Tennessee Primer 2012

Jontel Evans seemed to find his stride against Green Bay with 7 assists and 5 steals.

After riding a strong second half to a 67-51 victory over Wisconsin-Green Bay, the Virginia Cavaliers (6-2) return to action Wednesday to face the Tennessee Volunteers (4-2) at the John Paul Jones Arena. Will the Wahoos win their sixth straight game, or will their SEC opponents be victorious? Find out in the Tennessee Primer.

1. Team Introduction. It was a tale of two teams for Tennessee last season, its first under head coach Cuonzo Martin. The Volunteers stumbled out of the gate and stood at 8-8 and 1-1 in the SEC after a road loss to Mississippi State on Jan. 12. After that game, the Vols added freshman forward Jarnell Stokes, who had been declared ineligible to play high school ball, and rode him to an 18-13 (10-6 SEC) mark before losses in the first round of the SEC Tournament and second round of the NIT. In this year’s Preseason SEC Media Poll, Tennessee was picked to finish 4th in the 14-team league. Tennessee’s first five games consisted of relatively close victories over Kennesaw State (76-67) and UNC-Asheville (75-68), a more comfortable triumph over UMass (83-69), a blowout win against Oakland (77-50), and a loss at the hands of Oklahoma State (62-45). In their last game, the Vols dropped a 37-36 brickfest against Georgetown that John Thompson III said was the ugliest game he had been a part of “at any level.” Tennessee stands at No. 55 in the KenPom Ratings (we’re No. 38). In the ratings of Sabre Poster 504-C Brandon, the Volunteers are No. 64 (we’re No. 57).

2. Offense. Martin played under legendary coach Gene Keady at Purdue and, after a pro career, returned to West Lafayette to coach under his mentor and later Matt Painter. Unsurprisingly, when Martin became the head coach at Missouri State and now Tennessee, he implemented Keady’s five-man motion offense. This offense is usually run out of a “4-out, 1-in” set as is demonstrated by Hoops Playbook‘s breakdown of Painter’s version of it.

This season, Jarnell Stokes is often the “1-in,” with the offense flowing through him. The offense relies heavily on a combination of screens and cuts, with constant motion opening up both the post game and the 3-point shot. As UVa experienced during the Dave Leitao regime, the motion offense is tough to grasp, especially in the early stages of a coach’s tenure. Last season, the Vols were No. 105 in adjusted offensive efficiency, and this year, they stand at No. 84.

3. Defense. What this tells you is that Martin’s teams make their bones on the defensive side of the ball. Martin’s teams play tough-as-nails, physical man-to-man defense straight out of the Big Ten. The emphasis isn’t on speed but on forcing opposing players to have to go through them to make their shots. So far, he has gotten the Vols to buy into his defense-first philosophy as Tennessee was No. 38 nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency last season and are currently No. 39 in the stat. Tennessee is especially good at denying the 3-point shot, ranking No. 15 in opponent 3-point percentage. But Martin’s man defense is not designed to turn the ball over; Tennessee is No. 308 in the country in opponent turnovers per possession.

Darion Atkins has posted at least 7 rebounds in 3 straight games.

4. Player Turnover. The biggest loss for Tennessee from last season’s team is power forward Jeronne Maymon, who was on the All-SEC preseason first team this season. The senior, who is indefinitely sidelined with a knee injury, was the Vols’ leading rebounder (8.1/game), top ball thief (1 steal/game), and second leading scorer (12.7 points/game) during his junior campaign. Also gone is guard Cameron Tatum, who was second in assists (2.6), fourth in rebounds (4.1), and fifth in points (8.1) per game for last year’s squad. Additionally, Renaldo Woolridge (4.3 points and 3.3 rebounds per game last season) transferred to USC.

5. Projected Starting Lineup. Here is a look at the likely starters.

Point Guard: Starting at the point for the Vols should be former UVa recruit Trae Golden (No. 11), a stocky 6’1″, 205-pound junior, who is a preseason All-SEC second team selection. Golden uses his heft to be able to finish in the paint with contact, and he also flashes a solid mid- and long-range jumper. He is averaging 11.7 points and 5 assists against only 1.7 turnovers on the season. That 1.7 number is a significant early improvement from last season, when Golden was a bit reckless with the ball, coughing it up 2.9 times a game. On the other hand, Golden’s scoring efficiency has decreased, with moderate declines in both his shooting percentage from the field (43.9% to 40.7%) and 3-point range (38.8% to 33.3%). Golden’s offensive weakness is his left hand, and his lack of speed adversely affects him on both ends of the floor. With the way that Jontel Evans looked in the second half against Green Bay, he may be able to keep Trae out of the paint and get some quality penetration on offense.

Shooting Guard: Skylar McBee (No. 13), a 6’3″, 195-pound junior, should get the starting nod at the “2.” McBee’s one offensive goal is to sting you with the 3-point shot as 31 of his 34 shots on the season have come from behind the arc. He’s averaged 7.7 points per game primarily by connecting on 38.7% of these attempts, which is in line with his accuracy from last season (39.1%). Otherwise, he’s not a threat on the boards (1.3 rebounds a game) and averages as many turnovers as assists per game (.8 of each). For a 3-point threat, McBee puts a lot of effort on the defensive end and is a decent on-the-ball defender and better off-the-ball defender. But, as with Golden, he can be burned by faster guards, which could get interesting if coach Tony Bennett decides to play Jontel Evans and Teven Jones together as he did a bit in the Green Bay game.

