How Tennessee matches up
Speed things up offensively and fight small-ball with the SmallVols
First off, I would be a bad self-promoter if I didn’t plug a video that took me maybe 20 minutes to make Sunday morning while my cat fell asleep next to me.
As Mike Wilson pointed out in the News Sentinel earlier this week, something critical and turning-point-like happened to Tennessee on Saturday. Not only were Keon Johnson and Jaden Springer much more aggressive than they have been at any other point in 2021, they played far faster. During this 26-6 run, Tennessee’s first shot attempt (or something that led to a foul) only used an average of 9.2 seconds of the shot clock. It’s not super-easy to find average first-shot-attempt-per-possession numbers out there, but considering Tennessee’s average possession length on the season is 17.5 seconds, you can assume that Tennessee simply sped things up to an unusual amount. Buddy, did it ever work.
While Kentucky’s own offensive woes certainly aided Tennessee, three things about this game seemed fairly obvious going forward:
- The faster Tennessee plays, the cleaner they will look offensively;
- The more aggressive Keon and Jaden are in breaching the paint, the better average shot quality Tennessee will receive per possession;
- The more Tennessee experiments with smaller lineups, including Yves Pons at center, the more they may find it’s what suits them best in March (and possibly April).
On the first, it’s worth noting that Tennessee has never played terribly speedy basketball under Rick Barnes. It’s just generally not what he does, to be fair. Only one Barnes team has ever ranked in the top 50 of tempo in the KenPom era, and the last Texas team he had to crack the top 100 was in 2013-14. The speediest Tennessee offense was Barnes’ first in 2015-16, and only the 2018-19 group came close. And yet: I’d say that Johnson and Springer alone emphasize the importance of scoring quickly. This play is one of the most beautiful things to happen for Tennessee basketball in my lifetime:
Is that exact thing easy to replicate? Of course not. But I think what is easy to replicate is something like what happened over 8 minutes on Saturday night, where for one historic run, the ball stopped dying in a guard’s hands for 15+ seconds 20+ feet from the basket. Tennessee found good one-on-one matchups to exploit and did so, the first time we’ve really seen them do that this season. Scoring gets more difficult the deeper you go into the clock, and while it’s obviously ideal to have a great half-court offense to negate that, Tennessee has only shown a great half-court offense in maybe five of their 17 games. Until you can get that to come around, play fast and play loose.
We’ve already explored the second in the past, and against a Georgia defense with no true rim protector, the entire Tennessee roster needs to get to the paint from tipoff. This really should be an advantageous game for Yves Pons, a player with no athletic equal (or close to equal) on the other sideline.
Lastly, let’s talk about these smaller lineups. In the preseason, there was some discussion of a particularly spicy and interesting offensive lineup: a backcourt of Vescovi, Johnson, and Springer paired with a frontcourt of James and Pons. Until Saturday, we had only seen this lineup play five possessions together all season. When you have a returning first-team All-SEC player in John Fulkerson, that naturally clouds the prospects of such a lineup. It really took desperation, i.e. SEC officiating, for Rick Barnes and team to turn to this lineup. And when they did, everything changed:
In just 13 possessions, Tennessee outscored Kentucky 19-6 with the above lineup. This lineup alone took the game from 58-50 Kentucky to 66-64 Tennessee, with it briefly returning for the final minute of play and one Josiah-Jordan James exclamation point of a three. When Tennessee realized they had an athletic advantage on Kentucky at all five positions with this lineup, the game was turned on its head. They couldn’t stop anyone out there, and the season may have been forever changed by it:
I understand both sides of the John Fulkerson coin. He has made many important plays for Tennessee in the past, and I’m willing to bet he’ll make a few more the rest of the way. He’s too talented to not do so. With that being said, even a small luck-adjusted sample size of 82 possessions supports more time for Pons at the 5. Tennessee is 10 points better per 100 possessions offensively with these smaller lineups, and they’ve even been slightly superior on defense. You have to at least try these lineups more often before having to come to them again in desperation six weeks from now.
Keep Georgia away from the basket as much as possible and make them shoot over the top
Defensively, this is a matchup where you theoretically shouldn’t have to worry about a ton of foul trouble. Georgia draws fouls at about the national average rate and, as we’ve explored, has had a ton of issues knocking down threes outside of two players. (Sound familiar to the opponent I wrote about a few days ago?) Tennessee needs to pack the paint in this one and force the Bulldogs to shoot over the top of them. Given that this is exactly what Tennessee has done all season long, I figure they don’t need me to tell them to do it.
The more Tennessee slows Georgia down offensively, the better this game is likely to go, too. We did explore that Georgia actually gets more efficient at the rim the deeper the shot clock goes, but they also have had a ton of issues knocking down anything that isn’t a layup/dunk attempt in half-court. Against man-to-man defense, which Tennessee will almost certainly exclusively run, this translates to Georgia being in the 31st-percentile in transition efficiency and 27th-percentile in half-court. Not much of a difference, but you want this game to be on the slower side for the Bulldogs. It’ll result in a higher amount of nasty turnovers:
And a much higher amount of ill-advised three-point attempts.
As is natural the more you’re forced into half-court offense, Georgia gets fewer attempts at the rim the deeper the clock goes and is forced to take 42.7% of their shots from downtown when at least 25 seconds into a possession, per Synergy. It’s not easy to force a team that wants to play fast to play slow, so Tennessee has to be patient in denying Georgia’s first, second, and third options. If Tennessee shuts off the paint as well as they’ve done for most of this season:
And forces Georgia into a lot of shots that will give Tom Crean a headache for days to come:
It’s going to be a good night in Knoxville. I already explored the turnovers angle, but it’s worth a reminder that Georgia sits 316th nationally in offensive TO% and four of their five starters have an individual TO% at 21.5% or higher. Tennessee really needs to get back to forcing overwhelmed opponents into bad mistakes, and this seems like an opportune time to do so.
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