What factors are behind Tennessee’s success this season?

The Lady Vols, rising again

Last year, the Tennessee women’s basketball season ended with an embarrassing first-round loss in the NCAA Tournament, prompting sophomore Evina Westbrook to tell reporters, “Steps need to be taken with our staff, and just overall, off the court.” Athletic director Phillip Fulmer soon obliged, firing head coach Holly Warlick and replacing her with alumna Kellie Harper, who had just completed a Sweet Sixteen run as the head coach at Missouri State.

From the start, Harper embraced fans’ high standards for success. “I know the expectations here,” she said in April. “… I’m excited about it because we want to win championships here. … I think that’s the goal.”

All she had to do after that was back up her words on the court.

The early returns have been positive. Beyond the good body language and enthusiastic comments from players, Tennessee’s statistics look strong, including the most important one: wins. A year after finishing 19-13 overall and 8-10 in the SEC, Tennessee is 15-3 overall and 5-1 in conference play, a record more reminiscent of Harper’s stellar playing career than the team’s relative struggles in recent years.

On Thursday, the Lady Vols will also turn back the clock by playing at UConn, renewing a rivalry that ran from 1995 to 2007. Ahead of that matchup, let’s take a look at the numbers behind Tennessee’s turnaround from a season ago.

Offense

Tennessee’s offensive numbers this season are similar to last year’s, but the offense is operating more smoothly. This year, the Lady Vols rank 29th nationally in points per game (74.8) and 55th in points per scoring attempt (1.04), which is one measure of offensive efficiency. That efficiency has increased by 4 percent over last year, when the Lady Vols scored almost the same number of points per game but ranked just 102nd in points per scoring attempt.

Part of the reason for the increased efficiency is that Tennessee is sharing the ball better. The Lady Vols are assisting on 61.1% of their field goals, which ranks 62nd in the country and is a massive increase from last year’s 50.4%. Freshman guard Jordan Horston has a lot to do with that, leading the team with 4.8 assists per game and assisting on 35% of her team’s baskets when she is on the court. Sophomore Jazmine Massengill has also been excellent, averaging 4.6 assists per game and more than doubling her assist rate from a season ago. Junior Rennia Davis leads the team in scoring with 17.3 points per game, but she also averages 2.4 assists, and five Lady Vols are averaging between six and 11 points per game.

The Lady Vols’ offense has been predicated on a steady diet of 2-point shots and offensive rebounds. They get nearly 65% of their points from 2-pointers and are shooting 49.9% on those attempts, which both rank among the top 40 nationally. The Lady Vols have also rebounded 42.5% of their own misses, which ranks fifth in the country and is a small improvement upon their already-excellent rate from a season ago. Those extra possessions have helped Tennessee compensate for turning the ball over more often and making fewer 3-pointers than their opponents.

Defense

The defensive end of the court is where the Lady Vols seem to have flipped a switch in the offseason. They are allowing just 54.9 points per game, down from 69.1 a season ago while playing at about the same pace. They are also holding opponents to just 0.77 points per scoring attempt, which gives them the second-lowest opponent efficiency in the country one year after ranking 209th in that same category. Opponents are shooting just 31.0% from the field against Tennessee and struggle to get to the free throw line.

Part of the reason the Lady Vols have been so effective defensively is their length. Six players (including four of the six newcomers) are at least 6-foot-3 and all but one are at least 6-0, making this the tallest roster in team history. They are using that added length to block 18.0% of opponents’ shots, which ranks first nationally and is nearly a three-fold increase from last season’s 6.8%. 6-5 freshman Tamari Key leads the way, registering nearly half of Tennessee’s 7.4 blocks per game.

It would be logical to attribute the increase in blocks to the new coaching staff, except that Harper says blocking shots is not something she teaches. “I have never paid attention to the blocked shot stat,” she said early in the season. “Obviously we are going to have a lot just because we are tall. I am not saying that I don’t like blocked shots, but I like position defense better.” This season, the Lady Vols seem to be having the best of both worlds.

Tennessee’s length is also forcing opponents to take a lot of 3-point shots. Nearly one-third of opponents’ shots come from beyond the arc, which is one of the highest rates in the country. With Tennessee not committing many fouls, the prospect of driving into the lane is not appealing to opponents—but they are also not having much luck from deep, shooting just 26.2% on 3-pointers.

So will they beat UConn?

All of these improvements are cause for excitement among Lady Vol fans, but they come with an asterisk. Her Hoop Stats uses two metrics to evaluate strength of schedule, and Tennessee ranks among the bottom 100 teams on both. Last season, Tennessee played a top-45 schedule. The Lady Vols are currently 1-3 against teams that rank in the top 50 in Her Hoop Stats rating, with the lone win coming over No. 31 Alabama on a last-second 3-pointer from Davis.

Tennessee’s only other wins over Her Hoop Stats top-100 teams are against No. 70 Georgia and No. 100 Notre Dame. The Lady Vols lost by 27 at No. 9 Stanford, the opponent closest in ranking to No. 5 UConn.

At every level of basketball, two oft-heard sayings are “defense travels” and “defense wins championships.” The former will be tested on Thursday night as the Lady Vols try to shut down UConn at the XL Arena in Hartford. This will be an important game not only because it will rekindle the historic rivalry, but also because it will give us a better sense of whether Tennessee’s improvements are real or fool’s gold from a soft schedule. In particular, if the Lady Vols can sustain their defensive improvements against UConn and throughout SEC play, they could earn the opportunity to test the second saying in March.

All statistics are courtesy of Her Hoop Stats; 2019-20 statistics are for games through January 21.

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