It's too early to pronounce this Tennessee team as born again, but the Vols have turned in a trio of impressive efforts behind consistent defense, good shot selection and a deliberate tempo. As a result, they have held the last three opponents to below 40 percent field goal shooting while making over 50 percent of their own shots from the field. Collectively, the Vols have held their last three opponents to 62-of-165 field goal shooting compared to 81-of-169 in the first three conference games. In the first three game, Tennessee gave up an average of 75.33 points per game compared to 62 points per contest the last three.
Furthermore, UT has found a starting lineup that is minimizes it weaknesses and a playing rotation that maximizes it strengths. True freshman guard Dane Bradshaw gives the Vols an additional ball handler and makes it possible for them to better control tempo. Note that early in the season Tennessee was attempting to be an up-tempo transition team, but with C.J. Watson as its only reliable ball handling guard it was easier for opponents to take that dimension away by denying Watson the ball on outlet passes. Having a pair of ball handlers in the game at the same time allows the Vols to spread the floor in the half-court offense and take the shot clock down on each possession.
In turn this has limited those lethal offensive spurts SEC opponents made throughout most of the season that left a young UT team facing a huge deficit and in a deep psychological hole. Furthermore it has forced opponents to play defense for at least 30 seconds each possession which has also taken away from their point production and has elevated the Vols above cellar-dwelling status for points allowed per game in the Conference.
A lineup with Brandon Crump, Major Wingate, Scooter McFadgon, Watson and Bradshaw puts UT's top three scorers in the game, it's best two ball handlers, its top two shooters and it's best two low post defenders. Admittedly, sophomore forward Jemere Hendrix is a better rebounder than Wingate but his offensive skills are limited and he is often overmatched against bigger post players. Both Hendrix and Wingate make too many turnovers and that's one area that needs to be further addressed.
By bringing Stanley Asumnu into the game for McFadgon Buzz Peterson has a better defense on the floor and it helps keep his leading scorer fresh. Asumnu is also a good passer when he doesn't try to do too much with the ball.
The real key in UT's continued evolution is the development of sophomore guard John Winchester as a ball handler, an outside shooter and an on-ball defender. Winchester has the quickness to accomplish the latter and he's enough of a streak shooter to pose an perimeter threat as long as he has good shot selection and allows the offense to come to him as opposed to forcing it.
If Winchester does a better job of handling the ball he would allow Bradshaw to move over to the point in relief of Watson who needs more rest as Tennessee enters tournament play. In the last three games, Watson has averaged 36 minutes per contest. That type of playing load this late in the season could become unbearable, especially if the Vols are forced to play games on consecutive days. Over the last three contests Winchester has averaged 9.3 minutes of playing time and scored just 2.33 points per contest. He needs to take that up to 13 minutes a game while doubling his point production.
Another effective guard in Tennessee's attack would enable the Vols to not only slow the ball down but to take advantage of transition opportunities. Controlling tempo means being able to do both not just one or the other. Creating easy scoring opportunities would take some pressure off the half-court offense while still allowing the Vols to set the pace for play.
Similarly, Tennessee needs to get a little more out of its zone defense. Peterson's Vols will probably always be a man team in principle but the occasional zone look never lets the opponent's offense to get too comfortable and it protects UT's inside players against foul trouble. Another advantage of the zone is that it takes away those situations in which UT doesn't have a good man match-up. For instance: Vanderbilt's Matt Freje was too big for Hendrix to match up with in the post and too quick for Crump to chase on the perimeter.
While Tennessee is a good rebounding team overall it is giving up too many offensive boards and second-chance scoring opportunities. Second half runs by Vanderbilt and South Carolina were made possible by offensive rebounding.
As captain of the ship Peterson appears to be getting Tennessee turned in the right direction and, if it's not too late to avoid the iceberg, the Vols will eventually reach their destination.