Consider the following: Tennessee has been outscored by a total of only 12 points in its nearly completed campaign, averaging 69 points per game while giving up 69.5 points per outing. Entering Wednesday's game at Kentucky, the Vols were dead even in points scored. Opponents have only 13 more field goals and are hitting 45.9 percent from the field to Tennessee's 45.6 percent — a difference of .03 percent. Opponents have taken only 18 more shots than the Vols this season and hold a slim lead in total rebounds 941 to 911.
Thanks to the addition of long-range artist Chris Lofton, the Vols have held their own from three-point territory — connecting on 198-of-523 for 37.9 percent to opponents' 203-of-543 for 37.4 percent. On the other hand, UT has made 19 more free throws than opponents, hitting 351 of 508 for 69.1 percent compared to 332 of 523 for 63.5 percent.
Amazingly, the difference between Tennessee and its opponents this season in the vital categories of points, rebounds, blocks, steals, fouls, free throws and turnovers is one or less per game with the Vols holding the advantage in blocks, steals and free throws.
Statistically, the 2004-2005 basketball campaign is a virtual dead heat and yet the Vols are four games below .500 and 5-10 in the Southeastern Conference. However six of UT's 16 defeats have been by three or fewer points, including four in SEC play. Half of Tennessee's setbacks have been by five or less points. Conversely, UT has only won two games by five or fewer points which means the Vols are 2-8 in games decided by five points or less.
If the Vols had managed to win half of those close contests they would be 15-13 instead of 12-16. If the Vols had been able to reverse the advantage in close contests to 8-2 they would be 17-11 with a 20-win season and post-season bid still in reach.
That type of reversal of fortune would boost UT's SEC mark to 7-8 with a chance to level their slate Saturday against Georgia. It would also end most talk of a coaching change while generating discussion about whether the Vols deserved an NCAA bid. That projection doesn't even include losses like Wednesday's setback against Kentucky in which the Vols were in the game before fading down the stretch.
That brings us to the biggest disparity in Tennessee's season of near misses. The Vols have outscored foes in the first half of games by 50 points (957 to 907) this season while being outscored in the second half of games by 69 points (1032 to 963). That's a swing of 119 points from the first half to the second and most of it is due to defense as UT has scored six more points in the second stanza of its games this season while giving up 125 more points.
So is the difference due to lack of depth, lack of focus, lack of leadership, sloppy execution or some other reason?
All of the above are probably contributing factors as depth and leadership issues have been compounded by injuries to seniors Scooter McFadgon and Brandon Crump. Fatigue can affect both focus and execution, but there are matters related to the half-court offense that might be the biggest culprit in UT's series of close losses.
C.J. Watson is a good player who flourishes in the open court, but breaking down a set defense isn't his strength. Watson is probably a better two guard or combo guard than he is a point guard and it shows when he attempts to get penetration in the half-court game, as he doesn't consistently force defensive adjustments or find an open teammate. Admittedly, some of his teammates don't do a particularly good job of moving without the basketball but if Watson forced the defense to collapse there should be perimeter shooters with space to square up and get a good look at the basket.
Of course, a scoring threat in the post can also force the defense to collapse and create perimeter shots as the inside and outside games work in concert, but this may be the weakest part of UT's offensive attack. Only Crump is averaging in double figures with 11.7 points per game. Andre Patterson averages 7.5 ppg, Major Wingate averages 5.3 and Jemere Hendrix averages only 2.8. That means only 25 of Tennessee's 69 points per game come from the post.
Unfortunately, a lack of production is only part of the problem with UT's post game. Counter production is a greater part of the equation as Tennessee's four inside players have committed a combined 154 turnovers in 28 games vs. only 73 assists.
In the one-point loss to UT Chattanooga they combined for five turnovers and no assists. In the one-point loss to Nebraska they had five turnovers and four assists. In a three-point loss to South Carolina they had five turnovers and one assist. In the two-point loss to Arkansas they had four turnovers with no assists. In a two-point loss to Ole Miss they had six turnovers and two assists. In the 12-point loss to Kentucky UT's post players accounted for 13 turnovers and three assists. A better turnover to assist ratio could have changed the outcome of any of those contests.
Likewise better scoring threats in the post would vastly improve UT's odds when games come down to a final possession. Combine that with inconsistent play from the point against a defense that is fighting for its life and it's no surprise the Vols can't get an open look with the game on the line.
As a result: Buzz Peterson's job is on the line.