HOW TENNESSEE BEATS IT
Work the ball inside-out
What the zone defense is supposed to do: limit dribble-drive offenses, erase isolation plays. In theory, it’s a defense that makes lesser defenders easier to hide. However, it might be the exact opposite defense you’d want for 2010s basketball: per Ken Pomeroy, zone defenses allow nearly 5% more three-point attempts per game, give up more opportunities at the basket, and give up more offensive rebounds.
When you are Syracuse or or even a Washington-level defense with long arms, this matters less because you’re better at getting to the perimeter and guarding these threes. It…does not work this way for UNC Asheville, or it didn’t last season. As such, Tennessee should have plenty of outside attempts this game, and they should start from the interior:
Of the 27 coaches I interviewed this summer, at least three told me how important it was for their motion offense to work the ball into the post first. Tennessee won’t be able to do this nearly as easy without Kyle Alexander, Grant Williams, or even Euro Plastics, but Fulkerson and even Nkamhoua should be able to pass a ball to an open shooter. I’m also curious to see if Tennessee runs a reverse look out of their zone offense with Josiah James inside the perimeter.
On the flip side, use your perimeter gravity to get good looks at the rim
Everyone knows Tennessee’s a guard-oriented team in 2019-20. It’s not a secret, and it never was. So: use that public knowledge to your advantage. When a ball gets passed to any of Bowden, Turner, Jalen Johnson, and Josiah James, a defender will be rushing to the perimeter to defend the shot. Tennessee should be taking advantage of these frequently by getting the ball back inside for an easy two:
Plus, if you miss, you can always fall back on UNCA being an atrocious defensive rebounding team as recently as eight months ago.
Push the pace, see how it goes with JJJ running the show
Tennessee and Eastern New Mexico combined for 86 possessions, which would’ve been Tennessee’s fastest regular season game not involving overtime since December 23, 2009 against North Carolina A&T. (Tennessee won that game 99-78.) Perhaps that was a conscious choice by Rick Barnes – maximizing your possessions against blah competition is, in my opinion, always a good idea. However, it was notable that Tennessee looked completely in control of the game against said competition when in transition:
This is how you avoid having to go up against the press or the zone in the first place.
Also, this seems like a great game for Josiah James to get serious experience running the offense. Tennessee let James be the primary ball handler for part of the Eastern New Mexico scrimmage, and he looked more comfortable in that role compared to an off-ball one. I think letting him do it against Tennessee’s third-lowest rated KenPom opponent would be worth a try.
Stay with shooters and get some early ball-screen practice
Against Eastern New Mexico, Tennessee got a decent amount of practice guarding threes; the Greyhounds took 21 attempts from deep, making six. However, that was out of 65 field goal attempts on the whole. UNC Asheville took 42.1% of their attempts from three last season, making 31.7%. The Bulldogs took around 22 attempts from three per game in 2018-19, and it makes sense that they’d take a similar or higher amount this time out. Therefore, Tennessee needs to stick with Baker or any other ball-handler off of a ball screen at all times. This shot by Devin Pullum was tough, but it was open:
This, earlier in the first half, was a much better and tougher mid-range look:
As it would be with basically any offense, UNC Asheville takes more non-rim twos the deeper they get into the clock. If Tennessee can deny the Bulldogs’ primary offensive break – a ball-screen motion offense meant to find open shooters off of off-ball screens or use an on-ball screen to get an easy look – they should have a lot of success.
Likewise, continue to protect the rim
Unsurprisingly, the poor Greyhounds of Eastern New Mexico had no real shot to succeed at the rim unless it was a wide-open offensive rebound. Tennessee blocked 11 of ENMU’s 44 two-point attempts and held ENMU to a 9-of-31 hit rate at the rim. Most of their attempts ended up like this:
Check out this eight-second stretch where Olivier Nkamhoua picks up a pair of blocks:
Tennessee will need more plays like this to compensate for the (extremely unfair and illegitimate) loss of Euro Plastics.
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