First Look: Tennessee Volunteers

Dylan Burkhardt
Jarnell Stokes NCAA Basketball Tournament x_ZV8tp0_B5l[1]

Michigan will face Tennessee on Friday (7:15 p.m. CBS) in the Sweet 16, pitting the Wolverines against yet another team with an imposing frontline. The Vols are a classic example of a team that played their way into the NCAA tournament and is now playing its best basketball.


The Vols were just 23-12 this season, 11-7 in the SEC, but they are ranked 6th by Unsurprisingly, the Vols rank 337th in Ken Pomeroy’s ‘luck’ statistic. That means that the Vols have lost a lot of close games, but also that they’ve blown a lot of people out. The Vols have outscored opponents by 20.9 points per game in their last eight wins.

In Tennessee’s 12 losses, just one (26 points at Florida) has been decided by double-digits. On the other side of the ledger, Tennessee has a 35 point win over Virginia, 16 points over Mississippi, 19 points over Georgia, etc. The other half of the equation is that Tennessee has lost a handful of games it probably shouldn’t have:  Texas A&M twice, at Vanderbilt, vs. UTEP and at home to North Carolina State. Pomeroy wrote more on this quirk in his rankings at Deadspin.

The Vols have plenty of experience, starting three seniors and two juniors, but don’t rely much on their bench. Their bench plays just 24.2 percent of available minutes (295th) and managed to score 21 points in three NCAA tournament games.

Post scorers

Tennessee is more reliant on low-post scoring than any team left in the NCAA tournament. Over 16% of Tennessee’s offensive possessions are post-ups, or passes out of post-ups, and the Vols score .982 points per post-up possession.

Data: Synergy Sports

Tennessee is still the fifth-most efficient post-up team left in the dance, which is impressive considering its post-up volume.

Two players account for 94% of Tennessee’s post-up possessions: Jarnell Stokes and Jeronne Maymon. Both Stokes and Maymon are listed at 6-foot-8, 260 pounds and play significant minutes for front court players (both over 70% of available minutes). Naymon much prefers to post up on the left block and turn his left shoulder, while Stokes prefers to turn his right shoulder on the right block.

Dominant on the glass

Jarnell Stokes and Jeronne Maymon are two of the top 25 best offensive rebounders in the country. For comparison, Texas’ Cameron Ridley was ranked 43rd nationally. Both players are active, aggressive and physical and can move better than Ridley.

Stokes has gone for a double-double in all three of Tennessee’s NCAA tournament games. He grabbed 18 rebounds against Mercer — the Bears grabbed 19 rebounds in the entire game. He’s managed to record a double-double in 42 percent of his career games.

The Vols are the fourth best offensive rebounding team in the country, although Kentucky actually grabbed more offensive rebounds in league games. 10.2% of Tennessee’s points this season have been scored on put backs. The numbers say that Stokes is a much better finisher when he grabs offensive rebounds, but both players pose a significant threat.


Unlike Texas, Tennessee has the size and athleticism to match up with Nik Stauskas and Caris LeVert. The starting Vol backcourt features leading scorer, 6-foot-6 Jordan McRae, along with 6-foot-6 wing Josh Richardson and senior guard, 6-foot-2 Antonio Barton (who played against Michigan when he was at Memphis in 2011, scoring 5 points in 19 minutes).

McRae’s efficiency offensively is a barometer for Tennessee’s success. He has a 48.1 eFG% in Tennessee wins compared to just a 36.0 eFG% in Tennessee losses. McRae’s offense comes primarily via the ball screen, spotting up on the wing, or in transition. McRae uses 28.8% of Tennessee’s offensive possessions and is also the top setup man on the roster with an assist rate of 18.1. His turnover numbers aren’t bad, but he starts to force the issue in losses. His assist to turnover ratio is 1.5 to 1 in wins compared to just 0.7 to 1 in losses. He’s also capable of dunks like this:

Richardson and Barton will both execute the occasional ball screen, but they use much fewer possessions than McRae. Most of their production comes spotting up on the wings and they both shoot a fair amount of threes, but are sub-35% long range shooters.

Recipe for success

Tennessee is much better than Texas, 16th nationally in adjusted offensive efficiency, but the game plan for facing the Vols should be very similar to Texas. Here’s a look at the breakdown of play-types that both teams run.

