Show Me My Opponent, 2021-22: Tennessee-Martin

GAME INFORMATION
OPPONENT Tennessee-Martin (8-16 in 2020-21)
LOCATION Thompson-Boling Arena
Knoxville, TN
TIME 7:00 PM ET
CHANNEL SEC Network (the cable one)
ANNOUNCERS Kevin Fitzgerald (PBP)
Dane Bradshaw (color commentary)
SPREAD Sinners: Tennessee -35.5
KenPom: Tennessee -35
Torvik: Tennessee -34.3
Over/Under: 152

Tuesday night (which is tonight!), attendees at Thompson-Boling Arena will witness one of the most unique stories in recent college basketball history. Tennessee-Martin is performing a most unusual experiment: every single player on the roster is a newcomer, as all Skyhawks from the 2020-21 team have departed for various reasons. That means Tennessee-Martin returns zero minutes, zero points, zero rebounds, no nothin’. Crazy. They’re the first team to do this since 2014-15 Florida A&M, who went 2-27.

This game will serve as the first real experience for all these dudes in a Martin uniform; meanwhile, this is also the season opener for a post-hype Tennessee basketball team that looked like the top 10-15 quality I’d expected in an exhibition against a Division II opponent and seems like they could have a breakout season the year after everyone wanted the breakout season. Life works in funny ways; hopefully it is not too rude to the Tennessee-Martin Skyhawks.

AFTER THE READ MORE TAG: Will previews the offense by spending time focusing on a player who isn’t even starting

Tennessee-Martin’s Offense

All numbers are via KenPom.

2020-21 Offensive Efficiency 92.3 (#323 of 347)
Pace 67.3 possessions (#220)
eFG% 45.6% (#318)
TO% 21.0% (#282)
OREB% 28.7% (#142)
FTA/FGA 28.3% (#256)
2PT% 43.3% (#336)
3PT% 33.2% (#194)
3PA/FGA 35.7% (#223)

I think everyone should probably read this part of the overview again: “Tennessee-Martin is performing a most unusual experiment: every single player on the roster is a newcomer, as all Skyhawks from the 2020-21 team have departed for various reasons.” I kid you not when I say I have literally never seen this before. Tennessee-Martin also has a new coach coming over from Bethune-Cookman, who played zero games in the 2020-21 season. The stats in the box above are completely meaningless. This preview couldn’t start better, could it?

Anyway, here is what I know about the 2021-22 Tennessee-Martin Skyhawks:

  • Head Coach Ryan Ridder’s three Bethune-Cookman teams all finished the year in KenPom’s top 20 tempo-wise.
  • All three finished in the top 65 of offensive Free Throw Rate, with two of the three in the top 50 of OREB%…
  • …while also failing to crack a 50% eFG% and turning it over on 20% or more of possessions all three years.
  • Tennessee-Martin has two (2) players who played meaningful D-1 minutes at previous schools.

So we have a lot to go on. Because of that, this preview will be a rare one: you will not see a single GIF of Tennessee-Martin. Instead, I’m including Ridder’s time at B-C, as well as two GIFs of the players who do have meaningful experience. On with the show.

Ridder’s Bethune-Cookman teams looked to push the pace in transition, and evidence shows he did similar work at Daytona State, a junior college. Contrary to how many smaller teams do this, Ridder doesn’t employ a full-court press that often to quicken the pace; instead, they stay pretty aggressive in half-court defense in an attempt to get easy points in transition. They’ll also look to push the pace off of made baskets wherever possible. Because they can’t match up athletically, they have to find little pockets of offense whenever it appears.

But other than that, when it gets into half-court territory, it’s your standard motion offense. If Martin can’t get a quick shot off in transition, they’ll probably settle into a secondary break that still looks to work the ball inside the perimeter. None of Ridder’s B-C teams ranked very highly in three-point attempt rate; I have to assume that a Martin team where two of the four D-1 players on it made zero threes in 2020-21 will also not take very many.

