Show Me My Opponent, 2021-22: Lenoir-Rhyne

GAME INFORMATION

OPPONENT Lenoir-Rhyne (9-7 in 2020-21)
LOCATION Thompson-Boling Arena, Knoxville, TN
TIME 3:00 PM ET
CHANNEL SEC Network+ (online only, sorry)
ANNOUNCERS Roger Hoover (PBP)
Steve Hamer (color commentary)
Kasey Funderburg (sideline)
SPREAD sicko

Back. Finally. Sort of.

Tennessee takes on Lenoir-Rhyne, which is where Rick Barnes went to college, on Saturday. You will know that he attended Lenoir-Rhyne because the broadcast (featuring Roger Hoover, who I love) is likely to mention this exact point no less than four times in 40 minutes of basketball. It’s hard to give a true estimate on a ‘point’ ‘spread’ here but somewhere in the mid-to-upper 30s feels right.

To be completely honest, this exhibition is less about the game and more a celebration of everyone being back. This will be Tennessee’s first full-capacity indoor basketball game since March 2020; they could have played South-Doyle High School and I would be there in attendance. I’m excited for a new season. I hope you are too.

As a reminder, I outlined some key changes in both this year’s intro post and the season preview (which I think is pretty good). To distill these down to the basics, here’s what to look for:

  • A statistical summary of both the offense and defense Tennessee is facing.
  • When Tennessee isn’t playing a Division II opponent replacing almost its entire rotation, a graphic showing the starting five, some key metrics, and other rotation pieces.
  • Less GIFs.
  • Less words.

Okay. Onto the preview.

AFTER THE READ MORE TAG: hey did you know Rick Barnes went to Lenoir-Rhyne. did ya


Lenoir-Rhyne’s offense

All numbers are normally via KenPom and Bart Torvik; because this is a Division II opponent, all numbers are via CBB Analytics.

2020-21 Offensive Efficiency 104.6 (#125 of 224 qualified in D-2)
Pace 72.8 possessions (#57 of 224)
eFG% 51.7% (#107 of 224)
TO% 14.8% (#47 of 224)
OREB% 19.2% (#219 of 224)
FTA/FGA 29.9% (#136 of 224)
2PT% 54.2% (#55 of 224)
3PT% 32.3% (#168 of 224)
3PA/FGA 44% (#37 of 224)

So: the original plan was not to do a preview for this exhibition. That is because of two reasons:

  1. This is an exhibition game against a Division II opponent;
  2. That Division II opponent lost their top five scorers and the leading returning scorer barely got 6 points per game.

While Tennessee is going through some amount of transition of their own, Lenoir-Rhyne is undergoing a full-on scoring rebuild. Everick Sullivan is in his sixth season as head coach; I am going to take a wild guess and say that he has very rarely gone into a season where he has to replace an entire starting lineup’s worth of scoring. Technically, one starter does return (Cooper Fowler, the 6’11” center), but using a very rough Usage Rate approximation (D-2 doesn’t have those stats widely available) he used about as many possessions (~18 USG%) as Josiah-Jordan James did (17.9%). That roughly translates to being about the fourth scoring option when you’re on the floor, but he had a higher Usage Rate than the other two returners, so, yeah.

The good news is that Sullivan’s offense has been fairly consistent over the last few years in terms of play type splits. About a quarter of possessions every year end in a ball screen of some sort. Their motion offense generates a decent amount of hand-offs and off-ball screens. Their preference is to play fast (72.8 possessions per game in 2020-21, would’ve been 17th-highest in D-1). All of this generally holds from year to year, and I feel somewhat safe in assuming it will hold in 2021-22.

In an exhibition where very little truly matters beyond getting reps, it wouldn’t surprise me to see Lenoir-Rhyne lean heavily on the ball screen with Fowler as the roll man. Fowler was pretty good in this role a year ago, and while I honestly can’t tell you who the main guy at point guard will be (EDIT: it is one of America’s 97,433 Jalen Johnsons) it would behoove them to get one of their lone reliable returners the ball early and often.

