What are the best lineups, both offensively and defensively?
Stats! Ha ha ha! Evil laugh!
(realizes that essentially half of Tennessee’s roster is brand new and data is hard to come by)
Ah well, nevertheless.
I’m partially joking, but, uh, yeah. Of Tennessee’s 12 five-man lineups with at least 50 possessions in 2020-21, precisely zero of those return fully intact. Tennessee does return four of their seven rotation members from a year ago, but it’s somewhat unlikely that all four of those will be starters the entire season. (Unless you’re willing to commit to Bailey and Vescovi both starting over Chandler and Powell.) I’ll do the best with what I’ve got here, and what I do have is at least moderately useful.
Offensively, the path to success has to include two key players: John Fulkerson and Josiah-Jordan James. This sounds very funny until you realize the dark truth that, of Tennessee’s seven rotation members in 2020-21, lineups with Fulkerson (114.1 Off. Rating) and James (110.2) included ranked out as Tennessee’s best. The next highest was Victor Bailey (108.3), an unusually streaky player even for streaky players.
So that takes care of your 3-spot and probably your 5. My honest, scalding-hot take here is that I would still play Santiago Vescovi in some form of this lineup, preferably at the 2. For all of his frustrations as a ball-handler, Vescovi remains a quality shooter (36.8% for his career), particularly when you can get him open in a catch-and-shoot situation. He’s 36-for-83 (43.3%) on open C&S threes in his career, per Synergy. However, I think Justin Powell is also acceptable in this situation; he has similarly good On/Off offensive numbers and is the superior ball handler.
The point guard is Kennedy Chandler. That much is obvious. So that leaves one spot, which I think I would temporarily give to Brandon Huntley-Hatfield. If you put Fulkerson at center and allow BHH to be a rim-and-threes guy, I think that could stretch a defense big time. It would give Tennessee four legitimate shooting options (yes, JJJ counts) and allow for them to play a 4-out, 1-in offense, which is what I think pretty much everybody wants.
So: Chandler-Vescovi (or Powell) (or Bailey)-James-BHH-Fulkerson.
An alternate option that’s very intriguing, barring Fulkerson having developed a three-point shot in the offseason, is this: Chandler-Vescovi-Powell-James-BHH. James got a lot of run at the 4 down the stretch last season and handled it exceptionally; Powell is the rare 6’6” point guard that size-wise is able to handle any of three positions. I know that Huntley-Hatfield can shoot the ball well for a big. In theory, this is at worst a 4.5 shooter lineup and could be a 5 if Huntley-Hatfield is feeling confident. This is sort of one I’d have to see actually played to believe, but I do think Rick Barnes should get more credit on his willingness to play 4.5 or 5 shooters. The most-used 2018-19 lineup by season’s end involved Grant Williams at center; the most-used 2020-21 lineup for the final month of the season had Yves Pons at the 5. The odds of this lineup existing are higher than zero, and probably higher than most think.
Defensively, you could probably guess that again, the best lineup is going to involve James (the team’s leader in DBPM by a mile last year at +4.6) and Fulkerson (career DBPM of +3.1). When those two shared the floor in 2020-21, Tennessee allowed a schedule-adjusted defensive efficiency of 84.3 per Hoop-Explorer.com, which was 3.5 points superior to Tennessee’s baseline and 5.6 points better when one or both were off the court. Tennessee forced turnovers on 25.3% of possessions with both in the games, fouled less, won the rebounding battle by more, and posted a 1% lower eFG%. Those are two cornerstones of what Tennessee wants to do.
The rest is a bit of a mixed bag. Of all players, Victor Bailey actually graded out highest when these two were on the court, but the staff never seemed terribly satisfied with Bailey on the defensive end, so who knows. (Bailey’s DBPM was also lower than anyone not named Uros Plavsic.) The highest returning DBPM from 2020-21 is owned by…Santiago Vescovi. Auburn was actually a hair better defensively when Justin Powell was off the court. We have no data on how Kennedy Chandler can hold up as a defensive option.
There are two options here, both of which should at least require an extensive experiment:
Chandler-Vescovi or Powell-James-Nkamhoua-Fulkerson
Chandler-Powell-Mashack or Diboundje-James-Fulkerson
I don’t know which one of these is really better. There are three constants: James, Fulkerson, and Chandler, who is suggested to at least be a tough defender that works hard. In the first lineup, you roll the dice that either Vescovi or Powell can hang with their matchup, but you’re also really rolling the dice by adding Nkamhoua to the mix. Nkamhoua has consistently graded out as a plus team defender in his time at Tennessee and quietly is a very good shot-blocker for his size. However, he really needs to be able to shoot the ball confidently to avoid making that lineup an offensive disaster. Having multiple non-shooters on the court together in modern college basketball is a death sentence against good competition.
The second lineup, however, has its own questions. I personally love the fit of James at the 4, but you wouldn’t run this out in a potential matchup with, say, Purdue, who has a 6’10” bowling ball at center backed up by a 7’4” galoot. (James’ actual matchup would be 6’5” or 6’6” in this hypothetical, but you worry about Fulkerson holding up without some form of physical backup.) Chandler and Powell together seems fine, particularly with Powell just having more size than Vescovi, and Mashack/Diboundje are known as quality defenders. However, how much can you ask of them in Year One, particularly in a high-leverage situation? This is a question I’m very intrigued to see resolved.
