling Arena and four power six opponents away from home. It’s almost certainly somewhat coincidental.

    Surely those splits won’t stay that wide throughout the season, but it’s still a large enough sample size to think there’s something to it.

    If Tennessee can’t radically improve its perimeter shooting on the road, life is going to be a major challenge for the Vols’ offense, especially due to their inability to get to the free throw line.

    Ryan Schumpert is a senior at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville who has covered University of Tennessee athletics since the moment he stepped on campus. He just completed a three-year stint with the Daily Beacon, the last two of which as the Sports Editor. Ryan also spent last three years at Volquest providing strong Tennessee baseball coverage of Tony Vitello's resurgent program. While the bulk of Ryan's responsibilities involved beat coverage and writing, he also recorded podcasts for both the Beacon and Volquest. Did we leave out the part about Ryan interning for the Smokies? Ryan's work ethic, versatility, and strong writing skills are but three of the reasons why Vol Nation will be hearing from Ryan for years to come.