Show Me My Opponent, 2021-22: East Tennessee State

GAME INFORMATION
OPPONENT East Tennessee State (13-12 in 2020-21)
LOCATION Thompson-Boling Arena
Knoxville, TN
TIME 12:00 PM ET
CHANNEL SEC Network (the cable one)
ANNOUNCERS Roy Philpott (PBP)
Mark Wise (analyst)
SPREAD Sinners: Tennessee -16.5
KenPom: Tennessee -16
Torvik: Tennessee -14.4
Over/Under: 136

Tennessee played with their food for about 15 minutes against Tennessee-Martin then ran away with the game; their reward is drawing a projected-to-be-somewhat-frisky East Tennessee State team. ETSU threatened to go off the rails entirely this off-season for Reasons That I Am Being Asked to Not Discuss For Fear of Losing Readership, then Desmond Oliver did his best to keep most of the roster together.

ETSU was projected to lose to Appalachian State by one point and lost by two. With all of the perspective that literally one game gives you, it seems like they’re just interesting enough to provide a decent pre-Villanova test for Tennessee. However, in that one game, they didn’t appear to be too terrific on the defensive front and couldn’t get much going in the paint at all. We’ll see what happens when the rubber hits the road, or whatever the saying is.

ETSU’s offense

All numbers are via KenPom.

2020-21 Offensive Efficiency 103.2 (#159 of 347)
Pace 65.4 possessions (#311)
eFG% 50.3% (#158)
TO% 20.3% (#246)
OREB% 30.5% (#89)
FTA/FGA 29.8% (#221)
2PT% 49.0% (#202)
3PT% 34.9% (#113)
3PA/FGA 41.0% (#77)
Shot Attempt Splits 34% Rim (#231)
25% Mid (#189)
41% 3PT (#77)

Again, we’re going off of all of one game here under a new head coach, so bear with me. It helps that East Tennessee State somehow managed to return nearly 70% of their scoring from the 2020-21 team after the program itself had four players on the roster for the 2021-22 season six months ago. Desmond Oliver clearly did a great job re-recruiting the players that threatened to depart; now, it’s his job to turn a fairly-talented roster into a Southern Conference contender.

Last year’s ETSU offense was predominantly built around the pick-and-roll, with 31% of all possessions ending with one. Like pretty much every college offense these days, it’s built around a lot of off-ball motion and screen-setting. We have all of one game of useful data on the new head coach, but against Appalachian State, ETSU took over half their shots from three and almost all of their half-court offense revolved around ball-screens.

The main ball-handlers are going to be David Sloan (formerly of Kansas State) and Ledarrius Brewer. The two are about equally aggressive in terms of hunting their shot (Brewer 26.2% USG% in 2020-21, Sloan 25.2%) and will be the main guys Tennessee has to watch for. Brewer is the superior shooter and therefore more dangerous on the whole; Sloan is a quality driver and drawer of fouls.

The key difference in terms of shots is that Brewer’s going to be more frequently found spotting-up than pulling up off the dribble. 57 of Brewer’s 170 half-court jumpers (33.5%) last season were off the dribble; an impressive 75 of Sloan’s 97 (77.3%) were. A hair over half of Brewer’s shots last year were threes. Considering he made 37.7% of them, he’s the main perimeter threat to watch for.

Sloan is less prone to taking threes; almost 70% of his shots were inside the perimeter. Still, he prefers to hunt jumpers first above his drives to the basket, and the fact he can get to the rim pretty frequently causes defenders to be more cautious when the ball is in his hands. In the right situation, perhaps off of a ball screen, this can give Sloan the space necessary to get his shot off. You can tell the Sloan P&Rs from the Brewer ones in part because Sloan is much more open to going away from the pick and heading to the basket.

In a scrimmage with Catawba (don’t ask me where this is), it was Vonnie Patterson who tied Brewer for the team in shot attempts. (Sloan only took three, but he also only played nine minutes. More on that later.) Patterson did shoot some last year, but he was much better around the rim; Synergy says he was 12-for-37 on half-court jumpers, while Torvik says he was 13-for-42 on everything that wasn’t a layup or dunk. Ty Brewer was projected as the #3 scorer per Torvik; he wasn’t the highest-usage guy last year (19% USG%) but had a pretty even shot chart across all spots of the floor. I’m not as worried about him as I am the other Brewer, to be honest.

Something I’m personally watching for, of course: shot selection. Last year’s shot attempt splits (as noted in the table above) went 34 Rim/25 Mid/41 3PT; against App State these numbers were 19 Rim/28 Mid/53 3PT. 70% of the pieces came back, but App State basically walled off the rim and dared ETSU to shoot over the top of them. They indulged happily. So, yes, Tennessee probably knows that ETSU is going to want to take threes and use their drives to the basket to create open looks.

ETSU’s defense

2020-21 Defensive Efficiency 99.2 (#117 of 347)
eFG% 50.4% (#188)
TO% 19.8% (#107)
OREB% 26.5% (#120)
FTA/FGA 31.6% (#176)
2PT% 49.3% (#150)
3PT% 34.4% (#218)
3PA/FGA 45.4% (#336)
FTA/FGA 31.6% (#176)

In the Shay era, ETSU largely ran a man-to-man look that wanted you to shoot over the top of them. 45.4% of all shots against the Bucs in 2020-21 were threes; that seems like it may continue this year to some extent. In the Catawba exhibition, 24 of the 52 shots allowed (46.2%) were threes; only 25% of the shots forced were non-rim two pointers. That’s just about at the national average for last season, so nothing seems too surprising there.