How deep does the rotation need to be, and which players are most likely to be in it?
I included this because I think there’s generally some amount of confusion over what, exactly, constitutes a rotation spot. My view is that you’ve got to met the following criteria to be considered a real member of the rotation:
- Average at least 8 minutes per game;
- Play in at least 90% of the team’s games.
That’s restrictive by nature, but it has to be. Very few scouting reports out there are going to spend a load of time on guys that average 4 minutes per appearance and only get on the court in half of the games. You’ve gotta restrict this to the guys that actually matter to the final result. So, anyway, that’s how I view rotation spots. You can view a 5-minutes-a-night guy as a member of your own personal rotation, I guess, but this is my burden to bear.
This offseason, I did some brief research on teams that make it deep(ish) in the NCAA Tournament to see if there’s anything there that stands out in terms of the average rotation size. Of the 80 teams to make it to the Sweet Sixteen across the last five Tournaments, the average rotation size was 7.64 players. Of the 20 Final Four teams: 7.65. 19 of those 20 teams had a rotation of exactly seven or eight players, suggesting this is the new normal size for March.
If you prefer minutes, the average percentage of Bench Minutes (per KenPom) among these 80 teams were 28.3%, meaning about 56-57 minutes of the 200 minutes a team can use were used on bench players. The average for the rest of the NCAA: 31.5%, or 63 minutes per game. It’s about a 6-7 minute difference, which does make a difference. Think about it: that’s seven additional minutes per game for John Fulkerson or Josiah-Jordan James or Kennedy Chandler or Justin Powell and seven minutes less for an Nkamhoua or Mashack or whoever. When March comes around, you need to play your best players as much as you can.
To Rick Barnes’ credit, he’s pretty much nailed this every year where Tennessee has played important basketball (the last four seasons). From 2017-18 onward, Tennessee has featured an eight, seven, seven, and seven-man rotation from February 1 to the end of the season. Tennessee does have some weird lineups in November, December, and occasionally January, but by the time February and March roll around, Barnes has shown a willingness to commit to his guys. (To wit: even in 2020-21, the strangest season ever, Barnes gave 92.2% of all possible minutes – just under 185 out of 200 – to his top seven players.)
Because I’d sort of prefer a conservative break here, we’ll focus on an eight-man rotation. I think it’s a hair more likely this is seven at season’s end, but we’ll roll with eight for now. This will break down as such: Guards, Wings, and Frontcourt.
Locks: Kennedy Chandler, Santiago Vescovi, Victor Bailey, Justin Powell. Which two (or three) of these players start is still up in the air, but all four are near-certain locks for 20+ minutes in most games. We need more data on Chandler, of course, but it feels like if you toss those back three out together (with Powell running the point), you could really stretch a defense thin, particularly if you’re not asking Vescovi to drive the ball as you have for 1.5 seasons.
Occasionally: Zakai Zeigler. It’s splitting hairs whether Mashack and Diboundje are guards or wings, but for the purposes of this very arbitrary breakdown, they’re wings. Anyway, Zeigler probably cannot play more than a few minutes at a time against high-end competition just yet. Seems like a candidate to put up some 12-15 minute outings against Tennessee Tech and Presbyterian while later putting up a few DNPs against Kentucky and Arkansas. No big deal if so.
Locks: Josiah-Jordan James. That’s kind of it, no? James is the only true wing on the Tennessee roster, a player that pretty much exclusively plays the 3 and 4. He can play 2-guard sometimes, but by doing that, you’re probably having to put out a weird lineup that doesn’t satisfy many. A fully-healthy James should be on track for at least 31 minutes per game, and realistically, you’re probably asking for 35 or so against the toughest teams on the schedule. He’s likely to handle it well.
Both will play, but not enough for a true spot: Jahmai Mashack, Quentin Diboundje. I think on the average night, one (or both) are going to have to cover for the 8-10 minutes JJJ isn’t on the court. (Tennessee could also shift Powell up to the 3 if needed, though this would require Chandler to be on the court in my eyes.) It wouldn’t surprise me if one breaks away from the other, but for now, this seems like Tennessee will solve those minutes by putting both in for a couple minutes at a time and seeing what sticks.
Locks: John Fulkerson, Brandon Huntley-Hatfield, and…well, Olivier Nkamhoua. That’s how it will start, at least. I’ve resisted the Nkamhoua bug because the reports of him being a good practice player have existed for two years now, but I felt the same way about the “John Fulkerson looks way better” reports in October 2019. Fulkerson himself is obvious and will start the whole season barring an injury. Huntley-Hatfield could honestly play anywhere from 12 to 32 minutes depending on how his night is going. If Nkamhoua can even provide 13-15 useful minutes per night, that alone will give Tennessee a valuable bench option.
I mean this is already pretty crowded, so…sorry: Jonas Aidoo, Handje Tamba, Uros Plavsic. I expect Tamba to probably redshirt, so that part is covered. Aidoo may play some, but I have not heard or read anything that makes me believe he’s above either Huntley-Hatfield or Nkamhoua in a rotation. Plavsic is Plavsic: the ultimate Break In Case of Emergency big. He is there and indeed available, but you get a little wobbly if you play him more than two minutes at a time.
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