Quality 3-point shooters can take you a long way in college basketball. With Chris Lofton and JaJuan Smith bombing from outside, Tennessee went 22-8 and won the SEC East in 2006, 24-11 en route to the NCAA Sweet 16 in 2007, then 31-5 with a brief stint atop the national rankings and another Sweet 16 berth in 2008.
The Vols may not have a duo the caliber of Lofton/Smith in 2013-14 but they probably have more capable 3-point shooters than at any time in program history, thanks to the addition of newcomers Darius Thompson, Robert Hubbs and Antonio Barton. Thompson and Hubbs will display their marksmanship Saturday at 1, when the Vols host Florida Southern in the exhibition opener. Barton is doubtful due to a leg injury.
Thompson hit 42.4 percent from 3 as a senior at Murfreesboro Blackman High last season. Hubbs, a five-star prospect, hit just 31.4 percent as a senior at Dyer County High last winter but probably has the best shooting range on the team. Barton hit 41.7 percent from beyond the arc in three years at Memphis before transferring to Tennessee over the summer.
The three newcomers combine with holdover Jordan McRae (35.5 percent in 2012-13) to give Tennessee four quality 3-point shooters. That’s a luxury the Vols haven’t had previously.
“When you have those guys on the perimeter who can score it opens up the inside,” associate head coach Tracy Webster said. “They’re scoring threats, so (defenders) say, ‘Hey, we’ve got to close out on these guys hard.’
“But they’re capable drivers also, so it’s always good when you’ve got guys who can score from outside and you have a good inside presence. We just have to put it all together, and see what happens.”
Cuonzo Martin believes Barton, Thompson, Hubbs and McRae are all capable of making 3-pointers in clutch situations. That opens up the floor and often proves to be the difference between winning and losing.
“It helps when guys can consistently make 3-point shots, can make shots under pressure, can make big shots and tough shots,” the head coach said. “I think that’s the biggest thing. Our big guys (Jarnell Stokes, Jeronne Maymon) will see double teams – they’ll see different types of actions coming at them – so we have to make shots on the perimeter.”
Last season there was an obvious correlation between making 3-point shots and winning. The Vols hit 7 of 12 in a 76-67 defeat of Kennesaw State, 4 of 8 in a 75-68 defeat of UNC Asheville, 7 of 16 in an 83-69 defeat of UMass, 9 of 22 in a 78-62 defeat of Presbyterian, 7 of 17 in a 72-57 defeat of Mississippi State, 10 of 15 in an 82-72 defeat of LSU and 10 of 21 in a 93-85 defeat of Texas A&M.
Conversely, Tennessee made just 5 of 23 treys in a 62-45 loss to Oklahoma State, 3 of 16 in a 37-36 loss to Georgetown, 3 of 19 in a 46-38 loss to Virginia, 7 of 26 in a 92-74 loss to Ole Miss, 3 of 15 in a 62-56 loss at Ole Miss, 2 of 10 in a 73-60 loss at Arkansas, 3 of 11 in a 68-62 loss to Georgia, 5 of 23 in a 58-48 SEC Tournament loss to Alabama and 7 of 24 in a season-ending 75-67 NIT loss to Mercer.
“We want to pound that ball inside; we want our big guys to be involved on offense,” Martin said. “When you can’t make (perimeter) shots it’s tough. Right now we’re able to make shots.”
The fact point guards Barton and Thompson are gifted 3-point shooters should be especially beneficial this season. A sharp-shooting point guard can keep the defense honest and salvage possessions by nailing jumpers as the shot clock is winding down.
“Having point guards who can score helps a great deal,” Martin conceded. “Those are two guys who make plays off the dribble, they can push the ball upcourt and find guys, and they can make shots. That really helps because it stretches the defense.”
McRae says Tennessee’s 3-point quartet is actually a quintet. He believes junior wing Josh Richardson, a mere 22.5 percent shooter from beyond the arc through his first two years on campus, has vastly improved his stroke.
“Josh is shooting the ball the best I’ve seen him shoot it,” McRae said. “Having that kind of shooting, you can drive into the lane and get a wide-open layup because nobody (on defense) wants to leave anybody. You’re not going to leave Jarnell or Jeronne.
“Having those people on the wing just makes the floor look so much bigger.”