Show Me My Opponent: Texas A&M

HOW TENNESSEE BEATS IT

You just took #3 Kansas to the wire. I am thinking Texas A&M is not that difficult!

I mean, think about it this way: Kansas ranks #1 on both KenPom and Torvik. They rank #3 in the AP Poll. By basically any stretch of the imagination, they’re a top five college basketball team in the 2019-20 season. Tennessee hung with this team for the entirety of the game, on the road, despite having what could charitably be called an eight-man rotation with maybe four worthwhile performances.

(Pons, Bowden, Fulkerson, and a stretch inclusion to Vescovi for reasons we’ll discuss shortly.) Tennessee kept the margin within single digits for 35 of 40 minutes, led for a good chunk of the first half, and, most importantly, never went away.

Are there things Tennessee could’ve done better? Obviously. The turnover rates remain alarming, but it wasn’t the usual suspect this time; Santiago Vescovi committed zero TOs and held up fairly well offensively despite a just-okay shooting night. Instead, it was Josiah-Jordan James (six TOs), Fulkerson (four, though it was balanced out with his 15 & 12 statline), and Olivier Nkamhoua (three in nine minutes!) who owned the majority of the self-inflicted errors.

(I am trying really, really hard to be nice, but is there any reason why Drew Pember, size concerns notwithstanding, isn’t getting more of Nkamhoua’s minutes?) That, combined with a bust of a bench outing, is why Tennessee lost. Tennessee gave 45 minutes to the bench on Saturday. The five bench players combined for the following stat line:

  • 1 field goal attempt (missed)
  • 1 rebound
  • 2 blocks
  • 3 turnovers
  • 5 fouls

Here’s the one miss:

Pretty good.

They won the boards battle, they very slightly outshot Kansas, and with a more even distribution of turnovers – say, even losing it by 3-4 instead of nine – and a better bench effort, they could’ve won in regulation.

Anyway, they play a bad Texas A&M team now. Tennessee’s going to get a couple shots blocked in this one, simply because of the massive orbit of Josh Nebo at the rim. I say this in nearly every preview, but you can’t stop going to the rim simply because of one player; you have to force him away from the rim into a negative situation. I think the Vols have a few interesting ways of doing this, including pretty much any form of a Fulkerson-based pick-and-roll.

It’s odd to say this, given what we thought we knew, but Fulkerson now carries a decent bit of defender gravity with him wherever he goes. In the Ole Miss game, Kermit Davis was forced to send a double team to him, a sentence I never believed I would type. If he can draw Nebo out of the paint (along with Nkamhoua, I guess), that opens up the floor immensely.

Perimeter shooting turnaround could realistically start here

Tennessee will have their chance to take as many threes as they’d like. While I’d prefer they get to the rim and score much more often, they did – long, drawn-out sigh, trying to ask myself why I’m doing this yet again – convert six of 15 three-point attempts against a similarly perimeter-lenient Kansas defense.

Tennessee is far from an electric team from deep, as literally all of us know, but I continue to believe there’s something more for guys like Jordan Bowden and Jalen Johnson.

When you get opportunities like this on defense, you’re legally required to take advantage

Defensively, this is the easiest-to-stop offense Tennessee has played since Jacksonville State. It is easily the worst SEC offense this season, and given that it’s closer to 340th-place Alabama State (scored 41 on the Vols!) than the second-worst SEC team (Ole Miss), you are free to have pretty high expectations for Tennessee’s defensive efficiency.

The other four teams Tennessee played at 200th or lower in KenPom’s offensive rankings posted the following efficiencies: 0.873 PPP, 0.577, 0.638, 0.774. Texas A&M’s only played four games against KenPom top 50 defenses, but here’s how those shook out: 0.692 PPP, 0.635, 0.91, 1.002. The last of those was Oklahoma State this past weekend, a game they lost by 11 points at home.

It’s a Texas A&M team that misses threes, doesn’t hit many non-Nebo twos, turns the ball over frequently, and is extremely reliant on getting to the line to score at all, which is a non-ideal strategy against a Tennessee team that’s only had about three games with real foul issues.

NEXT PAGE: Thank you, Kobe.

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