Show Me My Opponent, 2020-21: Cincinnati

How Tennessee matches up

Tennessee seems well-prepped for a man-to-man look

The short version of Tuesday’s Colorado win is that Tennessee shot like garbage and still won by nine points because they played a better defensive game than I think I expected them to play all season. The long version: Tennessee shot like garbage in part because a surprising Colorado zone defense that they didn’t prepare for forced them to take a ton of mid-range twos they’d probably prefer to forget. If Tennessee hits those at the rate we’ve come to expect, they probably win that game by 15+…but then again, if Colorado hits their shots at an expected rate, it could’ve been even closer. So we’ll call it a wash.

Firstly, we’ve got to talk offense. No player scored more than 11 points, but I think there’s some positives that’ll carry over to this Cincinnati fixture. I thought Tennessee did a great job taking the right kind of certain shots. Of Tennessee’s 19 three-point attempts, all but one was of the more efficient catch-and-shoot variety, which is what I’ve been begging for under Barnes to happen. The only one that wasn’t a direct catch-and-shoot was this Santiago Vescovi three where he took exactly one dribble to the right from a spot-up situation:

That’s obviously fine. The other player I wanted to see get more catch-and-shoot opportunities was Josiah-Jordan James, and to his credit, he did get three…but he missed them all. Some of these just look like he’s shaking off the rust:

But one of them earlier in the second half was a painfully bad miss. Hopefully, that’ll correct itself over the course of more games.

Trying to talk through this game is difficult, because it feels like it’ll be a very unique game in Tennessee’s season. At no other point this year will Tennessee be coming off of nine months of rest, playing an opponent they just scheduled three days prior. I wasn’t worried about most of the misses, and in fact, I was quite impressed with how handily Tennessee dispatched of Colorado’s man-to-man offense. Tennessee scored 26 points on 21 possessions against it in the first half, and it looked as if they’d be comfortable to cruise home. Here’s Vescovi slashing through the defense to deliver a wide-open Victor Bailey three:

Along with this, Tennessee delivered a delightful combo that I’ve taken to calling Beef House: Anosike and Fulkerson on the court at the same time. Both can post up, both can move to the basket, and Anosike’s range extends farther than he let on in this game. But I did get a big kick out of this post move, which Colorado never really stopped:

But they’ve got to be prepared for a possible Cincinnati zone

However, at 7:26 of the first half, Colorado made the switch to a 2-3 zone, something they’d stick with until 2:20 was left in the game. During those 25 minutes, here’s how Tennessee’s shooting numbers looked:

  • 10-for-36 from the field (27.8%)
  • 5-for-20 on non-rim two-pointers (25%)
  • 1-for-4 at the rim (25%)
  • 4-for-12 from three (33.3%)

You do not need to be me to understand that Tennessee defaulted to waaaaaaaaaay too many non-rim twos in this game. A ratio of 55.6% of your shots being these is horrific regardless of game context. Too frequently, Tennessee resigned for a turd like this:

Or this:

Or this entire sequence, which does result in a wide-open 14-footer that still made me more upset than any other offensive possession on the night. Tennessee had 12 self-inflicted turnovers in this game, but they made up for that on the defensive end. Whatever Olivier Nkamhoua does when he gets the ball inside the semi-circle genuinely had me in disbelief:

SHOOT. THE. BALL.

Like we addressed above, Tennessee should have plenty of opportunities to dissect Cincinnati’s unusually leaky man-to-man defense on both the perimeter and at the rim, and I do think it’s a good sign that Tennessee’s shooting splits were significantly less upsetting against Colorado’s man-to-man defense. I feel a lot better about any number of Tennessee guards driving to the rim and scoring/dishing against Cincinnati than I did against Colorado, to be honest.

That said, Cincinnati should at least try a zone for some parts of this game, if only to see how much Tennessee’s improved at shooting in four days.

Is Keith Williams allowed entry into the paint?

Of course not.

Defensively, the game plan is obvious: keep Keith Williams away from the rim. One reason why Cincinnati won last year is that the Vols did a terrible job at keeping the Bearcat guards out of the paint, and it was a feeding frenzy for Trevon Scott and Williams:

The good news is that I thought Tennessee did an utterly fantastic job of this against McKinley Wright on Colorado, who is significantly better than any guard Cincinnati has to offer. Wright had dropped 44 combined against the Buffs’ first two opponents, but he barely got to 8 against Tennessee, in part because the Vols did a fantastic job forcing he and the rest of the Colorado roster to pull up before they got to the rim:

Regardless of the offensive rebound that comes after, that is what high-quality rim protection looks like. Simply because Fulkerson’s there and Wright’s man recovers quickly and properly, it’s either that or a wild, unpredictable pass. That’s what Tennessee needs more of all year long.

We wanted more steals, and Tennessee’s backcourt is forcing them all over

Along with this, we gotta talk about just how great of an outing Tennessee had on Tuesday. In the season preview, I talked about my hopes for this Tennessee backcourt. Namely, the depth of it being so great led to a simple belief: more depth should equal more steals, which should equal a much better defense. Tennessee last had this level of depth in 2017-18, when they had a top-five defense in America and forced a ton of turnovers all season long. While this is just one game, Tennessee absolutely looked the part of a frightening defensive backcourt:

I mean, I cannot get enough of Keon Johnson’s cornerback user swat here. My goodness!

That’s just beautiful, man.

So far, Cincinnati’s done fairly well in turnover avoidance, but neither of their first two opponents were particularly stingy defenses. Furman was the first turnover-machine team they’ve played, and the Paladins forced turnovers on 22.1% of Cincinnati possessions, or 16 turnovers total. It was what kept them in the game on a night where they hit just 25% of their threes and converted twos at a much lower rate. It’s not difficult to see a scenario where Tennessee breaks the 20% threshold again; if they do, Cincinnati either has to outwork the Vols on the boards or have their best shooting night thus far of the season to make up that gap.

Also, I have to note the following: Tennessee had one of their greatest defensive performances in my lifetime on Tuesday night. Bart Torvik’s site adjusts PPP allowed to the skill level of the opponent, and Tennessee’s adjusted PPP allowed was just 0.68 PPP. That’s astoundingly low, even if Tennessee were playing a 300-level school. So I went into the data to find out the last time Tennessee breached that number against a Top 100 opponent, and let me tell you this. Tennessee’s 0.68 Adjusted PPP Allowed to Colorado on Tuesday is their best effort since the infamous 37-36 Georgetown game eight years ago. The ceiling defensively may be higher than even I thought it could be.

NEXT PAGE: Lineup notes, key matchups, predictions

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