Let’s discuss the two players who do have stats I can work with: Josh Endicott (North Florida) and K.K. Curry (South Alabama). Endicott averaged 8.5 PPG and 5.7 RPG for UNF last season. North Florida took more threes than all but one team last year on a per-possession basis, but Endicott was not one to contribute much. He attempted 81 twos to 17 threes and was most comfortable posting up. Ridder’s teams rarely post up, so I’m not sure how that’ll work, but I would be surprised if he doesn’t get a few touches down low.

The only other player I have real info on is South Alabama transfer K.K. Curry. Curry averaged 5.2 PPG and 2.8 RPG last year; he did not create very much of his own offense. 32 of his 148 points came on putbacks, and his #1 scoring action were simple basket cuts.

And that is all I’ve got. I’m genuinely bewildered here; this is the closest thing to an expansion team Tennessee has played in a very long time. I don’t know quite what to expect.

Tennessee-Martin’s Defense

2020-21 Defensive Efficiency 113.3 (#346 of 347)
eFG% 57.3% (#341)
TO% 20.6% (#72)
OREB% 32.9% (#327)
FTA/FGA 36.5% (#285)
2PT% 58.2% (#342)
3PT% 37.4% (#320)
3PA/FGA 42.7% (#315)

At least this is easier to scout. Ridder’s defense was mostly the same over his final two seasons with Bethune-Cookman. Occasionally, they pressed after made baskets to create more turnovers, but it’s mostly a high-intensity half-court package that tries to stay aggressive to get easy points. Sometimes this will work out incredibly well (82nd in defensive TO%, 2019-20); sometimes this simply won’t (301st in defensive FT Rate).

The interesting piece comes in what types of shots Bethune-Cookman forced with this aggressive defense. The Wildcats ranked in the top 50 nationally in all three years of Ridder in Defensive Average Possession Length, meaning this strategy was often boom or bust. Opponents don’t typically attempt a lot of threes against this defense; there just wasn’t often a real reason to. Synergy ranks Bethune-Cookman’s rim defense in the 12th-percentile nationally for 2019-20, and while Hoop-Math (272nd of 353) and CBB Analytics (25th-percentile) were a hair kinder, the message was pretty obvious: if you can avoid turning it over or rushing a three, you can get to the rim with ease against this defensive structure.

However, it’s avoiding those turnovers in the first place that proved tricky for some teams. Even against some fairly stout competition, Ridder’s defense forced a good amount of turnovers: a 20% TO% by Texas Tech, 20% by Georgia Tech, 23.7% from UCF. I think 2021-22 Tennessee is better than all three of those teams and better than the latter two by a large amount, but Martin’s only shot of keeping this game somewhat respectable is to force 15+ turnovers from a Tennessee roster with a lot of new talent.

Still: even Ridder’s Bethune-Cookman teams had way more experience and way more returning talent than this particular Martin roster has. I’ve never seen a situation quite like this one in modern Division I basketball, at least in the last decade. If Tennessee stays patient and hunts their shots, they should be able to succeed with ease. Considering that B-C had poor Guarded/Unguarded numbers (49/51) in Ridder’s final season that make me think their very low 3PT% allowed was a ruse, Tennessee should also hunt the open threes they found in the Lenoir-Rhyne scrimmage.

How Tennessee matches up

Well, they’re favored by 35 points on KenPom, so I’m gonna go with “pretty well.” See you next week for the ETSU preview.

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.

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Just kidding.

Based on Saturday’s scrimmage with Lenoir-Rhyne, the inkling that Tennessee has potentially turned over a new leaf offensively may be there. Tennessee attempted 46 threes in Saturday’s fixture across 74 possessions, which would be the second-highest amount in a game in program history if exhibition stats counted in record books. I am very much in the I Don’t Trust It But It’s Still There camp when it comes to this, though Rick Barnes saying in the postgame that they’ve taken 40+ threes in every scrimmage and exhibition thus far is pretty enticing.

