How Tennessee matches up
If Tennessee gets the exact same shots they did against Mississippi State, they’re winning
Wins are wins. That seems like the first, foremost thing to address about Tuesday’s performance. Tennessee shot the ball horribly in a game where they got significantly better, more open shots than the other team. It…certainly feels like this has happened before. (Cincinnati, anyone?) That said…I really do think regression has to hit eventually. Tennessee’s in the midst of a three-game streak of going below 1 PPP offensively, the likes of which is a streak they haven’t topped since late in the 2015-16 season. I mean, you are pretty much always satisfied when you see wide-open threes like this one:
Or this one:
Or this one, which went in but I am including because I loudly yelled “ONE FOR 12!” or similar when it went down. One of the more frustrating made shots in recent memory, perhaps.
The shots that Tennessee gets, outside of the Missouri loss and maybe stretches of the Alabama game, are largely very agreeable. 53.3% of Tennessee’s catch-and-shoot attempts are open, per Synergy, and they’re actually hitting these shots at a national-average rate of 37.5%. (That doesn’t feel true, I know, but I promise it is.) The issue is that we know this team can do much better than just average. Part of it is plain bad luck – Tennessee is at an astounding 24.8% hit rate on “guarded” threes, per Synergy:
And no team with as much talent as Tennessee is going to spend a full season hitting 24.8% of any kind of three. I still believe in this team’s ability to hit shots; I’m just kind of getting more and more desperate by the game to see it, you know? Simon Gerszberg’s Shot Quality site measures the past performance and the shot itself. By his calculation, Tennessee’s offense has the sixth-best shot quality of any offense in America. There should be a ton of positive regression coming their way. But to be honest, Tennessee fans have been burned before, and I get it if you’re having trouble believing in something you can’t currently see.
Pound the paint and force McCormack/Lightfoot/Wilson to defend to 20+ feet
Two other offensive things of note from this game: Tennessee finally, finally took it inside and pounded the paint against a taller, stronger team. In a game where the opponent was starting two centers and took nearly 75% of their shots from two on the season, it was actually the Vols who got more layup/dunk attempts:
Against a less-stringent and less-scary Kansas frontcourt defense, I want to see Tennessee force-feed the ball to the post and go to work. I feel like I’m going to be quite upset if I look at the boxscore Saturday night and see that John Fulkerson had anything fewer than six layup/dunk attempts in the game. Fulkerson’s best work is done in the post, and I have a lot of faith that he can both go up through contact and draw a lot of fouls from both McCormack and Lightfoot, two players who have had stretches of bad foul trouble this season.
I also want to see if Tennessee can come up with some creative ways to find advantageous situations on the perimeter, namely by either forcing Kansas to switch in the pick-and-roll or letting the screener stay on the perimeter against a slower, heavier defender. Essentially, I really wish Barnes and staff would encourage Yves Pons to set the screen and force his likely defender in Jalen Wilson to guard him all the way to the basket. I’ve got a feeling Pons would win:
Force off-balance, guarded threes and don’t overcommit on drives to the basket
Defensively, this is an unusual scout in that I don’t think there’s one or even two clear players to say “go out and limit their impact.” Obviously, if Tennessee is able to limit what both Jalen Wilson and Ochai Agbaji do offensively, it’s going to be a good night. If David McCormack commits several fouls and can’t score at-will in the post, it’s going to be tough for Kansas to find enough shooting to overcome it. That being said, there’s three things Kansas does well enough offensively that Tennessee needs to focus on.
The first is the most obvious: Tennessee has to force Kansas to take the toughest threes they possibly can. There’s not a super-obvious pattern in that a high Kansas 3PT% = a Kansas win (after all, the best Kansas 3PT% of the season was in a loss to Baylor), but it’s pretty obvious at this point that the way to beat Tennessee is to drive to the basket, force an overcommit in the paint, and kick out for an open three. Unsurprisingly, the team with the most success doing this to date was Alabama:
Marcus Garrett isn’t quite as skilled as Alabama’s guards in kicking out to a shooter and Kansas’s offense is less reliant on the dribble-drive as a whole, but this is how you penetrate and shoot over the top of a defense determined to eliminate easy buckets. Tennessee did a very good job of closing out on these Tuesday against Mississippi State, and it’ll be necessary in this one if they want to come out on top:
Double McCormack/Lightfoot in the post and force them to pass it back out
Second: Tennessee has to do everything in their power to force David McCormack into ugly, longer post-up attempts. Kansas is going to feed the post a lot in this game, as it’s the most obvious way to get John Fulkerson and/or Yves Pons into foul trouble. This means that McCormack is likely going to get at least 10 post-up possessions in this game, and Tennessee will need to defend these in a couple different ways. I’d be happy to start off the game with Fulkerson in a one-on-one situation with McCormack, as Fulkerson has been lights out in this department defensively.
The second is what I had kind of hoped Tennessee would try more frequently against Mississippi State: an old-fashioned double team. Across two games against Missouri, Tennessee doubled Jeremiah Tilmon (probably the closest thing to McCormack they’ve played) eight times. The possessions resulted in zero points, with Tilmon either attempting to barge his way through it and turning it over:
Or, more often, having to pass out of the post entirely to someone on the perimeter:
Either are great outcomes for two reasons: McCormack becomes far less efficient in the post when he draws a second defender, and he isn’t much of a passer. If Tennessee can make McCormack have to think twice about going to the basket, they’ve won the mental battle.
If Kansas is willing to take 17-foot jumpers, let them
Lastly, there are two players on this Kansas roster that I legitimately fear as off-the-dribble shooters: Ochai Agbaji and Christian Braun. Both are excellent in either a catch-and-shoot or pull-up situation, and both can send Kansas home with a win. If I am defensive coordinator Mike Schwartz, my goal is to force Agbaji, Braun, and the inefficient Marcus Garrett inside the perimeter into as many long twos as they can put up. Even if these are open, they count for one fewer point than a three, and it’s not a catch-and-shoot situation:
If Tennessee even wins two of these three battles, I feel quite confident they’re going to win the game. Simple as.
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