In my writings about who could win the national title this season, I have consciously avoided discussing Tennessee. This isn't really a case of not having something nice to say about them. I love what Bruce Pearl has done in Knoxville. Tennessee doesn't exactly have a foundation of tradition in men's hoops, yet soon after his arrival, Pearl raised the Vols to a level where they no longer have to wonder whether they can get into the NCAA Tournament, but rather how high their seed will be. This season, UT is clearly the class of the SEC; the distance between them and whoever is the second-best team in the league is enormous.
Obviously, I can't ignore Tennessee any longer. This is a huge week for Bruce Pearl's team. Duke's loss to Wake Forest has allowed Tennessee to assume the #2 spot in the major opinion polls, and wins over Auburn tonight and at Memphis on Saturday would move them into the #1 spot, probably unanimously. Even if that happens, the Volunteers have a glaring problem that would make them easily the most vulnerable one-seed, should they get one.
There's a glitch in Tennessee's famed pressure defense that will cause them problems against strong competition--the kind of competition that is absent in the SEC this season. The Vols' defense is heavily dependent on forcing turnovers. To put it more accurately, they rely on turnovers happening. That's a key distinction, because while every turnover has its own characteristics, ball security is more under the control of the offense than the defense.
To illustrate this, we can isolate the effect a defense has on its opponents' tendency to commit turnovers as well as the effect a team's offense has on its opponents ability to force turnovers. I'll use the first game of the season to demonstrate how this works. Maine has committed turnovers on 20.4% of its possessions this season. Against Richmond, they lost the ball on 28.0% of their possessions. Thus, Richmond's influence on Maine's turnover rate was +7.6, because Maine committed turnovers on 7.6% more of its possessions than normal. Similarly, Richmond's defense normally forces turnovers on 25.4% of its possessions, so Maine's affect on Richmond's ability to force turnovers is -2.6 for the game.
If you're still with me, this method applied to one game doesn't tell us much. However, if we do this for every D-I game and average the results for each team and we end up with a good idea of the offense's tendency to commit turnovers compared to the defense's ability to force them. Having done that for all games through Monday, here are the teams that are the most reluctant to commit turnovers:
1 Texas -9.8
2 New Orleans -9.6
3 West Virginia -9.1
4 George Mason -7.7
5 Northwestern -7.0
Texas' figure of -9.8 means that on average, their turnover percentage is 9.8% less than what the opponents' average turnover percentage would suggest. Now here are the teams that have shown the greatest ability to force turnovers:
1 Texas San Antonio +6.5
2 Tennessee +5.8
3 UC Santa Barbara +5.2
4 Nicholls St. +5.0
5 Army +5.0
No surprise that Tennessee is near the top. If we considered the strength of their opponents, I'm sure they would rate as the premier team in the nation at forcing turnovers. There's another interesting point in these two lists, though. The best teams in terms of taking care of the ball are much better than the best defenses in terms of forcing turnovers. I'm only showing the top five, but this is true throughout the rankings. The 50th-best team in forcing turnovers is not as effective as the 50th-best team in committing them, for example.
This is a problem for Tennessee because it relies on opponents not having the ability to control the basketball. The correlation between its defensive turnover percentage and defensive efficiency is -0.72, stronger than any other team in the top 20 of the Pomeroy Ratings except Clemson. This means that the Volunteers depend on forcing turnovers for their defense to be good. As they play better competition, their ability to do that diminishes.
Turnovers have occurred on 26.4% of Tennessee's defensive possessions this season, which is the sixth-highest rate in the country. In SEC play, turnovers have occurred on 23.9% of their possessions, a rate which leads second-best South Carolina by more than 2%. What happens if the Volunteers' turnover rate drops? We can get a sense for how Tennessee will fare in that case based on its games so far in which few turnovers have occurred.
Here are the five games in which UT opponents have managed to cough up the ball fewer than one in five possessions:
Opponent TO% Def. Eff.
1/9 Ole Miss 14.4 119.7
11/24 Texas 17.7 132.4
12/15 W. Kentucky 18.4 107.6
1/22 Kentucky 19.3 115.9
2/16 Georgia 19.9 100.8
On average, Tennessee has surrendered 95.6 points per 100 possessions this season; in their five low-turnover games they've allowed an average of 115.3. Aside from Texas, this group doesn't contain a bunch of offensive powerhouses. This isn't a trend that started this season, either. Last season, Tennessee was involved in 10 games in which its opponent kept its TO% below 20, including all three of its NCAA Tournament games. Opponents averaged 111.1 points per 100 possessions in those games compared to 98.6 in all other games last season. In those 15 low-turnover games combined, only once did an opponent not score a point per possession, and that was Memphis last December. In that game, Memphis went a mind-boggling 17 of 49 on two-pointers, which is a deviation from what Tennessee opponents normally shoot. That's because when Tennessee isn't getting turnovers, they're yielding too many run-outs. Opponents are shooting 51.6% inside the arc this season, which ranks 280th in the nation. That figure has risen a tick to 52.0% in SEC play.
Tennessee's press is able to consistently overwhelm its conference mates who in general are more prone to turnovers than the teams they will be playing in the NCAA Tournament. Thus Tennessee's defense is able to enjoy enough empty possessions to make up for the extremely high efficiency its opponents have when they avoid losing the ball. However, that won't occur consistently when Tennessee faces better opponents.
This isn't to say that Tennessee can't beat Memphis, or some other elite team, without having it cough up the ball a bunch. After all, the Volunteers beat its in-state rivals easily last season under those circumstances. Keep in mind, though, that was only time in the last two seasons that Tennessee has had a good defensive game without forcing many turnovers. If Tennessee can play effective defense without forcing turnovers only about once every two years, their existence in March is going to be a lot shorter than their seeding would suggest.
Ken Pomeroy is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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