Show Me My Opponent: Auburn (#1)

HOW TENNESSEE BEATS IT

I promise that there’s been real improvement

If I told you that over the last 10 games, per Bart Torvik, an SEC team had the 58th best offense and the 43rd best defense nationally, which team would you select?

A. Arkansas
B. Auburn
C. South Carolina
D. Tennessee

If you chose A, B, or C, turn out the lights, party’s over. Tennessee – yes, Tennessee, the same offense we’ve watched fart out numerous snoozers in 2019-20 – has had a top 60 offense from the Vanderbilt game onward.

It makes sense, I promise. Tennessee has quietly posted three of their four most efficient performances of the season in the last 10 games (Ole Miss, Miss State, Arkansas games). They’ve had a better offense over the last ten games than all three of the teams mentioned above.

Together, it makes them a low-end top 40 team…which, as I mentioned back in October, seemed like a realistic hope for the end of the season. Have we gotten here in the ways we’d hoped or expected? By no means, as a 5-5 record during this stretch shows.

But: Tennessee has gotten better, and three of the five losses were by five points or fewer. Flip the result of your choice, as KenPom’s Luck metric suggests fans should, and this is an 8-5 SEC squad and 16-10 overall.

Please keep attacking the rim

Anyway, as mentioned above, we know Auburn blocks plenty of shots at the rim, but we also know they’ve struggled to guard mobile perimeter players as well as having some consistency issues in guarding post players. Obviously, none of Tennessee’s perimeter players fit the mold we’re looking for perfectly, but Jordan Bowden has taken a very pleasing step forward from the January 18 Vanderbilt game onward.

He’s gotten much better at taking the ball to the rim, whether it’s off of a ball screen or out of a scenario created by another player. I’d also love to see Yves Pons take it to the rim more regularly.

He’s been the recipient of numerous quality flash/basket cuts created by other players this season, but on the rare occasions he’s gone to the rim out of a spot-up scenario, it’s been a blast to watch. Also: John Fulkerson, obviously, needs to get the ball down low…though commentators have correctly pointed out that he can become predictable. Per Synergy, he’s gone to the basket when turning his shoulder left just once all season; when turning right, he’s gone straight to the basket 15 times.

Non-rim/perimeter looks

I don’t think Tennessee should take many, if any, non-rim twos in this game. If anyone is allowed to take these shots, it should be the usual suspects: Yves Pons (47.8% FG%), Jordan Bowden (45.2%), and John Fulkerson (42.9%).

(No more Josiah-Jordan James or Davonte Gaines non-rim twos, ever.) Instead, I’d prefer more threes. I know this will make your skin boil, and Tennessee should obviously prioritize going to the paint, but they can’t take every shot at the rim. I could definitely see Auburn struggling with defending Santiago Vescovi’s spot-ups, sure:

But I would love to see a couple of pick-and-pop plays with Pons as the screener, as well as having Jalen Johnson and JJJ spreading the floor appropriately.

Force Auburn into as many non-rim twos as possible

Defensively, Tennessee’s preferred mode – closing out hard on threes and forcing shorter twos – is probably not a terrible strategy against a team that takes tons of threes and rarely, if ever, takes a mid-range jumper.

Auburn will get to the rim often, and it’s on Tennessee to both challenge Auburn’s attempts and to not commit a load of fouls. I have no idea if it got any coverage, because who knows anymore, but I thought Georgia did an utterly phenomenal job on defense against Auburn. Georgia blocked three of Auburn’s rim attempts, which was great, but they forced 20 non-rim twos by the Tigers.

That almost never happens. If Tennessee can force J’Von McCormick and Samir Doughty into lots of low-percentage looks, they’ll be in serious business.

Guarding the perimeter well is a necessity

Likewise, we know Auburn’s going to take a bunch of threes. Tennessee’s got to guard these well, but they’re going to come in unconventional ways. Around 30% of Auburn’s half-court threes are pull-ups off the dribble, mostly from J’Von McCormick and Samir Doughty, largely pulling up off of on-ball screens. Tennessee really hasn’t played many teams that are this prone to having one player that pulls up that often, let alone two. They got victimized by Wisconsin’s D’Mitrik Trice:

And Georgia’s Anthony Edwards:

But that’s really it; Cincinnati is the only team this season to get more than two 3PM from the ball-handler in a P&R. If Tennessee can guard these well and not get lost in switching, they’ll be okay. Auburn will also take a lot of threes from spot-up situations, but Tennessee obviously has quite a bit more experience guarding those.

Two more things while we’re here: Auburn has been lights-out on the offensive boards this year, with Austin Wiley in particular being one of the best rebounders in the country. Tennessee needs to be much better on the boards than they’ve been at times lately. I’d prefer to make more GIFs of normal, quality defensive rebounding than of putbacks. Also, Auburn has a few players on the roster that you’re probably comfortable fouling if needed. McCormick is a 59.4% FT shooter, Allen Flanigan 44.1%, Devan Cambridge 29.4%.

NEXT PAGE: Lineup notes, key matchups, prediction, possibly one more Tiger(s)-related song name if I can find it

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