Show Me My Opponent, 2020-21: Tennessee Tech

How Tennessee matches up

Uh, well. They match up extremely well. What else do you want me to say

Sorry. If you would like a little bit of positivity, for the first time ever, they included some of my stats in the Game Notes:

I try and downplay how much I enjoy exposure, but I couldn’t help but smile at this. It is nice.

Anyway, Tennessee’s offense looked quite a bit better, thanks in part to great shot selection and rebounding

It flew under the radar because Tennessee had yet another amazing night on defense, but the Tennessee offense had its first legitimately good game of 2020-21. In fact, it had its best night in terms of offensive efficiency since a February 2019 win against Texas A&M: 1.334 points per possession. That would’ve been the third-best offensive outing of the 2018-19 season, which featured the best offense in Tennessee history. 

So what drove this surprisingly great performance? It wasn’t really the shooting; Tennessee’s 53.7% eFG% would’ve only been the 11th-best shooting night last season, when Tennessee struggled to score offensively. That’s the best shooting outing of this short year, but that didn’t drive a good night. It wasn’t free throws; Tennessee only took nine of them, though they did hit seven. Instead of those reliable factors, it was an outstanding night of shot volume for the Vols: they only committed six turnovers and, most importantly, they put forward 18 offensive rebounds:

Some of these were more awkward-looking than others, but the point still stands. Tennessee rebounded exactly half of their 36 offensive rebound opportunities, an astounding rate against an App State team that hadn’t exactly shown a propensity to surrender lots of second chances. Against a Tennessee Tech team that’s worse at rebounding, they may have even more opportunities for extra points.

Along with those rebounds, Tennessee did a great job at improving their shot selection. It doesn’t come as a serious surprise, but considering I graded Tennessee’s shot selection in their previous two games as a C (Colorado) and a B (Cincinnati), I’d give this one an A+. Tennessee took 42 of their 67 shots in the paint, with 23 coming within three feet of the rim:

They did a fantastic job of turning down long mid-range twos for shorter, higher-percentage looks, as Jaden Springer does here:

In fact, they didn’t take a single two-pointer from 17-20 feet, which fills my heart with joy. Also, they turned down okay shots for much better ones. Look at the intelligence displayed here by Keon Johnson, who turns down a 12-footer he’d probably have a 40% chance of hitting for a wide-open three for Josiah-Jordan James, the third-best three-point shooter on the team:

THAT IS WHAT I AM LOOKING FOR! God, it makes me so happy. Like an early Christmas present. Okay, I’m calming down, promise. Tennessee should be able to get those looks more frequently against a Tech defense that hasn’t shown nearly the same capability to close out on threes as the App State defense had.

Per John Brannen, Knoxville is home to Mountain Texas Tech

As we’ve talked about offensive shot selection, so will we on the defensive end. In App State’s previous game, a 61-57 win against Charlotte, the Mountaineers got about 43% of their total shots in the paint and got off seven corner three-point attempts. They only hit one of those, of course, but the fact is App State had a pretty solid night of shot selection against the 49ers, a former Tennessee opponent. App State only getting 38 points against Tennessee makes a lot of sense when you see just how bad of a night of shot selection they were forced into:

That shot was even in the paint, which made it a relative rarity for App State on this night. Consider that Charlotte stat, then consider the fact Tennessee only allowed the Mountaineers to get 13 of their 43 field goal attempts (30.2%) in the paint and only gave up three corner three-point attempts. Speaking of those: in the years I’ve covered Tennessee basketball, I’ve generally considered anything above 75% on the Synergy Guarded/Unguarded scale to be a really good defensive night. So treat Tuesday night as the special night it was, because out of 19 App State catch-and-shoot attempts, Tennessee had a defender within four feet on 18 of them

That is merely the single-best one-game sample I’ve ever seen from Tennessee basketball, and that is how you hold an opponent to 5-for-21 from three and it not look like too small of a sample size to judge on. It’s amazing that, despite COVID, this Tennessee defense already looks like a fully-formed unit sent to destroy all oncomers. Per James, Tennessee still isn’t close to complete on defense. If that is true, I need to adjust my own personal expectations for this team.

I guess it goes without saying at this point, but considering Tennessee is about to play a team that turns it over more frequently than all but two opponents on their current schedule, Tennessee is going to force a ton of turnovers, both in the backcourt and the frontcourt. They tied a Barnes-era record for steals on Tuesday night, grabbing 13.

Considering that App now sit at almost the exact same turnover percentage on the season, Tennessee has a real chance to break that steals record in this game. As much as I adored the 2017-18 defense, this one really does have a chance to be the best in university history, and that’s not a small accomplishment.

NEXT PAGE: Lineup notes, key matchup, three predictions

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