Sharife or no Sharife, this needs an overhaul
As wonderful a presence as Sharife Cooper is, he could not fix the pretty mediocre Auburn defense. Auburn has a lot of problems this year despite blocking an absurd amount of two-point attempts (15.2% of all twos, 7th-best) and generally forcing opponents to get the majority of their points in one-on-one play. Bruce’s system on defense works best when he has a deep, aggressive backcourt willing to get dirty and make you uncomfortable for a full 40 minutes, with an array of rim protectors at the back end to clean up any messes.
Auburn is still blocking shots, with Jaylin Williams and JT Thor being the main beneficiaries:
But no one on the perimeter is terribly aggressive and Auburn’s backcourt depth is already stretched thin even without Cooper’s injury, so pretty much everything else about this defense has been suboptimal. For starters, the Tigers are giving up a gigantic amount of offensive rebounds. 31.6% of missed shots have been rebounded by the opponent, which ranks 294th out of 347 teams, per KenPom. It makes no sense to me, because Auburn is an elite offensive rebounding team on the other end. It’s been a huge factor in wins and losses, too. Auburn is 8-2 when they hold opponents below a 30% OREB%; when they don’t, they’re 3-11.
Plays like that are a killer, particularly when you don’t have a very deep roster and are trying to make up for it in several other ways. Auburn hasn’t had to defend many post-ups this season, but they’ve struggled pretty badly there, too. Synergy has their post-up defense ranked in the 11th-percentile nationally:
Of course, considering most teams post up to get to the rim rather than how Tennessee seems to prefer to get away from it, maybe this will be a non-factor. If you like hearing about one-on-one matchups, I’m thinking you might want to hear about both Jamal Johnson and JT Thor. Teams have had an awful lot of success when targeting both players in various situations. Johnson’s done a terrible job of staying with shooters on the perimeter, for example, and has given up a lot of open threes (just like the rest of the roster). Thor, on the other hand, has not had a fun time when being dragged out to the perimeter to help cover a ball screen. Synergy’s defensive assignments are far from perfect, but they serve as a good-enough base to work with, and they’ve got Thor as defending 21 possessions ending in a pick-and-roll this year. Opponents have scored 30 points on these possessions:
Tennessee uses fewer ball screens than any other power conference team not named Purdue, but perhaps…perhaps…they will change their ways for this one very specific matchup that could bring them great joy and peace.
Lots of open threes!
Lastly: the threes. Auburn’s Guarded/Unguarded split on the year is a nasty 45/55, and they’ve been pretty lucky to not get burned from deep more often than they have. That said, seven straight opponents have shot 32% or better from downtown against them, with five of those seven getting to 36% or better. Tennessee would be wise to swing the ball around, penetrate the paint frequently, and kick it out to, say, the hottest shooter on the team for an open three.
I mean, I don’t know what else to say. This isn’t a good defense. Eventually, Tennessee needs to do what a team with their amount of talent should do: dump 75+ on an overmatched opponent and go home with a win.
NEXT PAGE: Yes, I have an update to the mid-range post coming out next Monday