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

How Tennessee matches up

It’s all about avoiding turnovers and getting the right shots

Hey, everything is trending in the right direction! What a relief. There is nothing wrong at all with the University of Tennessee. Can’t think of anything.

Beating Vanderbilt by 20 points may seem like a pretty regular performance, and to be sure, Tennessee balanced 30 minutes of quality hoops with about 10 of fairly frustrating basketball. But I’ll take the good 30 every time, and a win by 20 in that spot is what top ~6 teams do. There’s nothing wrong with boring 20-point wins, ever.

Against Florida, Tennessee’s going to face an opponent much more pressure-oriented than Vanderbilt. The Commodores did force Tennessee into a kind of ugly first half with six turnovers, and considering the amount of defensive pressure Tennessee is likely to get from Florida, plays like these have to be eliminated or limited to the highest possible extent:

That said, Tennessee did a very good job finding the extra pass and getting good looks at the rim against a Vandy defense without a true rim protector. This will obviously be a bit more difficult against Florida, but if you can force the Gators to overplay their hand and draw Castleton away from the rim, you’ll be able to score pretty consistently:

I’d like to see what Tennessee can do out of ball-screen sets in this one. Rick Barnes, being a Bob McKillop disciple, has never been a huge fan of going full ball-screen like a lot of coaches out there, but he’s obviously happy to include them in the offense as needed. So far, the ball-handling onus has largely fallen on Victor Bailey and Keon Johnson. To my eyes, Bailey has handled these sets better than anyone else on the team, and I’d be happy to see him do whatever he thinks is best off of a screen:

Similarly, I want to see what can happen if you put Jaden Springer in the same situation. Springer isn’t up for as much usage off of a screen as Bailey is; he’s much more attuned to looking for an open man ready to shoot. So far, Springer has done a fantastic job of spotting these open shooters when he’s had his head up. Let’s see more of it against a Florida team that’s shown very little ability to guard ball-screen sets correctly and is struggling with allowing open threes.

Lastly, Tennessee would obviously be smart to play to their strengths and feed the post. Florida hasn’t played much post-first competition this season; the only team that really comes close to Tennessee would be Mississippi State, who isn’t quite as post-heavy but had a lot of success at the rim Saturday. It sounds pretty obvious, but it bears repeating: if you play through John Fulkerson down low, good things are going to happen.

There’s some shots you really want to force Florida into, particularly anything in isolation

While I think we all know things would look a little different if Keyontae Johnson were playing and that six games isn’t a ton of data, we do know a few things about the post-Keyontae Gators. With Johnson on the court, the Gators took fewer threes, were way more efficient at the rim (albeit against weak competition), and largely looked a lot better offensively. The same was true last year. After luck and schedule adjustments, Florida’s offense was nearly 16 points better per 100 possessions with Johnson on the court, per Hoop-Explorer. They were more efficient at the rim, got more shots at the rim, and turned it over less.

With this knowledge in mind, I’d love to see three things in this game, one at each scoring level. At the rim, I want to see Tennessee continue to block the shots they’ve been blocking and force opponents to finish through some serious contests. Tennessee ranks #1 in the nation in two-point block percentage in part because of Yves Pons:

Of course, we all know it isn’t just Pons, and it’s not just the blocks. Tennessee’s continuing to force an incredibly difficult portfolio of shots by the opponent; Shot Quality has them 3 points per 100 possessions clear of the second-toughest defense in America. Almost no other team in America, major conference or not, boasts Tennessee’s ability in forcing the opponent to take layup/runner attempts that aren’t actually at the rim. Eight or nine times a game, an opponent is forced to take the shot they’d prefer to be taking within three feet of the rim from 4-6 feet instead:

That’s what a real, true rim protection threat looks like. Tennessee’s got it, and they’re making life hell on opponents every single night. Tennessee can use that threat to force Florida into more non-rim twos, which they’ve been quite happy to take in conference play. 33.5% of all Florida shots have been of this variety against SEC competition, per Hoop-Explorer. Tennessee should happily indulge Florida’s tendency to take a wide variety of ugly dribble jumpers:

And bad runners instead of letting them settle in for better looks:

The more of these shots Tennessee is able to force, the easier a game this will become. It’s never been easy to win in Gainesville, and even a Florida team missing their best player is obviously a worthy foe.

Lastly, threes. We know Florida’s going to take some; we just don’t know how many. Because of how scary Tennessee is at the rim and, generally, inside the perimeter, opponents have gotten a pretty clear message that the only hope you have of forcing the Tennessee defense to open up is to take and make a lot of threes. Amazingly, the only game Tennessee has lost this year featured the opponent’s lowest three-point attempt rate (Alabama, 32.3%), but it also didn’t matter because said opponent made half of their threes. If Florida’s up for it, they’ll recognize this as well and try and get as many open threes as possible. It’s on this tight, terrific Tennessee defense to force as many bad looks from three as they can. The Gators love a good off-the-dribble three, the least-efficient shot you can take from downtown:

And we all know Noah Locke’s unafraid to take a three whenever he can, so it’s best to guard kickout threes tightly:

Tennessee may not do all three things perfectly, and that’s fine; even a Florida team without Keyontae Johnson still has plenty of talent. But if Tennessee doesn’t allow Colin Castleton to get his variety of around-the-basket shots off and forces Florida’s guards into a lot of gross isolation possessions, they’re going to be in business.

One more thing, because why not: force some turnovers. Florida’s lost the turnover battle in five of their last seven games. Make it six of eight, and make this Tuesday night a memorable one for the right reasons.

NEXT PAGE: Lineup notes, key matchups, three predictions

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