Show Me My Opponent, 2020-21: Vanderbilt (#1)

How Tennessee matches up

Very well, as long as they sustain their quality shot selection

Admittedly, the joys of being able to pick on bad SEC teams has been lessened a tad by already playing and beating the second-worst SEC team in Texas A&M. Tennessee led first, held a double-digit lead for roughly 25 minutes of the game, and never felt seriously threatened by their significantly weaker competition. The 14-point margin of victory was larger than both KenPom and Bart Torvik’s site anticipated, so, obviously, I am a pretty happy fellow as I type this.

In some ways, Tennessee would do well to get the exact same shots they got against A&M in the relatively easy victory. Tennessee shot 21 threes, their second-highest number of the season, in part because A&M allows the most three-point attempts of any opponent on Tennessee’s schedule. Any excuse you can make to get Santiago Vescovi going from downtown is a good one:

Per Synergy, 10 of Tennessee’s 19 catch-and-shoot jumpers were unguarded, which is a good rate to see. (Tennessee did a great job guarding A&M’s on the other end, which we’ll discuss shortly.) A&M and Vanderbilt are rated as roughly the same in terms of closing out and forcing jumpers off the dribble, so it’s reasonable to declare that Tennessee could have another game where they’re opening the offense up from downtown. I mean, if you’re getting open looks like these, why turn them down?

In one sense, I’m happy to stand behind that. In the other, I think it’s inarguable that even A&M is far better at both rebounding and rim protection (and it’s not as if they’re great at the latter) than Vanderbilt is. A&M heavily won the offensive rebounding battle with the benefit of a few deadball rebounds that all went against Tennessee, which was admittedly unfortunate. Even so, Tennessee destroyed A&M’s interior defense from start to finish in a variety of ways. On some possessions, it was John Fulkerson doing a fantastic job of finding holes in the A&M defense:

On others, it was about the impressive ability of players like Keon Johnson and Jaden Springer to drive from 20+ feet out to the rim and score on much taller defenders:

In a perfect world, Tennessee would get as close to 50% as possible of their shots within five feet of the rim in this game. Vanderbilt has no one on the roster that can regularly slow a Tennessee frontcourt player down, and they play their best perimeter defender 13 minutes a game. (Why would you not play Jordan Wright more and play Maxwell Evans way, way less? I don’t understand.) In particular, Pippen has had significant trouble staying in front of opposing guards this year. I would love to see Santiago Vescovi weasel his way inside the arc and create havoc that way; this could be a big game for him.

Also, this is the rare game where I think I’d understand if Tennessee took a lot of mid-range jumpers, as long as a big chunk of them are pretty open. Tennessee shoots these very well (46.3% on two-pointers outside of the paint, per CBB Analytics). If Vanderbilt is as willing to surrender looks like these as they have been:

Then you’ve obviously got to take them. This is the rare opponent that seems to be unable to take away any of your options, though I would remind everyone that Vandy is a solid rebounding team and can do some sort of damage that way.

Contain Pippen and force the rest of the Commodores to beat you

Defensively, this is all about stopping Pippen. Tennessee’s done a fantastic job of guarding the opponent’s #1 option this year, and it would be kind of hard to see that stopping when Vandy really doesn’t do much to surround Pippen with other great scoring options. Here’s a couple of stats for you:

  • Opponent’s top scorers before/after playing Tennessee: 15.7 PPG
  • Opponent’s top scorer against Tennessee: 9.7 PPG

That’s a six-point-per-game drop, or, if you prefer percentages, a 38.2% drop. Apply that same average to Scotty Pippen’s scoring prowess and you’d get an expected 15.6 points scored. (If you use the percentage, it’s about 13.4 points.) I don’t think you have to be a huge stathead to understand that if Scotty Pippen can’t get past 16 points, Vanderbilt is not going to come close to winning this basketball game. I would love to see Tennessee force Pippen into a series of ill-advised short mid-range jumpers, shutting off the basket at much as possible:

And I would also love to see them make him take tough, long threes off the dribble, where he’s much less efficient than he is out of a catch-and-shoot position.

Likewise, Tennessee has to work hard to avoid getting sucked in by Pippen’s gravity. Pippen creates a ton of great looks with his passes and his penetration ability, which allows Vandy to get off a pretty good amount of open looks from downtown. Vandy isn’t short on guys who can hit these looks, so Tennessee needs to hit the appropriate balance of not allowing Pippen to get to the rim and draw a foul along with making sure they cover these kickouts:

I thought Tennessee was pretty fantastic in this regard against Texas A&M and, to be honest, was probably a bit unlucky to give up an 8-for-23 day from downtown. 12 of A&M’s 18 catch-and-shoot threes were guarded, per Synergy, and it wasn’t even the open shots that cursed Tennessee in this one. A&M went 5-for-12 on those guarded threes (around 1-2 above expectation) and also made a pair of off-the-dribble threes. It was an unlucky day in this regard, which is a nice thing to say after a 14-point win.

Vanderbilt’s got a bit more shooting ability than A&M does, and they spread out the court significantly better. A similar defensive effort in this one, combined with better shooting luck, should produce a result Tennessee fans can be happy with.

NEXT PAGE: Lineup notes, key matchups, three predictions, please play the game

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