Photo via Tennessee Athletics
Tennessee basketball has the nation’s best defense, perching atop the KenPom adjusted defensive efficiency rankings for the sixth straight week. The Vols are tenacious defending the perimeter, turning up the heat at a moment’s notice while the return of Olvier Nkamhoua and progression of Jonas Aidoo gives Tennessee strong rim protection.
One area Tennessee excels defensively but you won’t find on any stat sheet is its propensity to make fix-it plays. A fix-it play is exactly what it sounds like, a play where something goes wrong and a player picks up the slack for a mistake and makes it right with a good play.
Fix-it plays can happen on offense but occur more often on defense where Tennessee basketball has made an art of it. A help side steal, a block at the basket, stepping in a driving lane to take a charge or an elite defensive rotation. All these plays would be considered fix-it plays.
So who on Tennessee basketball makes the most fix-it plays?
“Santi (Vescovi) does a lot of that.” Tennessee head coach Rick Barnes said. “(Olivier Nkamhoua) last game started doing some of that. Josiah(-Jordan James) certainly when he is out there is a fix-it guy. I would say Zakai (Zeigler), those guys are making some things happens. Overall, I would say the biggest fix-it guy would be Santi.”
Vescovi is not a player expected to make a lot of fix-it plays. The 6-foot-3 guard is not on the court for his athleticism or size, but the Montevideo, Uruguay native leads the Vols with 2.5 steals per game thanks to immense basketball knowledge and understanding of Tennessee’s defensive assignments.
“I think it is his IQ and understanding of the game,” Barnes said of Vescovi. “He sees the game. You have heard that old saying, he is like a Kodak camera, he sees it all. It slows down. the game has really slowed down for him, where he understands what we are trying to get done both offensively and defensively. By the time we get done with our prep for teams, he can pretty much bring anybody in here and tell him what every guy has got to do, what they are trying to do. His IQ is what makes it for him.”
While Barnes says Vescovi is Tennessee’s top fix-it player, he noted that he’s far from the only Tennessee player that makes fix-it plays. One of those players is sophomore guard Jahmai Mashack.
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Playing only 19 minutes a game, Mashack is averaging 1.9 steals at a 5.8 steal percentage— the nation’s fifth highest rate. With those types of numbers, Mashack isn’t seceding that anyone other than himself is the best Vol at making fix-it plays.
“Besides me?” Mashack answered with a smile when asked which Vol makes the most fix-it plays. “I would have to probably say Santi (Vescovi) and (Zakai Zeigler) really make some great fix-it plays, but I think somebody that really makes a lot is Jonas (Aidoo). Especially at the rim. Guarding somebody is hard enough, so when there’s little things that we mess up on as guards, as far as switching or getting over screens, you need somebody at the basket to fix that play. Jonas does that well.”
Aidoo’s ability to make fix-it plays is an added element to a Tennessee defense that’s improved upon its top five ranks the last two seasons. The sophomore power forward has been inconsistent in his play this season but when he’s at his best, Tennessee’s defense somehow finds another gear.
Making fix-it plays can sometimes be easier for big men to make. Someone gets beat on a back cut or off the dribble and the rim protector with a chance to fix the mistake. Yves Pons made an absurd amount of fix-it plays in his Tennessee career and Aidoo is following suit. Aidoo is averaging 1.2 blocks to go along with 0.8 steals per game.
“I think it is a little bit easier with Jonas’ length,” Mashack said. “He’s super long, but you still have to have timing and have rhythm. You still have to know when someone is going to go up and not fall for a pump fake. I think it’s just the same for guards and bigs, but I think it might be a little bit harder for guards because it’s loose balls you have to get to. You’re running around more. You’re getting beat up going through screens. I think it is a little bit harder as a guard, but it’s just about the same.”
The combination of four-to-six players that are elite at making fix-it plays leads to a versatile and dominant defense. While there’s no statistic for fix-it plays, Tennessee excels in the statistical areas that typically indicate fix-it plays.
Tennessee ranks third nationally in steal percentage and 29th nationally in block percentage according to KenPom.
Facing a Mississippi State team Tuesday night that turns the ball over well above the national average, the Vols will have plenty of more chances to make fix-it plays. Tip-off at Thompson-Boling Arena is at 7 p.m. ET. Tom Hart and Dane Bradshaw are on the call for ESPN2.