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Behind Enemy Lines: Q&A with Nick Carner of Tennessee’s SB Nation site, Rocky Top Talk

Our friends at Rocky Top Talk answer our questions about Saturday’s matchup.

NCAA Basketball: Tenn-Martin at Tennessee Bryan Lynn-USA TODAY Sports

Nick Carner over at Rocky Top Talk was nice enough to answer some of our questions ahead of Saturday’s top 20 tilt at Mohegan Sun. See below for his thoughts on the general direction of the program, what he’s seen so far from this version of the Vols, and his prediction for Saturday.

1. Villanova fans got an up-close look at the Grant Williams era teams when the eventual national champions went down 14 at the half to Tennessee on Thanksgiving in 2017. That group made noise for two years before falling in the sweet 16 to Purdue in OT the following season. Since then, there hasn’t been much national noise from Knoxville. What are the expectations for Tennessee this season? What are the reasons for optimism that the Vols can climb back into the top tier of the sport?

Honestly, Dan, I’m not really sure what the expectations for this team are. I know I thought last year’s team was going to be better than 18-9, like, a lot better, but that team never quite meshed. And while three guys from that team are now playing in the NBA, most of the Vols’ core from the last couple seasons remains intact. That might sound a bit funny, but Tennessee’s got three juniors (Santiago Vescovi, Olivier Nkamhoua, Josiah-Jordan James) and two seniors (John Fulkerson, Victor Bailey) who play significant minutes and roles.

Full disclosure here: I fully believed last season’s team was more talented than the 2018-2019 Grant Williams-led squad. Hype train got way off the tracks there, so this season I’m taking a much more tempered approach with my expectations.

We’ll obviously see how it all plays out, but I’m not sure Tennessee’s ever had a point guard as good as freshman Kennedy Chandler, and Barnes has this team situated with some quality complementary pieces. The more numbers-driven rankings — Bart Torvik, KenPom — seem to indicate the Vols should be one of the 10-ish best teams in the country, and I feel pretty comfortable saying UT will be one of the best teams in the SEC. Beyond that — *shrug*.

2. What is the fanbase’s opinion of Rick Barnes? His run at Texas looks very impressive in retrospect, but he was mostly considered a punchline when he was finally pushed out the door in Austin. He’s done relatively well at Tennessee, but I wonder whether his unfair reputation results in a lack of patience from the fans.

I don’t know how much any ‘Nova fans know or care, but Barnes’ Texas exit was a mess. Then Texas AD Steve Patterson told Barnes the school was going to keep him, even after the team finished 20-14 and got bounced in the first round of The Dance. But then Patterson reneged, told Barnes he had to fire his staff and subsequently, allegedly, leaked that ultimatum to the press in an effort to force Barnes’ hand.

College athletics are a dirty game — make no mistake — but I’ve always thought that was some wack treatment for a guy who’d won 400 games in 17 years.

But the timing and fit was immaculate for Tennessee. The Vols had literally just fired Donnie Tyndall — their second coach in three tries who had problems with the NCAA — and were officially searching for their third coach in four seasons, fumbling around like looking for a light switch in the dark for some post-Bruce-Pearl program stability. The actual, real timeline: Tennessee fired Tyndall on March 27th. Texas fired Barnes on March 29th. Barnes was hired at Tennessee on March 31st. Plus, Barnes is our kind of Southern, being from North Carolina and not being from, like, Florida or something. His wife went to UT and was a cheerleader here.

In all fairness, the bar wasn’t all that high when he got to Knoxville. Some folks — like me, in my unrelenting pursuit to be incredibly wrong as much as I can — figured this would be a golden-years, golden-parachute gig for Barnes. He was 60 at the time and had already won 600-ish games at three schools. It woulda been reasonable to show up, win 20-ish games a year, sneak in some wins against Kentucky and ride off into the sunset back to Hickory. But instead, Barnes dug in and made a home here. Things were a bit touch-and-go for a few seasons, as in: shots touching more rim than net, and Tennessee going anywhere but the NCAA Tournament. Then he went 57-15 in his third and fourth seasons (with a roster of 3-star guys who he coached and developed into NBA prospects) and signed two-straight national top-5 recruiting classes in 2020 and 2021.

