How Tennessee matches up
It’s all about finding the right shots, and Tennessee may be turning a corner
We’ve got to talk about how encouraging Tennessee’s shot selection has been the last two games before we really get rolling here. (It’ll end up making sense.) Both opponents have been Florida, but it’s a great sign to me that across these two games, Tennessee took 92 of their 122 field goal attempts either at the rim or from three. That’s a 75.4% rate, and considering Tennessee is at best an above-average mid-range offense, it’s electrifying to see that they may actually be going the Ball & Oats route.
Well, they’re somewhat getting there, at least. Tennessee did take a few nasty mid-range twos across both games, but they were largely limited in favor of working the ball inside-out to find open threes and easier looks at the rim. If Jaden Springer is willing to pass up his usual diet of 10-footers for layup attempts, it will be to the giant benefit of Tennessee long-term:
Along with that, we need to talk threes. When John Fulkerson has been off the court this season, Tennessee’s shot attempt splits have gone 38% threes/33% non-rim/29% rim attempts. Obviously, Tennessee needs to pass up mid-range shots in general for more looks at the rim, and we’ll touch on that shortly. However, it seems kind of obvious that without the centering presence of Fulkerson down low, Tennessee is more likely to spread out, have more frequent off-ball actions, and get more three-point attempts than they’re used to. If they’re open, as they often were across the last few games, I’m all for it.
Tennessee also needs to eschew mid-range attempts as much as possible in this one, unless they really are open and it’s the right people taking them. Keon Johnson can take them; Yves Pons can take them; Victor Bailey can probably take them. No one else should. If Tennessee’s going to waste a bunch of possessions on crappy shots like these, it isn’t going to be a good night.
Lastly: crash the boards. Tennessee’s offensive rebounding percentage has actually been a tad better without Fulkerson, though it’s close to a wash. They’ve struggled some in defensive rebounding, but as mentioned before, any lineup with Josiah-Jordan James and Yves Pons in it should be able to get some offensive rebounds. Get to the boards early and often, and force Alabama to react.
Don’t collapse too hard, get back in transition, and encourage Alabama to take tough shots
Defensively, we all know how tough this is likely to be. No Fulkerson means that Yves Pons, as long as he isn’t in foul trouble, is going to play 35 minutes at center. Tennessee gave Uros Plavsic a good chunk of minutes at the 5 yesterday, but there’s no lineup I can fathom where that would work against Alabama. There are options to play Nkamhoua or Anosike a few minutes at the 5 to give Pons some rest, but neither are terribly attractive. So: we’re going to look at this from the position of “Tennessee is going to ride Yves Pons until they can’t ride him any further.”
Tennessee got stretched thin like a pizza last time against Alabama, thanks to Alabama penetrating the paint repeatedly and kicking out for open threes. It will help Tennessee that the lineup they’re likely to use for the majority of this game is a more athletic, speedier one, but they still need to avoid over-committing to drives. Alabama doesn’t necessarily have an array of great finishers, but they do have a lot of great shooters. Force them to kick it out, and close out hard.
The other area where it’ll be key to have athleticism and speed? Getting back in transition after misses. Tennessee’s been mostly successful in getting back after missed shots this season, but they’ve only faced Alabama once, and it’s infrequent that any team plays a squad as willing to push the pace off of rebounds as the Tide are. It’s going to be of the utmost importance to toe the fine line between crashing the boards and ensuring you’ve got enough players back to defend properly in transition.
Lastly, Alabama is going to try and isolate the matchups they find the most desirable. I’d imagine that Nate Oats is working on ways to get Victor Bailey in isolation when he’s on the court, as well as seeing how he can draw out an Anosike type to the perimeter to defend from 25 feet out. If Tennessee can avoid getting into negative matchups, they’re going to be in business. This is easier said than done, but in general, riding guys like Pons, Springer, and James in isolation is going to be as ideal as it gets.
And, of course, you want to force Alabama into as many mistakes as humanly possible. Alabama has struggled with turnovers offensively for a while now; the aggression can become too much as a certain point. (It’s worth noting that Alabama actually has a very low non-steal TO% but a high offensive steal percentage, meaning that they aren’t just throwing the ball away out of bounds.) Tennessee’s got to take advantage when these chances appear; anything is better than Alabama getting a shot off.
This isn’t going to be easy, but it’s doable. Let’s see Tennessee do something special.
NEXT PAGE: Lineup notes, key matchups, three predictions, and hopefully, a quick pre-game nap