Show Me My NCAA Tournament Opponent: Oregon State

How Tennessee matches up

Very well, if you simply take good shots

If it were me, I would simply not take a bunch of mid-range jumpers I’ve hit at a mediocre rate all season and would instead look to cut to the rim and work the ball inside-out for open threes. But perhaps I’m just built different. IDK.

I’m mostly kidding. Tennessee is almost certainly going to face some amount of Oregon State’s matchup zone in this game, just as the Beavers did against other non-rim two lovers UCLA and Arizona. The key is going to be how often it’s actually used. Just two of the last 12 Oregon State games featured a zone getting the majority of possessions, per Synergy; even the UCLA game was almost an even split of man and zone. Tennessee will get a lot of different looks defensively, because Oregon State knows there are two simple ways to beat the Tennessee offense: force them to shoot over the top of you and close off the boards.

Tennessee could avoid some of the pitfalls of the first by simply hitting open shots. The Vols actually shot 37.5% from downtown against zones this year (27-for-72) and saw particular success against team defenses at roughly the level of Oregon State’s. The Vols shot 6-for-13 from three against South Carolina, as an example, where they didn’t get off a ton of wide-open looks but got plenty of agreeable ones.

This is fine by me and probably fine by everyone else. Tennessee last faced a zone for a serious chunk of the game against Florida in the SEC Tournament, where the Gators went for one for parts of both halves and Tennessee largely diced it up by the time Tre Mann began to hit everything in sight. 

That being said, there is a place for the mid-range jumper in this offense. There are players (Keon Johnson) that I don’t mind (Victor Bailey) taking these shots (Yves Pons), while some (Jaden Springer) should consider sticking (Josiah-Jordan James) to other shots. If Tennessee is actually willing to find the right shots in the middle of the zone and they’re open, they should take them. Do I like these more than I like an open three or an open-ish attempt at the rim? Not really. But if the Beavers are contesting threes, these shots will be open. Cut to the middle of the zone, turn around, and shoot it until they stop you.

Give the keys to the 19-year-olds

Lastly, I’m working under the assumption that John Fulkerson probably will not play much if at all in this game. It’s unfortunate for Tennessee, but it’s not the end. I think Fulkerson would be useful in this game if for no other reason than his ability to draw lots of fouls on over-aggressive defenders, but Tennessee will have to make do with a collection of different options in the frontcourt. To compensate, Tennessee needs to use the small-ball lineup to their advantage and push the pace. The Vols play a tad faster when Fulkerson’s off the court, and in particular, this feels like a game where someone with Jaden Springer’s athleticism could thrive:

Or Keon Johnson, of course, but Springer actually has more points in transition this season. We discussed how Oregon State’s defense ranks in the 9th-percentile in transition and gives up a lot of easy shots at the rim and from downtown. Well-timed pace-pushing can lead to lots of open shots and, hopefully, lots of foul opportunities for Tennessee. In general, if Tennessee gets to the rim faster and earlier, two things will happen: Oregon State won’t be able to set up the zone defense, and Tennessee will be in position to thrive on the offensive boards and get to the free throw line.

All easier said than done, of course, but the opportunities will be there. It’s on Tennessee to take advantage for 40 minutes.

Limit the amount of catch-and-shoot attempts Oregon State gets

Defensively, this is all about slowing down Thompson and Lucas as much as possible. Forcing other players to score is optimal, particularly when none of the other players are terribly talented at crafting their own shot. Tennessee’s been terrific at slowing down the opponent’s #1 option for most of the season, so we’ll start with Thompson. Oregon State likes to diversify Thompson’s looks to keep opponents guessing, but we know a couple of things for sure: he loves to shoot and nearly a third of his actions come from the pick-and-roll.

Thompson should be encouraged to take the right type of shots off of ball-screens. Tennessee may have to aggressively play these to keep Thompson from taking threes off of them. He’s just a 31.5% 3PT% shooter, but he’s gotten hot at times this year (5-for-8 against Oregon last weekend, notably) and it’s better to encourage him inside. If Thompson wants to take it to the rim against Yves Pons or Josiah-Jordan James, so be it; I can live with that. I can also live with forcing Thompson to take mid-range jumpers, as on the season, he’s hitting just 34.2% of his attempts.

Any of these shots is a win, even if he hits a couple, because it simply makes him more likely to shoot more. Thompson hasn’t made more than two Other Twos in a game since February 11, so let him take them. Along with that, Tennessee’s got to prepare for a lot of off-ball screens that get the ball to Thompson and Lucas. In particular, Santiago Vescovi and Victor Bailey can’t get lost on these. Fight through them and make Thompson take contested threes.

The same goes for Lucas, who is of no threat whatsoever at the rim and is very much Just A Shooter. However, he’s a unique shooter in that he’s lethal in catch-and-shoot and also very good off-the-dribble. I would much rather Tennessee force Lucas to take one or two dribbles for his three-point attempts (or long twos) instead of letting him get a shot off in rhythm. Make him get off-balance; Colorado did a great job of this, and I think you all remember how smart of a team Colorado is.

No attempt at the rim should come easy

Finally, a relatively simple thing: wall off the rim. This is the rare game where I go into it not really expecting Tennessee to force a ton of turnovers (Oregon State’s 86th in TO%), so Tennessee has to own the boards and keep the Beavers from getting easy twos. Part of this is covered by forcing Thompson into Other Twos, but the larger chunk is about making Alatishe and Silva fail to find openings within five feet of the rim. Alatishe’s damage is more done on the boards and via flash cuts in the paint, which Tennessee cannot leave open like they have in the past:

If Tennessee adjusts to have Pons stay around as a zone-like rover in the paint, particularly when Andela is at center (as he is 41% of the time), it won’t cause a ton of damage in boxing out and will allow for Pons to prevent Alatishe from getting in a zone of 4-6 foot twos.

In a different fashion, Tennessee simply needs to do what they’ve done all year long and continue being an excellent post-up defense.

It has been remarkably hard all year to score on this team out of the post, and even if Fulkerson can’t go, it seems like Tennessee should still be able to handle it. Silva is 7’1”, which means this is probably the right game to give Uros Plavsic some run (7-10 minutes) if Fulkerson is fully unavailable. Plavsic was agreeable and fine against both Florida and Alabama, which makes me feel like he could be an outright useful contributor in this fixture. If he can be, it’s that much harder for Oregon State to find consistent points.

NEXT PAGE: Lineup notes, key matchups, three predictions

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