Tennessee enters its third week of conference play still trying to figure out who it is. The Vols are without Lamonté Turner and Uroš Plavšić, two guys they expected to have this season, and that’s prohibited them from truly establishing an identity.
That especially holds true on the offensive end of the ball where the Vols are starting over with their third point guard and have struggled to find a rhythm all season.
“We finally feel like the guys we have right now – knock on wood, we hope nothing else happens – are the guys that we are going to be playing,” Tennessee head coach Rick Barnes said Monday. “We are trying to settle in. Santiago (Vescovi) is still trying to figure some things out. He has to figure out how to not carry the ball and how quickly those gaps fill when he tries to get into them. We have to cut our turnovers down.”
Tennessee does have an identity on offense though, they are a 3-point shooting team.
That’s probably not what Barnes wants to think, he’s long found pride on his team getting baskets around the basket and not settling for jump shots. That’s probably not what fans want to hear after watching Tennessee struggle shooting the ball mightily against Memphis, Wisconsin and South Carolina, but it’s the truth about the Vols right now.
Without Turner, Tennessee simply doesn’t have the guards to get to, and score at, the basket. Without a low post scorer, that leads Tennessee to be a team that’s going to have to shoot a lot of 3-pointers.
The Vols’ starting backcourt of Vescovi, Josiah-Jordan James and Jordan Bowden are shooting just 39% from inside the arch this season.
James’ size and strength makes it possible that he can grow into a good attacking guard, but the freshman hasn’t played that way this season and it’s hard to think he’ll be able to turn into that by the end of the season.
John Fulkerson and Yves Pons have carved out nice roles in Tennessee’s offense and as much as Barnes talks about wanting to get them more touches neither have the capability of morphing the Vols into an inside-out offense.
Another factor contributing to Tennessee’s identity as a 3-point shooting team is the midseason addition to Vescovi. The Uruguayan point guard has made 10 3-pointers in his first three games and while he hasn’t proven to be a great finisher, Vescovi has helped move opponents defense and gotten the Vols more open looks from beyond the arch.
Tennessee currently ranks seventh in the SEC in attempted 3-pointers taking just over 20 a game, but that number has increased since Vescovi’s addition as the Vols have taken 27 3-pointers a game.
While I would expect the Vols attempts to come down from the last three games, that number would be the second most in the SEC.
Tennessee isn’t a great 3-point shooting team, the Vols rank ninth in the SEC in 3-point percentage, but Tennessee’s offensive identity right now is just that and that will make Tennessee a frustrating team to watch the rest of the season.
There will be nights when Tennessee will look good on offense, and there will be nights where the Vols can’t find the basket. That’s just the reality of Tennessee’s situation.
There is certainly room for Tennessee’s shooting numbers to improve: Vescovi has proven to be a deadly shooter, Jordan Bowden is in a brutal slump and the Vols play just two players that can’t space the floor and knock down open 3-pointers. The Vols need Bowden to break out of his slump and other players to play to their potential.
“I think when you're struggling shooting the ball, you still have to take open shots, shots you're supposed to take,” Barnes said. “The next one won't go in unless you shoot it. What you can't do is start pressing, jumping higher than you jumped in practice or do things you don't practice in terms of those shots. I think that takes you only further into the hole.”
I’m not suggesting that Tennessee is a great shooting team. I’m not even suggesting the Vols should take 30 3-pointers a game, but Tennessee is a 3-point shooting team.
That’s who the Vols have proven to be on offense and unless Grant Williams or Jordan Bone walk back in the door, that’s who they’ll be.