Show Me My Opponent, 2020-21: Arkansas

How Tennessee matches up

Fairly well, with some improved shot selection and better shooting luck

So Saturday didn’t go as well as we thought it would. That’s fine. Let’s talk shot quality, and let’s talk about what happens when the shots you normally make don’t go down.

Here’s some…less than fortunate facts:

  • Against KenPom Top 100 teams, Tennessee’s eFG% performances have been as follows: 42.5%, 33.9%, 54.6%, 34.9%. Only one of those is any good.
  • In three of the four games, Tennessee’s shot 38% or worse on twos.
  • If you exclude the Missouri game, where Tennessee randomly made 5 of their 7 threes, the Vols are 13-for-52 from three in these three games.

All of those are objectively bad, and all of those are fine enough reasons to worry a little about Tennessee’s offense. And yet: to start worrying now is to exclude a very good offensive performance against Missouri (1.191 opponent-adjusted PPP) and to try and say luck doesn’t exist.

This tweet by Ken Pomeroy earlier this week really caught my eye, and it helped me remember why I do the stats stuff I do in the first place:

And this, an NBA-related tweet that I apparently had bookmarked directly under a tweet about how Louisiana is no longer a boot-shaped state.

I don’t feel like wasting more words, because I do that enough already. It is okay to say Tennessee was unlucky to shoot as badly as they did against Alabama and Cincinnati, and it is okay to say Alabama was quite lucky to make 10 of 20 threes. There’s nothing wrong at all with that analysis. Honestly, you could even say that Tennessee was pretty lucky to hit five of seven threes against Missouri. It happens. Alabama hit five of their eight wide-open threes; Tennessee hit 2 of their 10. Of course, it doesn’t tell the whole story, but it’s better than asking if the offense is going to be this bad forever.

Now that that’s out of the way, my goodness did some of Tennessee’s shot attempts drive me up a wall. Tennessee did get an awful lot of good looks in this game that simply didn’t go down, like this 4-footer that normally is converted:

Or this wide-open short-range three that I felt pretty good about:

But even still, Tennessee took eight threes from 25+ feet out and 11 mid-range twos, of which they hit one and three tries, respectively. That’s 4-for-19 on shots I outright don’t get excited about, if you’re keeping track at home.

Tennessee wasted several possessions with these shots, and it also annoyed me greatly that when Alabama continued to miss free throw after free throw late in the game, it never seemed to occur to any player on the Tennessee roster that they could just…go to the rim and get two points. Keon Johnson did this after Alabama’s first miss with 57 seconds to go, but that was it. Alabama made just 2 of their 6 free throw attempts over the final 1:05. Typically, that’s when you’d like to punish a team for their sins. Tennessee didn’t. The final possessions of the game, after Johnson’s layup, were a turnover, a missed three, and another missed three. If Tennessee even turned two of those into layups, that’s a four-point game with roughly 25 seconds left. Anything could’ve happened.

Also, man, Santiago Vescovi…brother.

Just because you can does not mean you should.

If I had to name a positive, it’s that Tennessee even got this many open shots in the first place. With the shot selection Tennessee had against Alabama, you would’ve expected them to score around 15-20 more points than they did. I mean, this was objectively a great shot for Tennessee, and it ended up being one of their few notable makes of the day:

Just keep getting to the paint and good things will happen.

Do a better job of closing out hard and keep Yves Pons on the floor

On the defensive side, I think Tennessee simply had kind of a bad day in guarding the three-point line. Alabama shouldn’t have hit 50% of their threes – that’s an outlier! – but they probably deserved to hit around 35-40% of them. Tennessee just left shooters open a few too many times, and it was the main cause for the loss:

As mentioned before, Tennessee only properly guarded seven (though I personally thought it was higher) of Alabama’s 15 catch-and-shoot threes. Put simply, that ain’t good enough. Tennessee has to do better, and I fully expect them to do better. This was pretty easily the worst perimeter defensive performance they’ve had yet, and it shouldn’t stay this way. (It goes without saying that they need Jaden Springer to be healthy more than anything at the moment.)

All that being said, when a shot like this goes in, all you can do is laugh and shake your head.

Nothing wrong with letting the opponent take an isolation three at any point of the game. If they go in, they go in, whatever. None of Alabama or Arkansas’s shooters are exactly 2010 Jimmer Fredette, so you just have to move on from this and be okay with it.

On a positive note, Tennessee forced way tougher two-pointers than Alabama is accustomed to taking. Alabama only converted 13 of their 33 attempts within three feet of the rim, per Synergy, and while part of this was due to perhaps the best defensive game of Yves Pons’ career:

A lot of it was due to Tennessee simply having a pretty scary rim protection plan, even in a game where John Fulkerson got played off the floor. Regardless of opponent and regardless of the player with the ball in his hands, rotations like these are going to be scary:

Tennessee, even on their bad days, has the ability to just straight-up erase an opponent’s hopes and dreams. I feel fairly positive about getting back to normal tonight against a similarly good Arkansas team. Worth noting that, of course, Fulkerson has still been fantastic for the most part:

Have faith and such.

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