Show Me My Opponent, 2020-21: Arkansas

Arkansas defense

Sort of good and bad?

Again, not yet 40 Minutes of Hell, but slowly getting there. The Musselman system at Nevada was pretty similar. There, Muss teams worked hard to make you uncomfortable on threes and locked up the boards quite well. All four of his teams also ranked inside the top 100 in block percentage, suggesting a fairly solid rim protection strategy. If you couldn’t shoot over the top of Nevada, it was going to be a long night:

It works similarly at Arkansas. Musselman almost never runs a zone, choosing to go man-to-man as often as possible. (He’ll run out a simple press after made baskets a few times each game that I’ll look into shortly.) As fast as Arkansas plays on offense, they’ll let you play fast on the other end, too. This is a much different strategy from Alabama, for what it’s worth. The Tide work hard to slow opponents down so they can play fast on the other end. It’s the same nervy pace Gonzaga’s made famous. Not so here, because opponents are doing a fine job of getting the ball up the court quickly.

Few teams Tennessee has played this year have employed the same ugly transition vs. half-court split Arkansas has. Per Synergy, Arkansas ranks in just the 59th-percentile in transition defense while ranking in the 94th-percentile in half-court defense. Along with this, they’re holding opponents to the 25th-lowest eFG% in half-court play. The strategy seems to be apt for playing the same game Arkansas does and getting out quickly after missed shots:

Not the best at closeouts

Arkansas has a genuinely fascinating way of playing their style of defense. Like Alabama, they’ll rush at you on the three-point line to force you to go off the dribble…but they also let opponents take an alarming amount of wide-open threes. I don’t know of many teams that force as many dribble jumpers as Arkansas does and has a Guarded/Unguarded split as bad as the Hogs’ 48/52 on Synergy. Look at this:

Then look at this:

And tell me how exactly the same defense can arrive at these two very different conclusions. This works in one sense, because Arkansas allows a below-average number of short (21-24 feet) three-point attempts and an above-average amount of long twos…but how does it still lead to so many open threes?

It’s strange, because it’s not as if the final Nevada team Musselman had encountered this issue. They posted a 66/34 Guarded/Unguarded ratio alongside forcing one of the higher rates of jumpers off the dribble. Last year’s defense was more conservative in how they closed out, but even they had a much better ratio of 56/44. What’s the issue here? My guess is two-fold: Arkansas has a lot of defensive talent available, but they don’t appear to have the high-level backcourt depth necessary to play the more aggressive closeout defense Musselman is known for.

Like Tennessee in 2018-19, three players usurp the vast majority of backcourt time for the Hogs: J.D. Notae (27.2 MPG in last five games), Desi Sills (31.2 MPG), and Jalen Tate (14.8 MPG at the two traditional guard spots). That’s a lot of time for three players to occupy. Moses Moody helps, of course, but he’s more of a 3 or 4 than your traditional point guard/shooting guard defender. (Moody is playing 35 minutes a game as of late, which is also a tiny bit alarming.) While I don’t think this can be the entire answer, it could be a large part of why Arkansas is surrendering so many open looks from downtown. Auburn roasted them from downtown for much of their game last week:

And had Arkansas not had a fantastic shooting night on twos and free throws, they might’ve gone home with a loss. (Threes were not the reason for the Hogs losing to Mizzou, though you could blame the offense having a very random off day.) Tennessee’s going to have an area of opportunity here, should they choose to take advantage.

The interior defense looks solid

On the whole, though, everything else suggests this is a very good defense, particularly at the rim. Arkansas has allowed just one opponent to get past 1.01 PPP this year, and while they’ve only played two KenPom Top 100 teams (both in SEC play), that’s still a pretty good sign. Connor Vanover, being 7’3” and all, appears to be a seriously good rim protector:

Because of Vanover, and because of the rest of their interior defense, Arkansas is forcing opponents to take 27% of their shots from 4-10 feet from the rim, nearly at the rate Tennessee’s forcing. Just like the Vols, Arkansas allows a lot of attempts in the paint but very few open ones:

You’ve got to work hard to beat this defense. A couple of things that work in Tennessee’s favor, beyond the open threes, are that they’re an excellent mid-range shooting team and can use that threat to pull frontcourt defenders out and open lanes for driving. Along with this, Arkansas’s had some big issues with fouling in their first two SEC games. Auburn got 24 free throw attempts and Missouri 39 because both attacked the rim early and often to make the Hogs uncomfortable:

Tennessee cannot be fearful of what is a very good defense. If they want to reassure newfound worries about the offense, it would be a pretty ideal night to have some positive regression and score at will in the paint.

NEXT PAGE: When the outlier comes for you

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