So I think that’s what I’m looking for offensively: is the three-point explosion Real or simply an enticing falsehood?

The fact that Olivier Nkamhoua of all people took three threes in the exhibition is what gives me hope that it’s real. The fact that Tennessee took 78 shots and only six qualified as non-rim two-pointers gives me quite a bit of hope, too. But against a team in Tennessee-Martin that (theoretically) projects to offer no resistance at the rim, I’ll guess that Tennessee doesn’t get up 40+ three-point attempts in a real game just yet. No Barnes team has averaged more than 22.6 three-point attempts per game (his first, 2015-16); a leap to 40+ would be one of the most stunning jumps in basketball history. I’ll settle for 27 or more, which would’ve been in the top 20 of all teams last year. If Tennessee hits that metric, then it’s real.

This is all kind of moot, of course, because Martin doesn’t look to have much in the way of rim protection. The expected rotation does offer a pair of 6’9” defenders (David Didenko and Christopher Nix), but neither has much in the way of blocking shots at the D-1 level. (Didenko had one block at Georgia Tech.) I would like to see a lot of Kennedy Chandler ball-handling while he’s on the court, because Tennessee hasn’t had a point guard this good at penetrating the paint since…uh…?

Defensively, this kinda just comes down to “don’t let them get out in transition,” which is almost more of an offensive factor. If Tennessee avoids turnovers and/or long rebounds, Tennessee-Martin will have very few easy transition opportunities to begin with. Ridder’s Bethune-Cookman teams were not huge on the pick-and-roll, instead preferring perimeter off-ball screens or drive-and-kicks to free up shooters. 

More frequently, however, they took a ton of long-range twos (12.3% of all shots in 2019-20 were 15+ foot mid-range looks). Tennessee didn’t force a ton of these looks against Lenoir-Rhyne (9 of 59 shot attempts from non-rim twos territory), but I think they’ll look to wall off the paint and force Martin to shoot over the top of them. It’s a wise bet, because I don’t rate the Martin roster highly from a shooting perspective and think that their only path to easy points is if Endicott or Curry get going inside. Force them to take some statistically-unfriendly shots:

And live to see Sunday against ETSU. I also think Tennessee could force a bunch of turnovers here but you don’t need GIFs of it.

Expected starters

Ripped directly from Tom Satkowiak’s Game Notes.

Tennessee Martin:

  • G #3 Mikel Henderson (6’1″/165), sophomore.
  • G #2 KJ Simon (6’3″/200), junior.
  • G #1 Koby Jeffries (6’3″/190), redshirt freshman.
  • F #0 KK Curry (6’6″/205), sophomore.
  • F #12 David Didenko (6’9″/230), junior.

Tennessee:

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

Three things to watch for

  • What’s the split of minutes at center? In the exhibition, just like tonight, Plavsic started. The minutes split ended up Plavsic 17/Huntley-Hatfield 20/walk-ons 3. Without Fulkerson, I’m curious to see if it mostly matches that in what should be a blowout.
  • A high number of possessions. Ridder’s Bethune-Cookman teams averaged 72-76 possessions a night and hit 76 in an exhibition against NAIA Bethel; Tennessee hit 74 against Lenoir-Rhyne.
  • How many mid-range jumpers does Tennessee attempt? Just 7.7% of Tennessee’s 78 shot attempts against Lenoir-Rhyne were non-rim twos; if that number is even sub-20% here, I’m taking it as a positive sign.

Key matchups

Exist.

Olivier Nkamhoua vs. KK Curry. Nkamhoua draws his first actual college start and will likely be assigned to defend Curry, who doesn’t create much of his own offense. I’d like to see Nkamhoua be aggressive early and often and think this could be a particularly good game for him if he draws Curry out to the perimeter.

Three predictions

  1. No Tennessee starter plays more than 27 minutes;
  2. Tennessee converts at a 75% or better rate on attempts at the rim;
  3. Tennessee 93, Tennessee-Martin 57.

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