After two disappointing performances, the No. 5 Tennessee Volunteers are looking to regain the edge that propelled them to a No. 1 ranking and a program-high winning streak.
Last week’s 17-point defeat in Lexington proved the Vols (24-2, 12-1 SEC) weren’t as flawless as they appeared in the previous 19 games. Tuesday’s underwhelming home win against Vanderbilt revealed their troubles expand beyond Rupp Arena.
As our AJ Cook writes, the Vols posted eerily similar numbers in both games. Even without looking at the statistics, there are obvious gaps in offensive production. Anyone who has covered Tennessee this season can tell you that the offense of late looks nothing like the high-octane machine that has garnered a top-5 efficiency status.
Grant Williams was smothered in Rupp. The reigning SEC Player of the Year had four total field goal attempts in the game. Against the Commodores, he willed his way to 14 points after missing his first three shots, all of which were high-percentage looks.
Admiral Schofield has somewhat recovered from his slump, but is nothing like the dominant figure that wreaked havoc on Gonzaga and Memphis earlier in the year.
It’s understandable to hit a proverbial wall during the rigors of conference play. The Vols have looked physically and mentally fatigued the past two contests. In the second half versus Vandy, Williams came out with a left wrist wrap with a right arm support, to boot.
Barnes: We’ve had some injuries over last few weeks that we don’t really talk about, I thought we handled the last few days well. I don’t think anybody has a tougher stretch of games coming down the end than we do, but that’s @SEC play. @Vol_Hoops
— Trey Wallace (@TreyWallace_) February 20, 2019
No matter the sequence on a weekly basis, everyone plays the same number of conference games by season’s end. It is now up to Tennessee to find that edge as they dive into a challenging five-game stretch and try to claim a second straight conference title. Fortunately for Rick Barnes, he is not limited to just Williams and Schofield to find a boost. The Deacon can look no further than his point guard to find a new way to dominate.
Saturday’s match versus LSU (21-5, 11-2) will display two of the best point guards in the country. The Tigers’ Tremont Waters is having a stellar sophomore campaign, averaging 15.7 points and 5.9 assists per game. Both he and Vols point guard Jordan Bone are finalists for the Bob Cousy Award, given out to the nation’s best point guard.
In one game against Tennessee in 2018, Waters severely unperformed. The seven-point performance in Knoxville was one of the low points of Waters’ freshman season. He went 1-for-9 from the floor in Thompson-Boling Arena. His lone basket was a 3-point attempt.
But, just as Waters has transcended his game this season, so has Bone. The Ensworth School product is averaging 13.2 points to go along with a league-leading 6.5 assists.
The 6-3, 175-pound Bone has the length and quickness to tame the smaller Waters. He will have to for the Vols to have success in Baton Rouge. Despite his underwhelming numbers in Knoxville, Waters needs to be a focal point for the Vols’ defense. The former top-50 recruit shoots 44.6 percent from the floor inside Pete Maravich Assembly Center, which is eight percentage points better than his average on the road.
Bone in Low Gear
Aside from the dip in shooting percentage, the Vols’ offense has appeared broken and stagnant during the past two outings. The transition game has been stressed. All of that starts with Bone.
He had a team-high 19 points and six assists against Kentucky. He was seemingly the only player in orange that was responsive. Yet, the offense was still lifeless. The guard slowed the offense on numerous occasions in transition and was too passive at times.
When the Vols returned home to face Vandy, it was more of the same from Bone and company. Tennessee was able to muster up a 12-point win while scoring a season-low 58 points. Bone had nine points and six assists.
Rick Barnes: defensively I thought we were really good. I thought Grant did good, we overpassed the ball at times tonight.
— Trey Wallace (@TreyWallace_) February 20, 2019
On the surface, the numbers for Bone look pretty standard for a two-game stretch in the midst of SEC play. In fact, those statistics combined are equivalent to his season averages. However, the Vols are going to need more from the Nashville native if they want to regain their edge and Saturday is the perfect opportunity to do so.
Attacking The Rim
Offensively, Bone needs to be selfish. Against Kentucky and Vanderbilt, the speedy guard looked passive on many occasions. His indecisiveness led to too many passes and a broken pace. Bone had the opportunity in both games to utilize his speed in transition and so often opted otherwise.
For a team struggling to hit shots, the best remedy would be to make a living at the charity stripe. Tennessee only had nine such trips against Vandy. Bone has the speed to, despite numbers in transition, get to the line at will. It is not Barnes’ brand of basketball, but it is what Tennessee could use to gain an edge. The Bayou Bengals average 18.5 personal fouls per game. The Vols should attack accordingly.
More penetration by Bone will also result in more opportunities for others. But most of it will have to come in transition. LSU has the length inside to deny drives in most half court sets. If Bone pushes tempo and creates for himself early on, the door will open for transition feasters like Lamonte Turner and Jordan Bowden to get open looks. Too many of their opportunities the past two games have been rushed and out of rhythm.
Control the Ball
Tennessee is averaging 19.3 APG, good for fourth in the nation. They have only averaged 12 in the past two contests. Bone has done his part, averaging exactly six during the Vols’ slump. Yet, he has been deemed the quarterback of Barnes’ offense, even from The Deacon himself.
The Tigers are one of the best in the nation at creating turnovers. They average 9.4 steals per game, good for sixth in the country. Waters leads the SEC with an average of three SPG himself. His counterpart, Skylar Mays, averages two SPG.
The best counter for a feisty defense is an offense, and point guard, that can take care of the ball. The Vols can check both boxes.
Bone not only leads the SEC in assists, his 3.1 AST/TO rate is also best. Tennessee is second only to Gonzaga in team AST/TO with a 1.7 rate.
The Vols are also among the top-40 in Division I in turnovers per game, averaging 11.2. The Tigers, on the other hand, are in the bottom-third of the country with an average of 13.8 per game.
Even in their latest offensive struggle, Tennessee has still taken care of the ball. They have 20 turnovers the past two games. If Bone is at his best, the offense will be dialed in and their team AST/TO rate will reflect that.
The Next Step
For Tennessee to bounce back and regain the edge they once boasted, someone will have to make a leap. Bone is more than capable. The Vols can’t wait for Williams to draw an advantageous match-up. The current SEC leader in PPG will get his opportunities more often than not, regardless of pace or tempo.
Tennessee can also ill-afford to wait on Schofield to regain dominance. The senior has been serviceable of late. He is finding the rim and providing an impact despite erratic shooting.
It is now time for Barnes’ floor general to dominate. Saturday is a perfect opportunity for the junior to outshine one of the best at his position and get the Vols’ offense back on track. In the case of Bone, a little selfishness will be good for the soul. It may just be the lift the Vols need.