Show Me My Opponent: Mississippi State

HOW TENNESSEE BEATS IT

Think about otters instead

I don’t talk about it much for obvious reasons, but on Tuesday nights, I co-lead a church group that some would describe as a Biblical study. Considering my audience is either basketball nerds or East Tennessee lifers, perhaps this translates fairly effectively, but I try to leave it out of the site just to be safe. That’s a long way of saying that, due to Tuesday’s 6:30 PM ET tipoff, I got to see the first ~14 minutes of the game live and missed the rest. Let me tell you: I have rarely been more thankful to miss a Tennessee basketball game than when I checked the ESPN app around 8:40 PM ET and saw the final score.

What an utter disaster against a disastrous team. The same team that got demolished by all three of Harvard, Temple, and Fairfield sure looked dominant against Tennessee on the boards. Texas A&M hadn’t posted an OREB% higher than 37.5% all season; of course they would post 57.5% against Tennessee. Look at this:

Even if you remove A&M’s seven deadball rebounds, it’s still a 48.5% OREB%, which would easily be Tennessee’s worst outing of the season. As it stands, it’s the second-worst OREB% Tennessee has allowed in 20 years. As you can predict from a site titled “Stats by Will,” I’m far from a “you can’t measure heart” guy, but after offensive rebound #12 or #15 or #19, do you take a look inward and wonder what exactly you’re doing wrong?

The one thing they did do well was score at the rim, so…do it again

Anyway, here is an opponent that doesn’t do very many great things on defense other than block mid-range shots. You have already heard what I am about to tell you, but why not say it again: go to the rim and don’t stop going.

Of all the bad Tennessee did against Texas A&M, Tennessee did actually do that pretty well: 16 of their 23 two-point attempts were layups or dunks, and they converted 13.

That’s good, and John Fulkerson was predictably great at the rim as usual. (Jordan Bowden, too!)

They went 8-for-29 from the rest of the court, but really, I don’t know if I’m even mad about that. Texas A&M went 9-of-38 away from the rim and 7-of-18 at it, so, yeah.

Mid-range & threes: 404 file not found

Considering the one thing MSU is truly great at defensively is blocking mid-range shots, I would simply ask Tennessee’s players to not take them. I know this behooves Josiah-Jordan James, but perhaps a player of his stature could benefit from some easier shots.

Any shot-based analytics program would have told him this already, but I don’t get paid $5 million dollars to tell him.

I’m tired of talking about Tennessee’s three-point woes, so just consider this a placeholder. If you want a stat, Santiago Vescovi is 7-of-29 from three over his last seven games, which is more of a way of saying no one can shoot 67% from three forever than it is a complaint.

Any non-rim shot from MSU is a win

Defensively, MSU’s goal is to take around 40% of their shots within four feet of the rim. They’ll pound it down low early and often, which should take no one by surprise. Again, Tennessee has been incredibly good at the rim, both at blocking attempts and at making unblocked attempts incredibly tough to convert.

For all this team’s flaws, you absolutely have to earn your points on the first shot, and aside from the atrocious A&M effort, they’ve rarely gotten demolished on the boards. (Cincinnati and maybe South Carolina are the only two other games anyone can realistically point to.) Tennessee’s got to protect against all oncomers, whether it’s a drive to the basket from a ball-screen or spot-up situation or it’s a normal Perry post-up.

State’s perimeter shooting is probably worth a few words in the sense that Robert Woodard and maybe Reggie Perry seem like legitimately good shooters, but they don’t take many threes. Really, it’s hard to write much about a team’s three-point shooting when they haven’t topped seven made threes in a game since December 5.

The children of the world are begging you: force turnovers and rebound

Instead: look at all the turnovers these guys commit. Ado is a turnover machine down low, and Nick Weatherspoon (remember him?) has struggled to control the ball properly at the point.

State almost certainly beats LSU three weeks back if they don’t lose the turnover battle 18-8. Tennessee has a real opportunity here to force some ugly turnovers, and they badly need to take advantage. If Tennessee cannot force a 19% TO% or worse from State, wrap it up, party’s over.

Also, rebound, wouldja?

NEXT PAGE: Lineup notes, key matchups, predictions, hey I just noticed that Tennessee is apparently sponsored by Muscle Milk, which tastes so, so bad, can they please sign up Shamrock Farms or Fairlife instead

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