Photo via Tennessee Athletics
Tennessee basketball heads to Orlando for the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament, looking to win two games and punch its ticket to the Sweet 16 for the first time since 2019.
The Vols are a four-seed in the South Region and have to win a four-team tournament that includes Louisiana, Oral Roberts and Duke to advance to the program’s seventh Sweet 16 this century.
Let’s take a look at why the Vols will or won’t make the Sweet 16 for the second time in the Rick Barnes era. Our lists will include two two reasons we’ve seen over the course of the season and one realistic hypothetical. Let’s dive in.
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Why Tennessee Will Make The Sweet 16
A Defense It Can Hang Its Hat On
The most simple reason to believe Tennessee will get out of the NCAA Tournament is that its better on one end of the court than any other team in the four-team tournament.
Tennessee ranks second nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency and is extremely effective on that end of the court. The Vols can win games leaning on their defense when they don’t make shots.
The Vols have slipped on the defensive end since Zakai Zeigler injury. They were the nation’s best for the vast majority of the year, but even without Zeigler they can play defense at a high enough level to carry themselves through the first weekend.
Tennessee Is A Veteran Team
There’s a college basketball adage that defense, experience and guard play win in March. We covered the first one already but Tennessee also has the second one covered.
The Vols have plenty of experience including a three senior starters that the Vols lean heavily on. Only three players in Tennessee’s rotation haven’t played in an NCAA Tournament and one of those is fifth year senior Tyreke Key.
Sophomores Jahmai Mashack and Jonas Aidoo will play a larger role this tournament than they did last, but neither will be asked to be the best players on the team.
Tennessee is experienced, has players who have played the role they are in now in the NCAA Tournament and shouldn’t be surprised by anything the spectacle throws at them.
Josiah-Jordan James Shoots The Ball Well
The Sports Animal’s Jimmy Hyams had a fantastic stat during Monday’s press conferences. In Josiah-Jordan James’ last 13 games played, Tennessee is 7-0 when he scores double digits and 1-5 when he does not.
This is a statistic that matches the eye test and matches what James himself says. During the SEC Tournament, the senior forward said this team will go as far as its veterans take them. He is the key veteran because of the variance in his offensive production.
James has little ability to finish at the basket so he’s reliant on his midrange and three-point shot. When he’s making shots he can light up opponents, but when he’s not he can be a complete offensive non factor.
With Zakai Zeigler sidelined, Tennessee needs James to help Vescovi shoulder the bulk of the offensive load. If he hits shots it’s easy to see Tennessee advancing to the Sweet 16. If he’s not, another early round exit feels imminent.
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Why Tennessee Won’t Make The Sweet 16
Issues Replacing Zeigler Persist
Tennessee’s postseason hopes took a major blow two weeks ago when point guard Zakai Zeigler tore his ACL. The Vols have been solid without Zeigler in some ways but have missed him in two major ways.
The first is on the defensive end of the court where Zeigler set the tone with his energy and intensity. Zeigler could get under guards and was better than anyone else on this Tennessee team at forcing turnovers. Without the sophomore in the lineup the Vols haven’t forced turnovers at nearly as high a rate.
Zeigler was also fantastic at sticking on small, quick twitch guards. Neither Louisiana or Duke have someone in this mold, but it is an area Tennessee has struggled the last two weeks.
The area Tennessee’s missed Zeigler even more is in late game situations. Zeigler handles the ball, and Tennessee runs more pick-and-rolls and isolations at the end of games— as all teams do. Zeigler is by far the Vols’ best offensive player in those end of game situations.
Without Zeigler, Tennessee has played in two games that could have gone either way in the final four minutes. The Vols lost both by eight or more points.
Inconsistent Interior Play
Rick Barnes has been searching for consistent interior play for two years. He still hasn’t found it. Olivier Nkamhoua, Uros Plavsic, Jonas Aidoo and Tobe Awaka are capable big men but none have consistently been effective.
There have been plenty of games Tennessee hasn’t gotten the offensive or defensive production they need from those big men. If either of those things happen this weekend there’s a good chance Tennessee will lose. If both of those things happen it would take a phenomenal effort from the backcourt for Tennessee to advance.
Turnovers Plague Tennessee Again
Tennessee has struggled with turnovers all season but it reared its ugly head in the SEC Tournament. Without Zeigler, handling the basketball becomes a bigger question for this team.
If those turnovers occur like they did last week and how they did last week — extremely careless and often leading to easy transition baskets— winning two games becomes much more difficult for the Vols.
Turnovers plaguing Tennessee in Orlando is a realistic possibility. If they do the Vols won’t advance to the Sweet 16.