It’s been almost a decade since Texas fired Rick Barnes, and maybe that wasn’t the best idea.
Barnes has produced some strong Tennessee teams, most notably those heading into the 2018 and 2019 tournaments. Neither of these teams advanced past the Sweet Sixteen, but the program has been significantly better than Texas since Barnes left in 2015.
In 2023, Barnes has his best Tennessee team yet. They rank 3rd in my member college basketball rankings and are a threat to win it all.
This team excels at defense. By my adjusted points per possession, Tennessee is the 2nd best team in the nation.
Tennessee is due for some regression, as they lead the nation in three point percentage allowed. Research by Ken Pomeroy shows a huge amount of randomness in this metric. Tennessee’s three point defense will regress.
Still, Tennessee shows extreme effort on defense. They are 9th in my adjusted two point percentage allowed. While I expect regression in three point defense, they should still be better than the college basketball average of 34.1% going forward because of their effort.
Tennessee is not as good on offense, as they rank 53rd in my adjusted point per possession. Santiago Vescovi has a sweet jump shot with his left handed release. However, they probably rely on him a bit too much. Vescovi is hitting 35.2% from three this season, a career low at Tennessee.
The offense probably leans on 5’9” point guard Zakai Zeigler to get a crucial bucket, and he’s making 46.6% of his two point shots (50.1% college basketball average, although the average will be lower for point guards). Now, Zeigler is out for the season with an ACL tear.
The biggest knock on Tennessee is the lack of elite talent. Their best player in terms of NBA potential is Julian Phillips, a 6’8” freshman wing. A recent mock draft from The Athletic has Phillips as the 24th pick in the 2023 draft.
Phillips returned to action against Alabama after missing four games with an injury. He seemed almost allergic to taking a shot, and his season statistics suggest why (46.0% from two, 27.0% from three).
Phillips does seem like an athletic wing defender, the reason for his NBA potential. In an ideal world, Tennessee would trade Phillips to Gonzaga for Julian Strawther, a scoring machine that struggles to defend the dribble drive. Instead, Tennessee is stuck with another strong defender in Phillips.
Tennessee is an elite defensive team, but they might be a 1 seed to fade in the tournament because of the offense.
This is sample of The Power Rank 2023 Bracket Advice that focuses on the choice of champion, the most important pick in your bracket. The numbers are through Tuesday, February 23, 2023.
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