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

How Tennessee match–

sorry, quick interruption

I think we all know by now that the offensive side of the ball is just going to be tough sledding for Tennessee. It’s frustrating, certainly, but it just kind of…is what it is. I do remain confident that Tennessee is simply going to hit shots at some point, and they’ll have a few different ways of doing so against Kentucky. That said, I would like to offer frightened fans a few different reminders.

  • On February 6, 2019, future national runner-up Texas Tech ranked 15th on KenPom, just like Tennessee. Their offense ranked 111th. Future Final Four participant Auburn: 14th.
  • February 6, 2018: Only one of the four future Final Four teams ranks in the top 10. Kansas is 11th, Michigan 24th, and Loyola Chicago 56th.
  • February 6, 2017: Future national champion North Carolina ranks 10th. Future Final Four teams Oregon and South Carolina are 19th and 25th, with South Carolina’s offense ranking 143rd.

This can mean whatever you want it to mean; for me, it backs up both my March Is a Weighted Crapshoot theory and my It’s a Long Season and College Basketball Is Very Weird theory.

How Tennessee matches up

Work the ball inside to open up the outside, and vice versa

Anyway, if I am John Calipari, the thing I’m looking to do in this game is to keep Isaiah Jackson on the court as long as possible and keep Tennessee out of the paint entirely. Until Tennessee hits open shots, they’re going to be forced to shoot over the top of defenses to open everything else up. Against Kansas, all the shots went in; against Ole Miss, they didn’t. A tale of two nights. As with both nights, Tennessee needs to pressure the opposing defense inside-out to open up the perimeter. They can do this with a quality post-up that draws a double team:

Or, of course, by having either Jaden Springer or Keon Johnson get more aggressive and take it to the rim for a kickout to an open shooter. It doesn’t really matter which one of them does it; I would just want one of them to do it, now if I am Rick Barnes.

If Tennessee can get some shots to fall in the first half of this game, everything else is going to open appropriately. What I would consider doing if I were Tennessee, even though it’s potentially frightening from a rebounding perspective, is to try more lineups with Pons at the 5. Regardless of if it’s Jackson or Sarr defending him, this creates a matchup where Pons is a much more athletic, quicker player offensively. Something like this where Pons has the better step on his defender from 20+ feet out:

Also, the onus has got to fall on John Fulkerson offensively to start being more aggressive and getting nasty. The hope here is that Fulkerson reconjures some of the same Rupp Magic he possessed barely 11 months ago. I don’t think Tennessee really needs him to go for 20+ points again; they just need him to get one/both of Sarr/Jackson into foul trouble. While his Free Throw Rate has taken a small dip numerically this year, he still has the fourth-highest FTR in the conference and is among the top 20 in drawing fouls per 40 minutes. He can put this to use in the post and draw his defender off-balance quite well:

We’re not asking for a ton here; we’re just asking for more aggressive post play, which opens up the potential to have less Isaiah Jackson on the floor, which opens up the potential for more Keon Johnson and Jaden Springer drives to the basket like this one.

Lastly: Kentucky is going to be over-the-moon happy if Tennessee defaults to taking a bunch of mid-range jumpers in this game and doesn’t seriously threaten the rim or draw Isaiah Jackson out of the paint. If the Vols do that, not only will their efficiency stay as low as it’s been, it’ll have the significantly worse side effect of keeping both Jackson and Sarr out of foul trouble. If you have to take a two-pointer that’s not a layup or a dunk, swing the ball around, get Kentucky to overplay the pass, and take advantage with a couple dribbles in to a shorter, smoother shot.

As nasty as it sounds in theory, you want this game to be low and slow

On the other side of the ball, this is the worst offense remaining on Tennessee’s schedule. Kentucky struggles to score in any function or style, but they’re especially putrid in half-court offense. The Wildcats rank in the 9th-percentile in half-court offense, per Synergy. This is notable because of two things: they rank in the 70th-percentile in transition, and in transition, they take way fewer mid-range attempts and off-the-dribble threes. I would prefer for Tennessee to play a faster game in general, but I’d be very happy to see Tennessee slow Kentucky down to a crawl in this instance.

You can achieve this in a few different ways, of course. The simplest is just to…get back in transition! It seems that once a game, Tennessee allows an insane play like this to happen off of a made basket:

How about this never happens ever again? I’d like to see Tennessee properly get back in transition and take care of business against a Kentucky team that’s going to have deep, massive issues scoring otherwise:

When the ball is actually settled in half-court, Kentucky’s general offensive direction is to either work it into the post for a post-up/kickout opportunity or for Brandon Boston, Jr. to fart around for 20 seconds. Because the second is a little easier to stop, let’s talk about the first. Tennessee has been fantastic in post-up defense this year, whether it’s just been a simple one-on-one opportunity for either Pons or Fulkerson to take care of:

Or, less often, a chance for Tennessee to flash a double team. This is not a true double in the “two guys stay on one player” sense, but it’s an opportunity for a quick steal if the post player isn’t prepared for it. David McCormack survives Victor Bailey’s rush here, but he misses a contested shot in the process:

I would be happy to see Tennessee explore various ways of forcing both Jackson and Sarr into turnovers in this game, but the sort of faux-double-team strategy is very intriguing to me. Sarr is less of a turnover machine because he’s simply a much more skilled offensive player, but Jackson has turned it over on 23.9% of possessions and has showcased almost no ability at all to pass out of a situation like this. I love the idea of Tennessee applying extra pressure in little detail areas like this; it could be a difference-maker.

Let Brandon Boston and company take as many mid-range jumpers as they want

Here is my suggestion for dealing with Brandon Boston, Jr.: block off the paint and force him to shoot over you. He is more than happy to do so, as we showcased in the Kentucky offense section. If Boston wants to take a wet fart of a 17-footer off the dribble, let him. Honestly, if his first one goes in, that might be the best case scenario; it will simply invite him to take six more of them and miss four.

I would be utterly thrilled if Boston takes 10+ mid-range twos or threes in this game. (It actually might be even better to send him packing from three-point land.) The real goal is to keep Boston out of the paint. He’s a good ball-handler and is an athletic finisher. Yves Pons can rectify some of this, but again, the real key is to force Boston to slam on the brakes and either attempt an off-balance 7-footer or pass out to, in all likelihood, a player that can’t shoot. Make life hard on him, and good things will happen. In a different fashion, Tennessee is also a shoot-over-us-to-beat-us defense.

Lastly, Tennessee will have to do at least a little work on the “please do not allow open threes” front. You only have to worry about two shooters in Mintz and Allen, which is nice, but you do have to worry about them. Mintz is the only one of the two that can create his own shot off the dribble, so you’re largely looking at off-ball screens and kickouts you have to defend well. Tennessee’s had a lot of experience with this, seeing as the only way to consistently beat this defense this year is to hit threes. Might as well make them work hard to get the shot off, no?

I feel very, very good about how Tennessee matches up in this game on both sides of the ball. I think this is a seriously great opportunity to get back on track. What better place to get your season rolling again than Lexington, Kentucky?

NEXT PAGE: Lineup notes, key matchups, three predictions

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