The superior unit, thanks to possibly-improved rim protection
Here’s where the narrative may be shifting a bit from Kerns’ past and his influences to what he’s done with the Mountaineers. Both Young and Keating were much more known for quality offense than quality defense, and Kerns’ only top 100 unit so far was his 2018-19 offense at Presbyterian. However, last year’s App defense finished 127th on KenPom, its best ranking since 2006-07. Per Bart Torvik’s numbers so far, the App defense has performed at the level of a low-end top 100 unit. Obviously, we’ve got to wait and see them play better competition, but odds are the App defense will be the better unit for the second year in a row.
This is a fairly traditional man-to-man defense whose main strength under Kerns has been avoiding foul trouble, though this has been at the expense of essentially no real rim protection threat. The first three Kerns defenses ranked 332nd, 343rd, and 294th in block percentage, and his best 2PT% allowed is still 50.6% (225th nationally) in 2019-20. Still, I could be reasonably convinced that those issues are slowly being resolved. Against South Carolina State and Charlotte, App State held their opponents to 35.4% and 42.3% from two, respectively. Those would’ve been two of App’s seven best 2PT% allowed outings for all of last season. Importantly, App blocked ten of Charlotte’s shots:
And while Bowling Green had greater success, they still only got to a point per possession against the Mountaineers, in part due to four blocks and App committing six fewer fouls. The majority of their blocks have come from James Lewis, Jr. and freshman C.J. Huntley, both of whom appear to be fairly mobile and solid pieces to work with:
Again: this likely won’t be how the whole season goes, and even those improved numbers couldn’t buy them a win against Bowling Green, who went 18-for-25 at the rim anyway.
This still looks like a somewhat superior unit to last year’s, at least. Kerns is a bright coach from THE Kingsport, Tennessee, and he seems well-positioned to use these experiences to garner a better, higher-profile job in the near future. If his rim defense is even 5% better than last year’s, they should be a top-half Sun Belt team, which isn’t that weak of a compliment.
Either the greatest closeout defense in modern college basketball or the beneficiary of a small sample size
I’m of two minds about our next tidbit. As I’ve covered before, there isn’t a ton of statistical alliance that three-point defense really exists, and only a few teams (namely Kentucky) have consistently shown any ability to truly affect opponent 3PT% year-over-year. (In Kentucky’s case, it helps that 90% of their roster is 6’7” or taller.) The only true way to keep your opponents from making threes is to prevent the three-point attempt in the first place. App State doesn’t really do this, and 40% of opponent field goal attempts are from downtown:
And yet, they might quietly be very good at closing out on threes, which is half the battle. Synergy has the Mountaineers at an absurd 85/15 Guarded/Unguarded grade, which is the highest Guarded rate I’ve seen in my three seasons doing these previews. I’ve never seen a rate like that last the full season (Liberty came pretty close one season at 80/20), and the Mountaineers graded out at a pretty solid 65/35 last season. Again, though: guarding the three properly is part of the process. App State appears well-coached in that regard, and it makes me think Tennessee likely won’t get off many wide-open threes in this game.
Yes they play a zone please stop asking
To answer the question that will be asked by every fan until Tennessee properly breaks down a zone, yes, Appalachian State does occasionally run a zone defense. After Colorado slowed Tennessee’s offense to a halt in the first game, Cincinnati broke out a 1-3-1 against the Vols for roughly a third of the possessions in Saturday’s game. Tennessee was more successful against it than they were Colorado’s, but they’ve still got a way to go in breaking down a zone. Kerns doesn’t do it often, but he’s ran what I would best describe as an extended 2-3 zone that’s more like a 2-2-1 for 11 possessions, mostly against Bowling Green. For what it’s worth, they gave up three very open threes in this zone:
So, yeah, Tennessee will probably play against a zone again.
Like all white guys, I “enjoy” podcasts
I listened to the Basketball Immersion podcast this weekend, which Kerns was featured on in the offseason. While you can only glean so much from these that aren’t boilerplate coach-speak, Kerns did let one thing slip that I found quite important: App State treats drawing charges like it’s their secret sauce, up to and including a full printout of every player’s drawn charges that they put on a wall. This one will be on there soon:
I’m assuming Barnes and staff will prepare the younger players for this by telling them to look for open kickouts or to step to the side to avoid contact. Shouldn’t be too hard to make happen.
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