Among Vol fans, the lingering knock on Barnes is his overall 24-24 postseason coaching record. Those who are critical point to Tennessee’s inability to make it past the Sweet 16, which is a viable complaint that I understand. I just don’t really sweat it, though. Not now, and not yet.

3. This is a team that has really struggled shooting the ball over the past two years and has come out on fire. What’s your assessment of that situation? Creating better looks? Better shooters? Or is it a potential small sample size situation?

I’d say your assertions there are all at least partly true to varying degrees. I’ll go in reverse order, ‘cause right, not why? (That was a dumb joke no need to re-read it)

It’s early in the season, so I’m hesitant to buy any “Tennessee shooting it’s way into March,” stock, though that’s mainly just because the Vols have been a defense-first team basically Barnes’ entire tenure. UT hasn’t finished lower than the top 60 in Torvik’s adjusted defensive efficiency since 2016, and they’ve ended in the top 5 two times during that span. That’s the kind of consistency I’d rather bank on. Not that shooting well and good defense are mutually exclusive or anything, but I’m just gonna have to see the shooting proficiency stick to really, really buy in.

But still: most of the reason Tennessee could potentially shoot the ball better than usual this year is a combination of your first two factors — better shooters and better looks. Santi Vescovi is a career high-30s percent shooter from deep while being hindered with the primary ball-handling duties that he’s capable of, not best suited for and no longer beholden to. Vescovi, Auburn transfer Justin Powell and Kennedy Chandler can all be high-30 guys from distance, while Victor Bailey can be excruciatingly inconsistent and is also maybe the best shooter on the team. But the straw that stirs that drink is the flip in Barnes’ offensive philosophy. He’s seen Tennessee get torched from distance by Auburn, Alabama and Arkansas the last couple seasons and is encouraging the guys to spray and dot up shot charts with green circles from behind the 3-point line. Like you said in your responses to me, three is more than two. In basketball, more = better.

When Grant Williams was here, it made sense to run the offense through him and utilize a lot of high-low post motion concepts. This team is more guard oriented, and so far it seems like it’s “round peg/ round hole,” instead of, ya know, jamming a square peg in there, consequences be damned.

4. It looks like Tennessee has had success turning over their opponents both last season and early this season. Villanova has had extremely low turnover numbers over the past few years. How does Tennessee generate these turnovers and do you expect that Tennessee will be able to do so against Villanova?

The turnovers are really just a function of the Vols’ overall team defense, which is the sum of its parts — the individuals playing defense in a comprehensive and cohesive effort. None of that is unique to Tennessee or special or novel in any way. But the Vols pressure the ball, the coaches demand active hands and then this group seems to have good anticipation, whether it’s digs at the point of attack or in the passing lanes. So you get steals (UT has the seventh-best steal percentage in the country, via sports reference) as turnovers but deflections that lead to them, too.

The Vols have swiped double-digit steals in both games so far this year. But Villanova just always has such solid guards, and I’m not counting on this year’s iteration being generous with their passes or loose on their handles.

5. Prediction for the game and for the weekend?

I pretty largely, and mostly, too, agree with your assessment that we’ll have posted on Rocky Top Talk. Tennessee’s opponents have averaged nearly 28 3s attempted in two games, and if Villanova hits its season average of close-to 50 percent, well 14x3 is definitely a number that’s more than how many fingers I have and will probably make for a not-fun game mostly for me but also for the guys who are actually playing.

This will be Kennedy Chandler’s first game against legitimate and big-time CBB competition. Drawing Villanova there is definitely like getting thrown to the wolves. Or, uhh, the ‘Cats. I wouldn’t be surprised to see him struggle some.

I figure this ends up being an early-season lump for the Vols in what turns out to be a good overall year. 82-75, ‘Nova.