Lenoir-Rhyne will also use their standard half-court motion looks to generate open shots from deep. Almost 44% of their shots a year ago were threes; I wouldn’t be surprised if that takes a very tiny step back due to a lack of returning shooting experience, but it’s just as likely that it stays the same. Tennessee isn’t facing an elite bunch of shooters (32.3% from three in 2020-21), but it would be nice to see them not have assignment breakdowns or coverage busts against a Division II opponent.

Here is the thing: Fowler is also a very heavy three-point shooter. That’s right, folks. The 6’11”, 275 pound center took almost 73% of his shots from downtown. This could be quite the useful test in terms of figuring out how you want your center to guard a 5 that shoots it happily.

I mean, it’s not like this is the toughest test in the world for Tennessee, but pay attention to Fowler + watch for drive and kicks and you can handle this fairly well, even with some turnover.

Lenoir-Rhyne’s defense

2020-21 Defensive Efficiency 104.5 (#84 of 224 qualified in D-2)
eFG% 53.3% (#149 of 224)
TO% 19% (#22 of 224)
OREB% 29.3% (#162 of 224)
FTA/FGA 28.1% (#64 of 224)
2PT% 54.8% (#175 of 224)
3PT% 34% (#81 of 224)
3PA/FGA 38.8% (#116 of 224)

This was the slightly superior side of the ball for the Bears a year ago; they were fairly good at stuffing opponents’ transition games and did a solid job of handling ball screens for the most part. The bad news is that the vast majority of possessions handled defensively were lost to graduation or transfer, and only Tim Steele (likely small forward starter) rated out as a particularly good individual defender among the returners.

The good news is that this won’t require a ton of research into what type of zone defense the Bears run or whatever. This is a man-to-man defense that doesn’t force many long twos but did use their length down low to force opponents to take a lot of 4-10 foot shots. Now, they didn’t really force opponents to shoot these poorly, but the gist of it is that they didn’t give up a massive amount of attempts at the rim. The goal, particularly when facing the ball-handler at the point of attack, was to funnel that ball-handler into a sort of no man’s territory where they would be forced to shoot over the top of the defense.

That’s all good and well if the opponent is somehow willing to take those shots and doesn’t possess the personnel necessary to break through Fowler in the paint. (He had 16 of Lenoir-Rhyne’s 35 blocks.) I think I’m willing to guess that playing Division II opponents Wingate or Limestone is a hair different than facing one of the 20 best teams the sport has to offer, at least from a height and strength perspective.

Per Synergy, when opponents did actually get to the basket and around Fowler, Lenoir-Rhyne basically had nothing left to offer. Their half-court defense gave up a 63.1% FG% in Synergy’s Around Basket (post-ups excluded) metric, which tracks with what CBB Analytics tells me and also ranked out in the 10th-percentile nationally. Bringing back Fowler could reasonably help on that front, but considering they were already in the 24th-percentile in defending basket cuts and pretty poor at stopping drives to the basket out of spot-ups, I don’t know if having to replace 80% of your minutes is really going to make that an easier task.

This is, again, a game to try some different stuff out. I would hammer Lenoir-Rhyne in the post early and often and see how many easy points and fouls one could rack up. It also seems like a good time to test your three-point shooting, because…uh, might as well.

How Tennessee matches up

I know you’re gonna be shocked by this one but: this is basically a game for Tennessee to experiment with different lineups and ball-handlers and structures against an overwhelmed exhibition opponent. The analysis is already limited when you’re playing a Division II opponent; the analysis is that much more limited when said opponent literally lost its top five scorers and finished sixth place in a conference with four good teams.

So the normal How Tennessee Matches Up section is less about the matching-up part and more about the “what can they try” part. This particular matchup does give Tennessee a moderately useful test in Fowler, the 6’11” 275-pound rotund center that is 25 pounds heavier than any player on Tennessee’s roster and about 30 heavier than any anticipated rotation member. Fowler was quite remarkable a year ago in terms of avoiding fouls (barely 2.1 per 40) and graded out as an average D-2 defender by Synergy’s numbers.

This is very much a “we have little useful data to go on so bear with me” deal, so, uh, bear with me. Fowler wasn’t bad at defending spot-up situations when they were actual jump shots, but when the ball-handler was able to drive to the rim, he was lost in space. This could be an area of opportunity for Brandon Huntley-Hatfield, who is acceptable at dribbling basketballs. More important is that Lenoir-Rhyne rated out as one of the worst at-the-rim defenses in all of Division II last year, finishing in the 10th percentile; I would see if Chandler can create pressure off the dribble and get Nkamhoua/whoever some easy basket-cut points.

