Show Me My Opponent, 2020-21: USC Upstate

 How Tennessee matches up

As well as I could possibly imagine

For the third straight game, Tennessee struck yet another program record in the KenPom era: three consecutive games of 1.3 PPP or higher. Offensively, this team is starting to buzz, and while it’s coming against pretty weak competition, this is obviously a great sign. Recall, if you will, that last year’s team posted zero games of any kind above 1.25 PPP, and the 2018-19 offense that amazed us all didn’t post a 1.3+ PPP effort until its 12th game of the season. (Horrifyingly, the team that still holds the “number of games at 1.3+ PPP” record I made up is Cuonzo’s final Vols team, with eight.)

This group is ahead of schedule, and it helps that their shot selection seems to consistently stay at the level you’d want to see from a championship contender.

82.3% of Tennessee’s shots were either in the paint or from three, which is a good ratio, though I’d like to see it even higher. (To Tennessee’s credit, only four field goal attempts were of the long mid-range variety.) Tennessee remains their best offensive selves when they look to get the ball in the paint, whether that’s via the post or a drive to the rim.

Tennessee’s been nailing these short mid-range looks thus far to the tune of a 44.7% hit rate on shots from 10-14 feet, 10.5% above the national average. I genuinely do believe Tennessee’s going to keep hitting these; they simply have the talent to stay at this level for a very long time, even if they might have an off night at a different facet of the game.

USC Upstate’s going to give up a lot of easy shots in this game; it’s simply what they do. So I’d like to see Tennessee bust it out in transition and get a couple points the easy way:

And I’d like to see them toe right up to the three-point line and take shorter, easier threes.

Upstate is more than happy to let them do it, and thus far, Tennessee should be happy to take advantage. The Vols are 25-for-54 on threes from 21-24 feet, but just 9-for-38 on threes 25+ feet out. That’s a pretty extreme split, and it’ll regress some (21-24 foot threes are typically 2-3% more efficient than 25-30 feet), but you’d prefer the easier shots.

Force tough threes and the game will be a snoozer

Defensively, Upstate knows their only way to stay in this game is to hit 15 threes, so Tennessee has to make these as tough as possible, which they’ve done a great job of doing this season. Let’s revisit the stat from earlier: 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. Add an excellent 67/33 Guarded/Unguarded split (and a lot of dribble jumpers) to that, and Tennessee making opponents look silly is pretty easy to figure out:

Along with that, Tennessee’s rim protection has been so good that it’s forced opponents to take a lot of 5-10 foot shots in comparison to those within four feet of the rim. Again, per CBB Analytics, Tennessee ranks in the 8th-percentile nationally in shots surrendered at the rim, but 100th-percentile (#2 overall!) in shots allowed from 5-10 feet. Teams are so scared of Pons, Fulkerson, and everyone else that they’ve had to take a lot of shots they’d prefer to get closer for.

You all know this, of course, but this type of opponent shot selection adds up. In 2019-20, our most recent full season of data, teams shot 64.1% within four feet of the rim but just 44.5% from 5-10 feet. Tennessee’s forcing their opponents to make a choice that’s 20% worse more often than not, along with a choice on the perimeter that’s 2-3% worse (and 6-9 points less efficient) with more frequency than nearly any other defense of the last five years. It’s a special group.

Also, Upstate turns it over a lot, Tennessee forces a lot of turnovers, this section almost writes itself.

This could be a particularly excellent night for both Keon Johnson and Josiah-Jordan James, a pair of players who have been fantastic at forcing turnovers.

NEXT PAGE: Lineup notes, key matchups, three predictions

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