Data: Synergy Sports

The Vols run more post-ups and use more ball screens, but don’t attack in transition as often. Tennessee is at least as efficient, usually more, than Texas in every offensive category other than scoring off of screens and put backs.

Similar to Texas, the Vols don’t have a lot of great jump shooters, but they aren’t quite as incompetent.  Just 31% of Tennessee’s field goal attempts are threes and the Vols connect at just a 31.9% rate (283rd). McRae and Barton both take a lot of threes, but are 36% and 33% long range shooters. As a team, the Vols have just a 45.3 eFG% on jump shots (second worst among Sweet 16 teams).

Expect Michigan to pack the paint and have Caris LeVert chasing McRae, but the major defensive focus will be on Jordan Morgan and Glenn Robinson III’s ability to handle Maymon and Stokes in the low-post. Morgan has been playing terrific, but Tennessee has a size and physicality mismatch at the four spot. Texas was unable to exploit a similar mismatch against the Wolverines, but Tennessee will have a week to prep for it.

Foul trouble will also continue to be critical. Tennessee doesn’t do a great job of getting to the foul line (11th in the SEC in free throw rate), but they do a great job of avoiding fouls.  The Vols have the second-best two-point defense, despite allowing the lowest free throw rate in the SEC.

The Texas game was a reminder that it’s more important for Michigan to emphasize its advantages, rather than bang head-to-head against the Vols. Against Texas that meant: Pushing the tempo, spreading the floor and forcing bigger players to hedge ball screens.

Tennessee has a better transition defense than Texas, but it’s still weaker than its half-court defense. The Vols like to play slowly, 325th in tempo, and Michigan will almost certainly look to run off of any clean defensive rebounds. The Vols grade out as a good ball-screen team, 75th percentile nationally, but have the tendency to lose the roll man.

Zone will be yet another option. The Vols have faced zone defense in 24% of their offensive possessions, per Synergy, and have scored .92 points per trip. That grades out in the 60th percentile nationally, but is about equal to their half court man-to-man offensive efficiency of .90 points per trip (73rd percentile).

  • Fab 5 Legends

    should be a great game, if we continue to shoot the ball well – we can beat anyone in the tourney – should be a close game, but UM got this – at this point of the tourney there are no more gimmies – each game will present new challenges – if we do win we get Kentucky or Louisville

  • UMHoopsFan

    Great write up, looking forward to all the content this week. One thing I’m interested to see will be team patience. Tennessee looked like it was willing to make a couple moves or passes on offense and then shoot — often getting decent-good looks but not great ones. Of course, they made a lot, but I’d still be happy if they took a lot of those 2 pt jumper or floaters against UM. And on D, it seemed like they did a good job with recovery/help for a while, but teams were able to get good looks if they were patient. The Vols are going to be a stiff test, and should be another interesting match-up of styles.

  • HoopsFan

    That dunk was nasty!

  • Chris

    Going to be tough, but I’ll take this Tennessee team over last year’s Kansas team in the sweet sixteen. Hopefully they can pull out another win.

  • Thomas

    Tennessee’s a good team, but I think it’s about as good a draw as Michigan could have realistically hoped for in the Sweet 16 (i.e., you’re really unlikely to get a cupcake at this point). I’m hopeful that having just played Texas will be helpful, since the approach will probably be quite similar, even if the Volunteers are clearly better than Longhorns.

    Fans’ heavy focus on kenpom ratings thus far reminds me a bit of last year’s Florida match-up, where Florida was a bit overrated (although a really good team); kenpom’s a wonderful tool, but Pomeroy himself will tell you that the system’s not perfect. I saw Tennessee in a couple of regular season games this year, and no way are they the 6th best team in the country. They’re certainly formidable when they’re hitting on all cylinders, though. I think Michigan should win, but the pessimist in me certainly sees plenty of realistic ways to lose– early foul trouble on the bigs or putting up bricks early while the Vols start hot (as they usually do) come immediately to mind.

    • mikey_mac

      Your negative scenarios are well put and also very realistic. UM hasn’t exactly been consistent this year with their productivity in the first 10 minutes of games, either. Two or three fouls on Morgan/GR3/Horford and a lack of clean defensive rebounds early would really hamper UM.

