A few unassailable truths in college basketball have already established themselves a month and a half before the calendar turns to March. We know Zion Williamson and Duke will continue to be the biggest story in the country. We know nothing Virginia does in the regular season will quell concerns heading into the NCAA tournament a year after the biggest upset in the sport’s history. We know Michigan and Gonzaga are already really freaking good, Kansas and Kentucky are trying to get there, and a deep batch of contenders are bubbling beneath the surface.
We also know that if you play the Tennessee Volunteers, you’re gonna get your ass kicked.
Tennessee put another hurting on an opponent on Tuesday, with Arkansas coming on the wrong end of a 106-87 defeat. Truthfully, it was not even that close. This was a game Tennessee led by 21 points at halftime even with senior star Admiral Schofield going scoreless in the first half because of foul trouble. This was a game in which Tennessee’s bench went off for 50 points. This a game against an Arkansas team that had not lost by more than six points all season.
Tennessee has now won its first four SEC games by a total of 100 points. Those games:
- Beat Georgia by 46
- Beat Missouri by 24
- Beat Florida by 11
- Beat Arkansas by 19
Only two major conference teams in the last 20 years have won their first four conference games by a total of 100 points. The first one was 2000-01 Duke — a group that went on to win the national title behind Shane Battier, Jason Williams, Carlos Boozer, and Mike Dunleavy Jr. The next was 2012-13 Florida Gators, who went to the Elite Eight before breaking through to the Final Four the following season.
Any way you slice it, the Vols are one of the very best teams in college basketball this year.
Tennessee plays both ends
Finishing in the top-20 of both offensive and defensive efficiency is a traditional mark of a national title contender. Tennessee is so close to that right now.
The Vols are No. 2 in offensive efficiency in college basketball at the moment. Tennessee makes 58.2 percent of its two-point shots. It makes 76 percent of its free throws (No. 14 in the country). It owns the offensive glass. It rarely turns the ball over. It also shares the ball, with an assist coming on 65 percent of made baskets, a mark that ranks No. 5 in the country.
And hey: 2018 Villanova isn’t bad company.
The Tennessee offense has opened SEC play looking a lot like Villanova 2018 — only with offensive rebounding.— John Gasaway (@JohnGasaway) January 16, 2019
Opponents beware. pic.twitter.com/fmdMYFG6SE
The defense is No. 22 in America right now. The Vols do a great job of forcing opposing offenses into tough shots, and that’s if you even get a shot off. Tennessee is No. 11 in the country in block rate, while also holding opposing teams to an effective field goal percentage of just 45 percent, which also ranks No. 22 in the country.
There are only four teams who currently rank in the top-20 in offensive and defensive efficiency: Duke, Virginia, Michigan and Michigan State. Tennessee is on the cusp.
The Vols have two true stars
There might not be a better 1-2 punch in college basketball than Grant Williams and Admiral Schofield. OK, Zion Williamson and R.J. Barrett excluded.
Williams was SEC Player of the Year as a sophomore, and he’s raised his numbers across the board this season, posting career-highs in scoring, rebounding, assists, and steals while improving his field goal percentage 10 points and starting to develop a three-point shot. This is the type of year-over-year progress every program wants to see out of its leaders:
Schofield’s improvement is just as stark. The senior is averaging 17.7 points per game this season while shooting a blistering 46.2 percent from three-point range.
He was at his best against previously unbeaten Gonzaga (who had already beat Duke), when he dropped 30 points with six threes, including the game-winner:
.@admiralelite15 scored six 3-pointers for @Vol_Hoops, including the winner, to hand Gonzaga its first loss of the season ⚡️ #VOLS #VolNation pic.twitter.com/2aFAQcTPmg— ESPN Player (@espnplayer) December 10, 2018
Tennessee is a legitimate national title contender
Rick Barnes has done a phenomenal job since taking over at Tennessee in 2015. A year ago, the Vols won a share of the SEC and took a No. 3 seed into the NCAA tournament before coming on the wrong end of one of Loyola’s miracle buzzer-beaters in the round of 32.
All signs point to Tennessee being even better this year.
With a tight seven-man rotation made up almost exclusively of juniors and seniors, the Vols are experienced and battle tested. Williams and Schofield are straight up bullies, pairing their strong 240-pound frames with improved skill level. It’s not a team that takes many three-pointers (No. 321 in percentage of field goals from threes), but they knock down 37 percent when they do fire from the outside.
The ingredients are here for a major run in March. Until then, Tennessee will spend its time beating up on anyone that gets in its way.