Show Me My Opponent, 2020-21: USC Upstate


If you wanted to design an anti-defense, this might be it!

Of all the defenses and various looks Tennessee will face this season, it will be either this or LSU that is the system that most personally offends me. This is the worst defense on Tennessee’s schedule, which is not terribly surprising, because USC Upstate operates at the bottom rung of D-1 athletics and doesn’t have much money to spread around. I’m willing to cut a large amount of slack in buy games, simply because Tennessee is far, far more athletic and talented than the opponent. I can understand simply not having the horses to compete.

But what I can’t comprehend is not having the horses to compete and running a system that surrenders perhaps the most optimal shot selection for opponents in America.

Per CBB Analytics, 71.3% of all shots allowed by the Spartans are either within three feet of the rim or a short (21-24 feet) three, which is tied for the worst ratio in America with Northern Arizona. If you like seeing an opponent get the best possible shot selection they can, watch every USC Upstate game and study how porous their rim protection is.

This one’s in transition, so perhaps you could be a little more lenient here, but I can’t be because they do a horrendous job of getting back on defense.

When you do this, no wonder opponents are posting a 57.5% eFG%, pretty easily the highest of anyone on Tennessee’s schedule. Upstate players frequently appear lost on defense, don’t seem to know what or who their assignment is, and cannot cover a ball screen correctly to save their lives. If they had these issues against a schedule like Saint Joseph’s (two Top 10 opponents!), I’d get it. But this has happened against a schedule with two sub-200 KenPom offenses and only one offense ranked higher than #81 (Furman, #52). It’s inexcusable to me to be this bad defensively. Only 12 schools have had a worse start to the season on defense this year, per Bart Torvik.

Lots of open threes. What a shocker!

Also, let’s talk about the threes, and let’s talk about distance. Part of the reason why Tennessee’s opponent eFG% is so low is because of their length; it’s like Optimal Kentucky right now. Because Tennessee is so long, and because they close out very hard, opponents have been forced to take 20.4% of all shots (and 45.4% of all threes) from more than 24 feet out, per CBB Analytics. The deeper you go, the less likely you are to hit a shot. So explain to me how USC Upstate is allowing 37.8% of opponent shots and 92.2% of all three-point attempts to come within three feet of the arc.

Not ideal! Opponents are shooting 37.4% from downtown, and it could’ve been even worse had Georgia Southern not posted a 2-for-17 night out of nowhere. Now, if USC Upstate were guarding these shorter shots – again, because they are shorter – it would make things a little more rational. You’ll surely be stunned to hear this, but they are not, as Synergy has them at a 49/51 Guarded/Unguarded split, about 6% below the national average.

They also don’t force any jumpers at all off the dribble – barely four a game – but I’ve run out of space and brain power.

Lastly, yes, they run a zone sometimes. In what is more of a desperate move than anything else, Upstate has run a 2-3 zone in an attempt to slow opponents down. It…has not worked.

This defense just makes me very, very sad. It doesn’t have to be this way! Promise!

NEXT PAGE: A defense that makes me very, very happy

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