  • Chezaroo

    Man it would be nice if we could get 30 minutes out of Jordan this game. Everything changes for us if he gets in foul trouble.

    • mikey_mac

      This will be critical, and more difficult than against Texas, since Tenn’s front line is heavier usage.

  • kam

    I think morgan should go on stokes also I think they should play the Contest but if you’re beat dont gamble. If morgan can Go the first half with only 1 foul or get his second very late into the first half that would be huge. Also, jon is gonna need to be a man and grab the ball with two hands

    • AlwaysBlue

      It seems like Horford has gone dormant for the last several games. I hope he can really get his head around the next task at hand and give the Wolverines some good minutes.

  • Chazer

    I really like the fact that Tennessee is getting the pre game hype. This team is a better underdog than a front runner. It forces them to focus on the little details that win games and increases the will to win. I have my concerns but think Michigan will prevail…..its better than a Duke draw. Michigan is built to run and shoot and will spread the floor, should be a great game!

    Go Blue.

    • Pam H.

      While that is true, the Vols are playing with a huge chip on their shoulder since the fans, with media help, were calling for Coach Martin’s head and a return of Bruce Pearl through a petition that got over 36,000 signatures. They played way under their potential for most of the season so are out to save their coach and prove everyone wrong. We’re all shocked at how they’ve played in their last 9 games, only losing to Florida and winning all but one by over 20 points…the potential those of us wanting Pearl back new was there. Trust me, the Vols are still view themselves as underdogs with something to prove. Go Vols!!! (And I live in Michigan.:-)

      • MAZS

        Yes, the Vols are playing better, but you are seriously over-playing your hand and facts. First, Tennessee didn’t beaten one ranked team during their winning streak–and no teams that made the tourney until they got to the tourney. They beat bad teams for the most part. Second, 3 of their wins were by less than 20 points (not just 1), and that excludes their OT win over an Iowa team that had itself lost 6 of its last 7 before meeting Tennessee.

        And regarding Martin, I wouldn’t be surprised if he didn’t leave on his own–back to his alma mater Purdue, unless Painter gets his act together soon.

        • Pam H.

          All true – except we beat #1 seed Virginia early on by 20+. We’ll see -depends on who shows up to play for the Vols. It’ll be a tough game either way.

  • Wayman Britt

    Morgan will give UM a good defensive game. He may not weight as much, but he is very good defensively on bangers. The big question mark will be Horford!!!!

    Can Horford not get silly fouls, hang on to the ball and strongly box his man out?

  • Ben Sheler

    Not sure about our final 4 chances. Last year the “experts” predicted us to lose in the round of 32, sweet 16, and elite 8 before we got to the final 4. This year we are only predicted to lose in the elite 8 (after duke lost, or else it would have been sweet 16) in order to get to the final 4..

    • Roger

      What are you talking about?

      • Mattski

        He’s being playful. You’re supposed to respond with something like “I see what you did there. . .”

  • rlcBlue

    Not sure how effectively we can zone Tennessee. The main benefit of the 1-3-1 is forcing turnovers; if UT doesn’t throw the ball away, they should be able to figure out how to exploit having Maymon or Stokes matched up on Walton or Albrecht. Basically, just throw the ball towards the basket; whether you call it a lob or a shot attempt, my money’s on the guy in the Creamsicle outfit catching the ball and dunking it.

    If we played a competent 2-3, that might work better, but we don’t.

    • I’m not convinced the Vols won’t turn it over. Gave it away on 18.3% (9th) of their possessions in SEC play and don’t have a lot of great shooters.

      • Pam H.

        While true, that’s before they finally decided (way too late) to buy-in to what Cuonzo was trying to get them to do. They aren’t the same team at all. Vol fans are in shock. We blamed the coach, but the players are taking the blame and trying to make up for it.

        • Tennessee turned it over a lot against A&M, South Carolina, Florida in the last month. Before that against Florida twice, South Carolina again, Kentucky, Arkansas, A&M again, Arkansas, etc. Yes, Tennessee is playing better but that doesn’t mean nothing they did matters.

          • Pam H.

            Right. The players say the 2nd A&M loss woke them up. They absolutely have the ability to play under their potential again. (But I think they finally know it.) It’ll be a tough fought game.