Show Me My Opponent, 2020-21: Mississippi State

How Tennessee matches up

Hit open shots, sure, but also take better, closer shots

Part of me just wants to write “please hit open shots,” but, uh, please hit open shots. We all know you can do it, and we all know that teams just get in a funk sometimes. And really, it wasn’t even deep shooting that was the problem on Saturday. Yves Pons finally got in a real groove from downtown for the first time all season:

And both Victor Bailey and Josiah-Jordan James had some good moments on their collective four made threes.

But far more troubling than the “please hit open shots” mentality I felt after Florida was that, against one of the least-threatening rim defenses they’ll have on their schedule this year, Tennessee took 12 attempts at the rim on Saturday. Twelve. The same number of monkeys as was in the Bruce Willis movie. Twelve! Missouri took 23 and it felt like they took 35 because Xavier Pinson was so fearless. What I would give for James to never, ever take another midrange shot at Tennessee. He’s now 27-for-81 (33.3%) on two-point jumpers for his career, per Synergy:

And what I would give for John Fulkerson to work his way toward the basket more frequently instead of defaulting to working away. Even in a game where Jeremiah Tilmon largely wasn’t a factor and only blocked two shots, it felt like Fulkerson was far less physical and didn’t seem too interested in beating and banging his way to the free throw line:

Obviously, this may all look way better as soon as Jaden Springer is back. Tennessee’s offense has been nearly nine points better even after adjusting for 3PT% luck with him on the court, and it seems like they’ve been way better at finding their way to the paint when he’s on the floor:

I would like to see him back, of course, but I’d also like to see Tennessee’s entire roster take the last week to heart, get physical, and bully their way to the rim against a team we’ve shown is awful at rim FG% allowed if you can get behind one of their two on-court centers. If it forces Mississippi State to go to a shorter lineup, perfect: there goes their two-point efficiency, and, largely, there goes a big chunk of their rebounding advantage.

This is the #6 team in turnover margin versus #239, so don’t lose the turnover battle

Also, I think Tennessee is going to largely work their way out of these turnover disaster games, but my goodness was Saturday particularly ugly in this regard. It felt like a mirror image of the game in Columbia, actually, with Fulkerson having one of the worst games of his entire career in the first eight minutes alone:

I like John Fulkerson. You like John Fulkerson. We all like, support, and root for John Fulkerson. But at some point, we need John Fulkerson to realize that his opponents are not properly respecting him, and we want to see the angry bowling ball John Fulkerson that became an All-SEC player in 2019-20. Let’s bring that back.

Force as many mid-range twos as you’d like

Defensively, we know a couple things. Let’s go with an obvious one first. When both centers are on the court, Mississippi State almost never shoots threes and largely defaults to the mid-range, especially in half-court. Hoop-Math says that 44.2% of State’s half-court attempts are non-rim twos, which is absolutely absurd, but, uh, force the toughest non-rim twos you can. Both D.J. Stewart and Iverson Molinar are going to take a ton of them. Tennessee has to be prepared to stop these, especially off-the-dribble:

These unusual off-screen setups for twos are something that the Vols haven’t faced this season at all. I guess you’ve got to treat it like any other screen: get around it and make life tough.

If you can force any player not named Stewart or Molinar to take an actual shot attempt, you’re in business. The non-Stewart/Molinar members of the Mississippi State roster have converted a horrific 23.6% of their non-rim twos, per Hoop-Math. It’s why State’s overall hit rate on these shots is actually below the national average despite their two most prolific mid-range shooters being at 40% or better. You’ve got to make State work for their points, and I don’t feel like the last couple of Vols opponents have had to work terribly hard. Change it up.

Give some consideration to doubling in the post, especially if Ado has the ball

I also want to see what happens when/if Tennessee chooses to double in the post. This is a 40-possession sample size, so be extremely cautious, but the Bulldogs are scoring just 0.675 PPP on plays where a post player is doubled. They’ve turned it over on 27.5% of these possessions (11 total), and Ado in particular just…doesn’t pass. Tennessee needs to take advantage of his (and possibly Smith’s) tunnel vision, in my opinion. While the Vols haven’t doubled much this season – just 19 possessions – they’ve only allowed six points on such possessions and have been wildly successful in forcing turnovers:

Lastly, and I think we all know this is coming: guard the threes. Tennessee has been good and fine at closing out on threes this season, and overall, their 3PT% allowed is pretty much right in line with what they probably deserve to be at. (31.2% allowed, 88th-”best.”) Until things begin to regress in their favor, though, you might as well guard it hard.

Essentially, you need to make things tough. The State offense has looked somewhere between bad and brutal for four straight games now, and I don’t think any Tennessee fan wants to see them get back on the right track against a Tennessee team that desperately needs to do the same.

NEXT PAGE: Lineup notes, key matchups, three predictions

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