I would also use this time to get up some threes and avoid mid-range dumpers. Lenoir-Rhyne didn’t do a good job of stopping three-point attempts in the first place last year (38.9% of all shots) and I’m going to take a wild guess that losing almost their entire backcourt will not help this early on. Their Guarded/Unguarded split of 56/44 was just okay; I would look to use these drives, perhaps off of ball screens, to create some open looks from deep for what should be one of the better 3PT% teams in the SEC.

Defensively, you are facing a team in serious flux that brings back almost nothing from last season. The likelihood of this being a team that runs a good amount of ball screens in a motion offense with some work through the post isn’t zero. Still, I think this game above all else represents a good chance to see something unusual: a 5-man that takes more threes than twos and is more likely to pop out for a three than to rim-run.

Fowler will do both, of course, but the threes will be more frequent. Tennessee was pretty good in pick-and-roll defense a year ago and I would be surprised if that changed here. Normally, this would be a chance to test out how Fulkerson has/hasn’t improved in such sets, but Fulkerson is unavailable due to a nagging injury and Aidoo will be out as well, so this is more a Huntley-Hatfield/Nkamhoua/even JJJ game. (Plavsic, too, but…again, do you really want Plavsic out there for more than 1-2 minutes at a time?) Let’s see if Tennessee’s defense stays strong even with some key departures.

Expected starters

Taken from Tennessee’s game notes.

Lenoir-Rhyne:

  • G #5 Jalen Johnson (not that Jalen Johnson) (or that Jalen Johnson) (5’11″/185).
  • G #23 Nas Tyson (6’1″/200).
  • G #15 Kevin Kangu (6’4″/185). Oakland University transfer.
  • F #11 Tim Steele (6’5″/250). 3.9 PPG, 2.1 RPG in 2020-21.
  • C #33 Cooper Fowler (6’11″/275). 6 PPG, 3.4 RPG. Leading returning scorer and rebounder.

Tennessee:

  • G #1 Kennedy Chandler (6’/172, Fr.).
  • G #25 Santiago Vescovi (6’3″/188, Jr.).
  • G #30 Josiah-Jordan James (6’6″/207, Jr.).
  • F #13 Olivier Nkamhoua (6’8″/223, Jr.).
  • C #33 Uros Plavsic (7’/240, Jr.).

Three things to watch for

  1. Who takes the most shots? Sounds silly but this is literally the only public data we will have on the team prior to November 9th. No Fulkerson clouds this but I’d at least like to see if Justin Powell takes a bunch of shots or if a previously-limited player (Olivier Nkamhoua, for example) is more aggressive. Chandler is a contender for this made-up award.
  2. How many transition points does Tennessee allow? I’m defining ‘transition’ as ‘first 10 seconds of the shot clock.’ Synergy claims Lenoir-Rhyne averaged nearly 16 transition points a game last year; I would like to see this number in the single digits.
  3. Shot selection. I mean you either take the analytically-friendly ones or you don’t, and historically, Tennessee hasn’t. I need more than this game to be able to love again but this represents the first start.

Key matchups

Uh…Olivier Nkamhoua or somebody vs. Cooper Fowler? Fowler is probably the main guy at least to start this game, and without Fulkerson, I would like to see how well Tennessee handles a rather unusual center matchup. Plavsic applies here too but, uh, yeah.

Josiah-Jordan James (?) vs. Tim Steele. Steele is 6’5”/250 and the Lenoir-Rhyne staff seem to believe he’s had a fantastic offseason. This is less about stats and more about “don’t have a defensive performance that allows people to tweet ‘Tim Steele is a D-1 player’ even if he actually is one.”

Will vs. Family Ties. Will I be able to respond to my dad’s texts during the fourth quarter of the Michigan/Michigan State game as I settle down in section 125? Time will tell.

Three predictions

  1. At least seven Tennessee players get 15 or more minutes;
  2. Tennessee produces at least two runs of 12-2 or greater;
  3. Tennessee 92, Lenoir-Rhyne 54.

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