How Tennessee matches up
Well enough. But first, Kansas
Before we get into how Tennessee matches up with Mississippi, I’d like to single out one specific offensive play from Saturday’s surprising demolition of the Kansas Jayhawks. It was very early in the game, but with about 11 seconds on the shot clock and 17:27 to play in the first half, a Kansas defender got a hand on the ball and forced it loose. Santiago Vescovi recovered, got the ball to John Fulkerson in the post, and then meandered his way to the corner. Once he got there, Fulkerson dished it to the open Vescovi, who calmly nailed the first three of the game to put Tennessee up 5-0.
It’s just one play, but it feels like it encapsulated recent events very well. First, I feel like we’ve seen that same play go horribly wrong over the last month. Either Kansas actually steals the ball, Vescovi makes an errant pass, Fulkerson makes up his mind and takes a bad shot, or Vescovi misses the open corner three. Secondly, on that possession, Kansas played quality defense for the first 22 seconds. For two seconds, they didn’t, and finally, Tennessee made an opponent pay for their supposed sin.
Hilariously, Tennessee actually lost the Shot Quality battle in this game by a decent margin. I didn’t think it felt that way in real time, but in Simon’s defense, Tennessee should probably never take 30 mid-range attempts in a game ever again. And yet: they hit 12 of them, made 16 of 17 free throws, and made 8 of 13 threes. After a month of screaming into the abyss that positive regression does exist and Tennessee’s offense is nowhere near as bad as people imagined it to be, this felt like a deserved win.
This game is made or broken by Tennessee’s ability to create zone offense
Onto the actual game at hand. As covered in the defensive section above, we know that Mississippi is very likely to run some form of a 1-3-1 zone that can simultaneously look like a 2-1-2, 2-3, or a 3-2 with the right personnel. It’s tough to break and made even tougher by lineups with long arms and tough hands. Tennessee hasn’t played against a 1-3-1 since the Cincinnati game, and you might remember that as one where Tennessee missed a frustrating number of spot-up attempts:
The good news is that Tennessee’s had a lot of games since then to gel together as a team and as an offense. Outside of some scattered possessions here and there, Tennessee hasn’t had a ton of run against zone defenses since the USC Upstate beatdown. In their spare time, though, Tennessee has done a solid job of breaking down zones and getting good looks. Here’s John Fulkerson calmly finding a cutting Vescovi for an easy two:
And Tennessee going inside-out against this same Arkansas zone a possession later for a wide-open Victor Bailey three:
If nothing else, this game serves as great practice for two reasons. It’ll help Tennessee prepare for potential zone matchups in March/April, and it also serves as an opportunity to quiet any doubters re: Tennessee’s zone offense. One of the consistencies of Barnes’ tenure in Knoxville, regardless of roster quality, has been the ability to slice and dice a zone. Remember last year’s roster forcing the Washington 2-3 zone to go to man barely 13 minutes into the game? I hate to be the “keep the faith” guy again, but, uh, keep the faith.
Get to the rim, fellas
Lastly, you need as many attempts at the rim as possible. Ole Miss’ three-point defense is much better than their 3PT% allowed would suggest, and the Rebels are more than happy to force you into an ugly 14-footer. I’ve seen enough ugly 14-footers this season. There’s a couple of really nice ways to make this happen, in my opinion. I want to see Tennessee get the ball to Yves Pons in the paint early and often:
And I want to see Jaden Springer be aggressive start-to-finish, especially if he can find a way to get Jarkel Joiner in isolation and force Joiner to stay with him to the rim.
Accomplish these things, and you’ll continue to see some long-overdue positive regression on the offensive side of the ball.
Unlike Heath, you need to stop this Shuler from having success in Knoxville
On the defensive side, the clear number one matchup Tennessee has to slow down is Devontae Shuler. All season long, Tennessee’s done a fantastic job of limiting the impact of the opponent’s #1 option, though this has sometimes led to unfortunate side effects. (Xavier Pinson is the obvious example, but J.D. Notae for Arkansas was a frustrating one as well.) There’s a couple of defensive strategies to push Shuler into less-than-ideal shots. Because Shuler is a below-average finisher, it wouldn’t be the worst idea to funnel Shuler to the rim to have him meet Pons and Fulkerson, LLC:
However, Shuler’s also looking for the first opportunity to pull up out of a ball-screen. This has frequently resulted in some 17-20 foot two-pointers. As I’ve discussed in the past, players have to hit these at 45% or better for me to be upset about allowing these as a shot. Shuler is one of the few players to exceed this criteria. I’d actually rather Tennessee force the pull-up three, as Shuler is nowhere near as efficient at it and Tennessee is likely to have it well-defended:
Lastly, you’ve got to force the ball out of Shuler’s hands. He doesn’t commit too many turnovers, but out of ball-screen sets, he’s more likely to pass it to a waiting shooter (“shooter”) than he is to take it to the basket or take his own shot. I want to see if Tennessee can anticipate these passing lanes and look for deflections, as the below example shows:
Beyond Shuler, there isn’t an outside shooting option that really would worry me too deeply as a coach. Luis Rodriguez is close, but an awful 54.5% FT% suggests he’s probably doing better than he should be at 31.7% from downtown. Instead, Tennessee has to wall off the rim at all costs to the non-Shuler players on the Ole Miss roster. Don’t let Romello White go to work on you in the post and this game gets a lot easier.
Finally, considering the fact Ole Miss has struggled mightily with turnovers, especially in conference play, I’d like to see some sneaky double teams in the post and active hands all over the court. Four members of the nine-man Rebel rotation have a TO% of 20% or greater. Let’s have some fun.
NEXT PAGE: Lineup notes, key matchups, three predictions