Small Forward: At the “3,” Josh Richardson (No. 1), a 6’6″, 188-pound sophomore, should be in for the opening tip. Richardson is primarily known for his defensive acumen. He is second on the team with .8 steals per game and uses his long arms and defensive positioning to prevent outside shots and drives to the basket. The attributes have also allowed him to corral 5.7 rebounds a game. Offensively, he often seems tentative, and, while his shooting percentage has improved from 35.3% as a freshman to 44.4% so far as a sophomore, he’s not a threat from 3-point land (30%) or the free throw line (57.9%). When Richardson does try to take the ball to the basket, he often coughs it up to the tune of 2.3 turnovers per game. Like McBee, Richardson averages 7.7 points per game for the Vols.

Power Forward: Tennessee’s leading scorer is the aforementioned Jarnell Stokes (No. 5), a 6’8″, 270-pound sophomore and a second team All-SEC preseason team selection. Stokes leads the Vols in points (13.0), rebounds (7.7), steals (1.2), and blocks (.8) per game. Don’t think that Stokes relies solely on his bulk to bully his way to the basket. He has a very solid midrange jumper and can hit the hook shot with either hand. He’s also a very good passer out of the post (1.7 assists/game), which is why Martin often runs the offense through him. Defensively, Stokes doesn’t have great hops, but he makes up for it with excellent timing, and he is the proverbial immovable force in the low post. The biggest weakness for Stokes (and the Tennessee team as a whole) is free throw shooting. Stokes gets to the line a lot (5.8 times/game), but is only connecting on 51.4% of his attempts from the charity stripe.

Center: Tennessee’s starting center is Kenny Hall (No. 20) a 6’9″, 230-pound senior. Hall has athleticism to spare but he often doesn’t know what to do with it. He gets most of his 7.2 points per game on dunks and put backs as he lacks a post-up game or reliable jump shot. When he does get the ball in the post, he is often hesitant, a trait that contributes to his 1.7 turnovers per game and won’t help him out at all against the Pack-Line. Hall is a long defender and can be a very good on-the-ball defender when he wants but is often lackadaisical when he is off-the-ball as well as when he is (supposed to be) blocking out.

6. Key Reserves. Tennessee has three bench players averaging more than 8.7 minutes per game, and they are all guards under 6’7″. Stokes averages 29.2 minutes per game, and Hall, often plagued by foul trouble, sees 22.5 minutes of action per game. The only other big besides Stokes and Hall who sees any time for the Vols is Yemi Makanjuola (No. 0), a project originally from Nigeria, who averages 7.5 minutes per game and often looks lost on the defensive end. Assuming that these averages hold against UVa, that leaves about 21 minutes in which the Vols will go small, giving the Cavalier frontcourt players some mismatches that they might be able to exploit.

Point Guard: In the approximately nine minutes that Golden is on the bench, he usually gets spelled by Armani Moore (No. 4), a 6’5″, 203-pound freshman. With his size, Moore is a physical point guard who likes to get into the paint and offers a nice change of pace from Golden. Moore is averaging 2.2 points and a modest .8 assists against 1.3 turnovers per game.

Shooting Guard/Small Forward: Even though he comes off the bench, Jordan McRae (No. 52), a 6’5″, 178-pound junior sees an average of 25 minutes of floor time a game. McRae is a very solid sixth man for the Vols, averaging 9.5 points per game. His defense is much improved from a season ago, he’s by far the team’s best free throw shooter (81.3%), and he can fill it up from behind the arc (34.8%). That said, while McRae has both the length and athleticism to be a starter, he is a streaky shooter and waxes and wanes a bit too much in his defensive and rebounding efforts.

Small Forward: D’Montre Edwards (No. 32), a 6’6″, 206-pound junior from Brevard Community College, is primarily known for his defense and rebounding. But, to this point, he has shown little in the way of offensive ability, connecting on only 26.3% of his field goal attempts. This deficiency explains why Edwards is only getting 11 minutes of playing time a game.

Small Forward/Power Forward: As noted, there are 21 minutes during which a smaller player must man the “4” or the “5” for the Vols, and that’s where Quinton Chievous (No. 31), a 6’5″, 201-pound freshman, has seen most of his time. Like Edwards, Chievous made his name as a defender and hasn’t yet developed much of an offensive game. In 13 minutes a game, he’s averaging 2.5 points per game on 33.3% shooting.

7. Prediction. The Team Rankings Simulation has the game as a 70.6-61.9 Virginia win, with the Cavs having an 80.3% chance of winning. 504-C Brandon has it as a closer and lower scoring game, a 54.1-50 UVa win, with the Hoos having a 64.2% chance of winning.

I like this matchup. I like it a lot. Tennessee is No. 285 in adjusted tempo, so the Cavaliers don’t have to worry about the Vols trying to force them out of their comfort zone. UVa’s kryptonite is often turnovers, but, as noted, Tennessee is merely No. 308 in the country in opponent turnovers per possession. As seen in the Georgetown game, the Vols are lacking in offensive firepower and thus could have real difficulty in cracking the Pack-Line. Finally, should the game be close down the stretch, Tennessee is No. 302 in the country in free throw percentage (62.9%) while Virginia is No. 33 (75.9%). Tennessee is certainly a very good and dangerous team, but I just don’t see the Volunteers having the weapons to damage the Hoos consistently. I will predict a 58-52 UVa win in what is, on paper, the team’s toughest remaining out-of-conference contest.