Tennessee’s offense has hit a rut to start SEC play.
Since beating Arizona in late December, Tennessee’s offense was held to 68 points and 35% shooting in an overtime loss at Alabama, and even in Wednesday’s win over Ole Miss, the Vols shot under 40% on the night and totaled 66 points – their season low in a win.
The Vols’ recent struggles are mostly chalked up to a handful of a several minute long stretches in each game where something small goes wrong, and the mistakes start to compound from there.
"It all gets back to lack of execution from the start and piling it on top of you to where you are making yourself, not only are you playing against your opponent, but you are playing against yourself,” Tennessee head coach Rick Barnes said.
A poor execution of fundamentals has been the main culprit for the Vols, from the smaller details such as positioning to the more apparent ones like rebounding.
There is no better example of this problem than the Vols’ start to the Ole Miss game, when they were stuck in an offensive drought and did not score a basket in the game’s first seven minutes and 36 seconds, turning the ball over 4 times in that stretch.
“It always gets back to the details, taking care of the details where we should know where our shots are coming from,” Barnes said. “We should know what to do to get in position and get those shots in a position to go rebound it. If you go back, it is just being inconsistent with the details throughout the game. It should never be like that way at the start, the way we started that game with the three turnovers we had, no way should that happen at this time of year
The challenge to clean up the offense will be no easy feat as Tennessee (10-3, 1-1 SEC) faces KenPom’s top rated defense in LSU (13-1, 1-1 SEC). Tennessee is a spot below the Tigers as the nation’s second best defense.
“Well, they switch almost one through five and are willing to do that,” Barnes said. “They are very aggressive in terms of attacking the ball. They really go at it like that. They do have the pressure they use, the full-court pressure, two to one it. They can turn it around and match it any way they like to do it.
Whatever stat you look at, LSU is a flat-out dominant defense. The Tigers rank top-4 in the nation in scoring defense, holding opponents to 55.6 points per game. That total is largely thanks to LSU holding it opponents to the lowest field goal percentage in the nation (34.7%). That number in particular does not bode well for the Vols who have not shot above 40% as a team since defeating USC Upstate in mid-December.
LSU averages the most steals per game (12.4) and is second in turnovers forced (19.29 per game). The Tigers are also top-50 in both blocks (4.9) and defensive rebounds (29) per game.
Simply put, a staggering Volunteer offense will have its work cut out Saturday night in Baton Rouge.
“But the key in any game when you are playing against an outstanding defensive team is taking care of the basketball,” Barnes said. “You have to get attempts. You have to hope you can get yourself to the foul line. You have to make them work and not let them have it knowing they are going to be very aggressive in terms of getting the ball. They are always swiping at it, digging at it, trying to break it away. You have to be strong with the ball.”
The Vols believe their recent struggles are mostly attributed to a mental block and not a lack of talent on their end. This is where the Vols’ defensive proficiency comes into play. No matter how scare points are for the Vols, they are in every game on the shoulders of a lock-down defense.
Playing a defense in LSU that rivals their own, the Vols are counting on another tremendous defensive effort to overcome their mental block and give their offense a much-needed boost.
“A lot of things can come down to luck, and that's why we pride ourselves in defense because on offense, a lot can be affected by luck or other factors,” junior forward Olivier Nkamhoua said. “Missing shots can easily get into anyone's head and it's not always easy to get out of that slump, but that's why we are the type of team that we are, where we grind it out on defense and then all we go out there on offense with no pressure, because when we come down on the other end, we can get it back.”