Last Jacksonville State win over a Big Six opponent: UCF in 2002. Onward.
WHAT THEY BRING
A no-good, very bad offense
Hey, finally an offense that won’t take me ten paragraphs to preview. Jacksonville State, under three years of Ray Harper, has never had a good offense, but that doesn’t mean they’ve never had good teams. 2016-17’s group made the NCAA Tournament as a 15 seed, and his last two squads went 47-22 (26-10) in the always-rough OVC. (Remember that Ja Morant guy? Jacksonville State held him to 22 points on 18 shots with seven turnovers in an 88-68 win.) Unfortunately, offense has never been their calling card; the highest Harper finish to date is 147th in KenPom’s offensive efficiency rankings in 2016-17. This edition, replacing several key parts, currently ranks out 274th as I type. Because they’re replacing said key parts, they give more minutes to their bench – 42%, or nearly 17 minutes of a 40-minute game – than all but eight other teams in America. Because so much is up in the air, they’re predictably struggling with turnovers and don’t get to the line often.
Harper’s run more of a spread motion look in years past, but this group is a little different. Gone is the serious emphasis on creating looks in the midrange, as barely 24% of the Gamecock shot attempts come as non-rim twos. Still there are the various post-up looks and ball screens that create holes for the ball handlers. The biggest shift this season thus far has been a greatly-upscaled reliance on spot-up looks and three-point attempts, taking nearly 9% more threes per game despite the extension of the three-point line. Also, if you’re curious, the offense itself runs at a snail’s pace right now. All in all, it’s an average three-point shooting team and a squad that gets a lot of shots blocked at the rim. Not fun!
No real #1 option; more like three #3s
Three guys take more shots than everyone else and should probably be considered 1A/1B/1C scoring options. I’m not sure there’s any #1 guy on this team yet, as these guys are posting numbers you’d expect from #2/#3 options, but whatever. The leading scorer is Jacara Cross, the backup (tentatively) center. 85% of Cross’s points come from the following play types: post-ups, cuts, or putbacks.
He’s exclusively an inside-the-perimeter guy, but he’s been wildly effective at scoring off of post-ups and, in general, has been extremely efficient at the rim. He’s probably worth fouling, too – 45-of-58 at the rim, sure, but 7-of-20 everywhere else on the court and 14-of-29 at the line.
Behind him are De’Torrion Ware (mostly at the 3) and Derek St. Hilaire (mostly point guard). Amazingly, none of the top three JSU scorers were in the most recent starting lineup, though all three posted at least 17 minutes of work. Anyway, Ware is a serious shot-taker, getting up 9.5 shots per game despite averaging just under 22 minutes a night. (That translates to 17.4 attempts per 40 minutes.)
A lot of Ware’s shots are jumpers, mostly from three, but he gets buckets at the rim, both in transition and driving from the perimeter. St. Hilaire takes a lot of jumpers, too, but he’s willing to pull up from mid-range. He’s a far more dangerous deep shooter (15-of-38, 39.5%), though struggled in the same department last season (7-of-34, 20.6%).
Look for Hilaire to pull up inside the perimeter off of a ball screen at least once.
A thoroughly average defense
It’s a man-to-man defense that forces an average amount of turnovers, blocks a below-average number of shots, and allows an average number of threes. Two things they’re good at: defensive rebounding (24.5% DREB%, 56th) and not fouling (28% FTA/FGA, 104th). Their 3PT% allowed is 2.3% better than the national average at 30.8%, and Synergy does have them as a fairly solid perimeter defense in terms of guarded/unguarded shots. That said, the percentage is aided significantly by a pair of turd performances against them: Alabama A&M (3-of-23) and Evansville (5-of-24). Tennessee’s been right in line with those recently, so who knows.
The interior defense problem is pretty easy to diagnose: the rotation has two players taller than 6’8”, and 6’11” Maros Zeliznak (six games started) commits 5.8 fouls per 40. The other, 6’10” Martin Roub, rarely fouls but strongly prefers to play on the perimeter; he has 23 three-point attempts to 12 two-pointers and has gotten roasted when he does play near the rim. JSU allows a 65.2% hit rate at the rim, which ranks 310th out of 353 D-1 teams. They rank 295th in blocked shots at the rim, which somehow only makes them the fourth-least frightful interior defense on the Tennessee schedule.
In particular, they’ve gotten demolished by cuts and by ball screens the entire season. Opponents have used both to score inside the paint at will this season in various ways; I would imagine Tennessee is pretty desperate to do so after their last two offensive outings.
On the perimeter, Jacksonville State’s done a good job of preventing and defending threes. It feels weird to say this, but this probably isn’t the right game for Tennessee to start hitting from downtown again. (Probably.) If Tennessee’s going to do the mid-range thing as they usually do, let me just copy and paste what I wrote for the Cincinnati preview: “all of Turner/Bowden/Pons/JJJ like taking their non-rim twos, but what matters more is getting the open shot in the first place.” If it’s open, take it, whatever.
…on the other hand, they have struggled to contain threes that develop out of a ball screen. Maybe that’s what rights the wrongs.