Here’s why Tennessee is off to its best SEC road start since the BP era

Here’s some historical perspective that speaks volumes about Tennessee’s quick start in the Southeastern Conference: The Vols have won their first three road games in the league, the first time that’s happened since 2009, which of course was smack in the middle of the Bruce Pearl era.

The naysayer, the skeptic, might say that those three victories away from Knoxville were against three of the bottom four teams in the league (Mississippi State, Missouri, South Carolina). True, but without those losses handed to them by the Vols, the Bulldogs and Tigers would be 2-2, or tied for sixth.

And here’s another important point to remember: road wins, anywhere, any time, any place, are as precious as gold, especially considering that Tennessee can now add them to home victories over a couple of ranked teams (Butler, Arkansas), another win in Knoxville over a team (Kansas State) that, before barely losing at ninth-ranked Iowa State on Tuesday night, was atop the Big 12, said by nearly every national pundit to be the best league in the country, top to bottom. The Wildcats are still in solo second in the Big 12.

It all adds up to a 12-5 record, a solid RPI of 40 against a decent schedule strength of 65, a 2-3 record against teams in the RPI top 50, an excellent 3-1 road record, and an 8-2 record in the last 10 games.

Before Tuesday night’s win against a South Carolina team that was good enough to beat Iowa State in December, ESPN bracketologist Joe Lunardi, a man who knows the bracket game better than anyone—yes, that includes anyone currently working at the NCAA—has begun his process of spitting out mock brackets. Before the win at Columbia, S.C., the Vols were in Lunardi’s “Last Four Out” of the bracket category.

Does this now mean, as Lunardi is quick to point out about his work, if the season ended today, would Tennessee have done enough to earn a spot in the NCAA tournament?

Given the abrupt departure of former coach Cuonzo Martin, the four recruits he signed, two other players that would be logging minutes (especially point guard Darius Thompson), the hiring of new coach Donnie Tyndall and the rapid-fire roster reconstruction Tyndall and his staff pulled off last spring, this is surprising. Stunning even.

Throw in the news, just before the season began, that Southern Miss, Tyndall’s former school, was being investigated for alleged NCAA rules violations and the subsequent departure of two members of Tyndall’s staff, and the Vols’ success is all the more impressive. Their focus has never been in question.

This is a team that, night in and night out, takes to the court with deficiencies that outweigh its strengths. The Vols start a lineup that is barely taller than that of an average high school team, are playing with a converted wing at the point, a 6-foot-4 power forward, don’t have a legitimate low-post scoring threat and are down to nine recruited athletes on their roster.

So how are they 12-5, but more important, how have they won their first three SEC road games?

True enough, the schedule maker has been kind. If those first three games had been at Kentucky, LSU and Arkansas, you wouldn’t be reading this story right now, because it wouldn’t be here. But again, road wins, against anyone, are valued currency.

The statistics help explain how the Vols have become a band of plundering pirates when they leave Knoxville:

  • Tennessee has becoming a surprisingly good 3-point shooting team. Or at least, an opportunistic 3-point shooting team. In those three SEC road wins, the Vols made 23 of 51 shots behind the arc, an off-the-charts 45 percent.

For the season, Tennessee is shooting .357 as a team from 3, good but not great (10th in the SEC). But Devon Baulkman is at .441, Josh Richardson, who couldn’t buy a 3 when he was a freshman, is at .418, Kevin Punter, thought to be a midrange only guy, is at .388, and Derek Reese, reclaimed off the scrap heap by the demanding Tyndall, is shooting .357. Robert Hubbs, the former five-star recruit, has made some big 3s after an adjustment to his pre-shot lower-body setup, and is shooting .343. Anything over 33 percent is considered decent.

Detrick Mostella hasn’t been as consistent (.305), but he’s drained some back-breaking 3s, twice making two in a row, at Mississippi State, and again against Arkansas, that led to separation.

Clearly there’s a shot doctor on Tyndall’s staff, because the Vols’ mechanics have improved from the first summer skills workouts to now. But just as important—Tyndall has forced his players to attack the basket. They don’t have a choice, really, given their lack of a post player who can score. But the penetrate-and-pitch opportunities have resulted in wide-open looks, which the Vols have been good enough to knock down.

  • In its three road wins, Tennessee has shot .762 from the free-throw line (45 of 59). That’ll get it done most nights. And that total includes a shaky-down-the-stretch effort as the Vols nearly frittered away a commanding lead at South Carolina.
  • Tennessee, always outmanned physically and vertically, is averaging 10.6 offensive rebounds on the road in the SEC. Those second-chance opportunities are key when every possession counts.
  • Finally, the Vols allowed Mississippi State, Mizzou and South Carolina to shoot a collective .341 from the field. Former Tennessee coach Kevin O’Neill taught us that any defensive field-goal percentage under 40 represents a good night’s work. Thirty-four percent, forged through Tyndall’s morphing zone defense and sometimes-nuisance, sometimes aggressively trapping press, is another stat that, like 3-point shooting, is exceptional.

Can Tennessee continue its winning ways when the names on the jerseys become Kentucky and LSU? What the heck is going to happen on the Vols’ upcoming trip to Arkansas’ Bud Walton Arena, where, one imagines, the Hogs will be a little ticked, and where their press is always better, akin to playing against six opponents instead of five?

There’s no underestimating the confidence the Vols have gained during this impressive run of basketball. No one is ready to pencil them into an NCAA bracket yet. But the fact that such a hurriedly pulled together group has given itself a chance this deep into the season ranks up there among the best stories in the SEC, and the country.

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