Here’s what to look for in Rick Barnes’ first season at Tennessee

Making predictions about how Tennessee’s basketball team might fare in Rick Barnes’ first season as coach is a risky proposition, given the small sample size of its work against outside competition. Basically, all we’ve got to go on is a closed scrimmage against Davidson from which few stats have emerged, and a slugfest against an outmanned Division II team that nevertheless managed to ring up 83 points and 51.5 percent second-half shooting against the Vols.

Barnes isn’t going to settle for the 43.8 shooting his team surrendered against Alabama-Huntsville. His last three teams at Texas allowed .368 (fourth in Division I), .402 (29th) and .384 (10th) field-goal shooting, but the Longhorns had size and rim protection. Tennessee will have to hold on tight as young big men Kyle Alexander and Ray Kasongo, both athletic and possessors of 7-foot-4 wingspans, learn how to play the game at a higher level and provide some interference at the basket. And their teammates better continue to get in great condition; otherwise it’ll be hard to keep opponents in front of them. Considerable energy will be expended dashing down the court in transition, trying to squeeze off a good shot within seven seconds. Can they fight through fatigue consistently enough to guard?

On to some predictions in advance of the start of the season, against UNC Asheville in Knoxville on Friday night:

  1. Tennessee could lead the nation in 3-point field-goal attempts. Barnes tossed out this line after the Vols defeated Alabama-Huntsville last Friday: “I’d be surprised if we don’t average 26-30 [3-point attempts], somewhere in there, if they’re good looks.”

Barnes didn’t bat an eye as he said those words, but somewhere between 26 and 30 3s a game is a ton.

For context, let’s look at last season. VMI led the free world by jacking up 1,078 3s in just 30 games, an average of 35. But Duggar Baucom, whose frenetic offense makes Paul Westhead’s old Loyola Marymount teams look slow and conservative by comparison, has moved on to The Citadel, where he doesn’t have the personnel to hoist 1,000 3s, at least not this season.

Take away VMI, and Davidson’s 877 attempts were next among national leaders. Barnes has worked with Davidson coach Bob McKillop, respects him as one of the best teachers in the game and has utilized some of his old friend’s techniques.

Davidson plays great transition basketball, and if a team has shooters and isn’t afraid of risking a lower-percentage shot on the break, can squeeze off a lot of uncontested 3s. The Wildcats averaged 27.4 a year ago. Look for Tennessee to follow this pattern.

It’s worth noting that the Vols hung 90 points on Davidson in their recent closed scrimmage, and the Wildcats return nine of 10 players from a team that won the rugged Atlantic 10 conference a year ago.

Next among prolific 3-point shooting teams last season was Akron, another fast-paced outfit that took 937 3s in 35 games, an average of 26.7 per game.

If the Vols match Barnes’ prediction, they’ll definitely finish among the leaders in Division I.

Against Alabama-Huntsville, Tennessee made 13 3-pointers, and their best shooter throughout all of preseason practice, Kevin Punter, was just 1 of 8 from behind the arc. He’ll shoot better than that.

  1. The Vols are going to attempt way more free throws than their opponents make. That’s a given. Considering their low-post players are so inexperienced—a true freshman, a redshirt freshman a first-year sophomore and senior Derek Reese, hardly a bruiser at 6-7 and 230 pounds, are all Barnes has to work with—high-percentage shots are going to come from playing downhill, attacking the basket off the dribble and in transition and scoring layups or getting fouled.

Punter’s deep ball didn’t fall in the exhibition game, but he, as Barnes has been telling the press all preseason, exploded to the rim often, just as he’s been coached to do. He attempted 15 free throws and made 12.

As a team, Tennessee took 26 free throws. Last year, Arizona led the nation with an average of 25.6 a game, and Kentucky was next at 24.1. The Vols won’t be able to blow past SEC-level opponents as readily as they did UAH, but they’re going to try and ram the ball down some throats.

  1. If Punter isn’t getting into the lane and/or his passes to open teammates beyond the 3-point line don’t get converted somewhere in the 36- to 40-percent range, the Vols could be in for some long nights. The whole point of Barnes’ hurry-up offense is to take advantage of the defense and attacking before it gets set up, but good teams with elite athletes are going to anticipate and hustle back.

Even UAH managed to defend transition fairly well, but the Vols made 13 3-pointers, four more than the nine a game Barnes hopes to average.

  1. Tennessee’s defense will improve, but it’ll take a concerted effort as Barnes probably plays 10 players a night, consistently. Ten Vols saw action in the exhibition game, and that didn’t count promising freshman Shembari Phillips, who somehow managed to turn up late for Tennessee’s shoot-around, which earned him a seat on the bench.

Looking back on recent teams, the Vols weren’t bad defensively under Cuonzo Martin, allowing .412, .418 and .413 field-goal shooting in his three seasons. They were horrendous trying to play Donnie Tyndall’s zone last year; opponents shot .439 percent against them as some games looked like shooting drills.

Tennessee will improve defensively in Barnes’ first season. He’ll flat-out demand it. And despite his preseason declaration that defense can sometimes get a little boring, thus forcing him to tinker with his offense, he’ll never stray from his core principles. The goal will always be to hold opponents under 40 percent shooting.

  1. One of the Canadian big men will emerge. Against UAH, after learning he was eligible to play just shortly before game time, Konsongo dropped a pass that would have led to a sure dunk by taking his eyes off the ball, and he got caught shoving opponents a couple of times. But he also grabbed an offensive rebound and laid it back into the basket, looking like he knew what he was doing.

“He’s a little antsy,” Barnes said after the UAH game … [but] he actually did some good things.”

Freshman Alexander grabbed five boards, scored four points and handed out an assist in 10 minutes. But he also committed two fouls in that span. He’ll get better and better, and there will be games where his athleticism and length will allow him to excel. But he’s got so much to learn, and he’s got to do it in a hurry.

In closing, we can surmise by Barnes’ track record—he’s had just one losing season (14-17 at Providence in 1991-92) and averaged 21.5 wins in a 28-year career—Tennessee will be better than people think. The Vols won’t finish 12th in the SEC, as the league’s preseason poll predicted.

The possibility exists that Tennessee could win enough games to barge its way into the NIT, because the Vols have a handful of guards—Punter, Armani Moore, Devon Baulkman, Robert Hubbs, Detrick Mostella, that can make shots. Punter and Moore could wind up putting together All-SEC seasons.

Not that Barnes wouldn’t want Anthony Davis in his lineup if he could get him, but the college game has been handed back to the guards over the last couple of decades, and Tennessee has enough of them to be competitive, especially if those 3 balls are falling.

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