Show Me My Opponent, 2020-21: Mississippi State

 Mississippi State defense

Consistently not very good

If nothing else, you have to give the Bulldogs points for consistency. Nine of State’s 16 opponents have posted between 0.95 and 1.05 points per possession, and only three opponents have posted a schedule-adjusted PPP worse than 0.9 or better than 1.08. You almost certainly know what you’re getting with the State defense pretty much every single night. Unfortunately, what you’re getting is rarely excellent and more frequently average-to-mediocre.

Remember the same stat shared above during Mississippi State’s 11-game run when they had the 15th-best offense in the country? During that same span, they also had the 186th-ranked defense, per Bart Torvik. Teams were simply roasting them from three, and while regression was due, they have a pretty average Guarded/Unguarded rate of 56/44. Considering that 41% of opponent attempts against MSU are threes, you’d like to see that either higher or for State to be forcing a ton of threes off the dribble. It’s…not the case. State has only forced 65 off-the-dribble threes this year to 316 catch-and-shoot attempts, per Synergy.

However, as we’ve explored in the past, defenses really don’t have a ton of control over opponent 3PT%. It’s a lot more luck-based than many of us are willing to admit. If I’m going to make the same excuse for Tennessee, a team who is better at guarding threes but is prone to allowing open attempts, I have to make it for the Bulldogs, too. (It’s still worth noting that they’ve managed to give up 10+ threes in six games, though.)

Either the greatest mid-range defense in the SEC, the worst rim protection unit, or something in between

Inside the perimeter is of much more interest to me with this team, anyway. State ranks 17th in Block Percentage and 41st in opponent 2PT%, which would make you think they’re a pretty fantastic rim protecting team. True to form, Abdul Ado has done a great job of erasing shots when he’s in the game:

And Tolu Smith has 18 blocks of his own to go with Ado’s 30, with most of his coming right at the rim:

That’s all nice and good, and it does help make sense for why State’s 2PT% allowed is a pretty good number to see. So why are opponents converting 67.4% of their attempts at the rim, with an astounding 75.4% of unblocked shots going down? Why are opponents actually having far more success scoring at the rim the deeper the clock goes against the double-big defense?

Because the double-big can present as many problems as they erase. After adjusting for 3PT% luck, State’s defense with both on is…pretty much exactly as efficient as when one or the other is off. It isn’t any better. Opponents have made 40.5% of their threes when both Ado and Smith are in the game while making just 30.9% with one or the other off. I do think that’s going to regress in both directions because of our 3PT% luck discussion, but what seems unlikely to regress is the fact that, with both players in the game, opponents are converting 69.5% of their rim attempts.

This is counterbalanced by two things, both of which also seem headed for some sort of regression:

  1. 35.1% of opponent attempts with both players in the game are non-rim twos;
  2. Opponents are hitting just 27.2% of these shots.

So, after a lengthy explainer, that’s why Mississippi State’s defense is the 112th-best or whatever despite blocking a ton of shots, having a pretty low 2PT% allowed, not fouling much at all, and not giving up many offensive rebounds. If you can get behind the double-big defense, they are not mobile enough to catch up without fouling or wildly missing their flailing block attempts. However, a lot of opponents get harried into taking uglier non-rim twos because they can’t get behind both Ado and Smith:

Opportunity is very much there; you just have to be smart about how you approach it. To boot, State ranks in the 15th-percentile in pick-and-roll defense because they don’t have a very mobile center that can hang all the way out to 25 feet. If Ado or Smith comes out on a more mobile matchup, they’re not going to be able to hang with them to the rim:

As troublesome as it may seem, Tennessee is going to have to play Pons and Fulkerson together as much as possible in this game. Fulkerson isn’t going to have to guard overly mobile centers, and when both are on the court, Tennessee gets much better shots in the paint than when one or the other is off.

NEXT PAGE: It *might* be crazy to say this, but Tennessee is still a very good basketball team!

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