ETSU made up for this last year by forcing a healthy amount of turnovers (107th overall), particularly in ball screens where they hedged hard and forced guards to make tough decisions (55th in TO%). This was obviously neutered a bit in three games against KenPom Top 100 sides (notably, they only forced turnovers on 16.5% of Alabama’s possessions), but it’s still something worth noting. Predictably, after writing this preview ahead of time, they forced no steals on pick-and-rolls against App, so here’s something else.

The key here, just as it was last year, will be not letting the ball stick. That’s kind of a gross wording but you get the point. In late-clock (25+ second) possessions last season, ETSU only allowed 29.4% of shots to be taken at the rim; that was 33.4% on all other possessions. That’s part of the reason they allowed just a 45.5% eFG% on those possessions, which is Actually Good. The good news for Tennessee is that their own one-game sample size indicated a push to get the ball out quickly; they averaged 16.7 seconds per offensive possession against Tennessee-Martin, a borderline top-100 rate last season.

I also think this is a game where you’re gonna have some sort of opinion on three-point defense and it existing or not existing. ETSU’s three-point defense was roughly average last year; a 34.4% 3PT% hit rate by opponents is actually better than the national average (therefore worse for the defense), but considering the median 3PT% they faced was 35%, it’s better than expected.

ETSU ‘achieved’ this despite only guarding 54% of catch-and-shoot threes (the most efficient kind), per Synergy. On those 54% Guarded attempts, opponents barely cracked 27%; on the Unguarded ones, they hit 37%. The national averages on these last year: 32% and 37%. Based on the App State game this doesn’t appear to be a “when they guard, they REALLY guard” thing; it’s just the sort of weird statistical blip basketball gives us. I would take these shots and be happy even if they didn’t go down.

Lastly, I would like to utilize this game to test how much better or not better ETSU is at defending cuts to the basket. They were horrific at this in the singular Shay season, ranking in the 12th-percentile nationally, per Synergy. When you don’t have a guy to fill this gap correctly, bad things happen, and Tennessee’s proven themselves to be quite good at filling this gap offensively in recent years.

How Tennessee matches up

This is Tennessee’s first somewhat-interesting test; depending on what ETSU does the rest of the season, them living up to being a top 150 KenPom team could be of importance. Home opponents that rank inside the top 160 are Quadrant 3 teams, per the NCAA, and any time you’re not playing a Quad 4 team it’s better for your SOS. You want ETSU to be just good enough that they provide a nice little test but not good enough that they make Tennessee fans sweat for a full 40. A nine-point halftime lead or so, yes.

ETSU provides an intriguing defensive test in that they were quite good last season at defending ball-screens. Synergy ranks their ball-screen D from 2020-21 in the 93rd-percentile, partially because they were really good at forcing bad turnovers by guards. Shockingly, Tennessee didn’t run a ton of on-ball screens against Tennessee-Martin, but the early results were quite positive: 14 possessions, zero turnovers, and a 1.143 PPP. App State had some similar success with their screens versus the Bucs. Tennessee gave a variety of dudes ball-handling chances on Tuesday, but I think we’d all like to see what Kennedy Chandler can do.

Even if you’re not using a ton of ball screens, which Tennessee generally has not wanted to do under Rick Barnes, you can still drive and kick the ball out for open shots. After reviewing the App State game I didn’t feel that positive on the ETSU three-point defense front; I think that Tennessee’s gonna get their fair share of open looks. It’s an interesting scenario where ETSU’s overall defense is better than Tennessee-Martin’s but ETSU’s defensive structure is going to give Tennessee their fair share of open looks. Drive and kick, kick and drive.

Defensively, I think Tennessee’s gonna use this game to work on their ball-screen coverage. By the end of the UT-Martin game, Tennessee seemed to have made solid adjustments, most of which was “stop putting Uros Plavsic 20 feet from the basket.” With John Fulkerson’s likely return in this game, I doubt that’ll be as much of an issue, but considering ETSU’s ball-handlers like to pull up off the dribble, Tennessee should welcome poor decision-making and force the Bucs into a bunch of 15-footers. If they go in, whatever, those are lower-percentage shots than a layup and less-efficient shots than threes.

Likewise, we know ETSU is going to want to take their fair share of threes. It’s what they do most of the time, but in a situation where they need higher-variance basketball to be able to pull off a shock upset, they might take more than half of their shots from downtown. Most teams want to achieve open looks by way of driving and kicking, and Tennessee could stand to improve a hair on defending these shots properly. I thought Tennessee got away with a few against UT-Martin by way of UT-Martin not having a ton of shooting prowess. ETSU is better in this regard, so you’ve gotta guard hard and guard often.

Keep the key guys in front of you, don’t let Brewer get loose on the perimeter, and ensure that Sloan doesn’t have a free path to the rim. If Tennessee does these things correctly, you’re looking at a relatively stress-free Sunday afternoon.

Expected starters

Ripped directly from KenPom. Once we hit the Villanova game this will become a graphic.

East Tennessee State:

  • G #4 David Sloan (6’/180), senior (15 PTS/8 ASTS vs. App).
  • G #2 Jordan King (6’/172), sophomore (2 PTS/4 REB/4 AST).
  • G/F #25 Ledarrius Brewer (6’5″/190), junior (13 PTS).
  • F #14 Ty Brewer (6’9″/205), junior (12 PTS/8 REB).
  • F #0 Silas Adheke (6’8″/245), senior (5 PTS/4 REB).

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 #10 John Fulkerson (6’9″/215), ninth-year senior.

Three things to watch for

  • How well does Tennessee defend ball screens? Almost half of ETSU’s plays against App State ended in a ball screen. Tennessee defended these better the deeper the UT-Martin game went, but this will be a different and tougher test.
  • How many open threes can Tennessee get? Synergy says 22 of the 33 catch-and-shoot attempts were open; Tennessee hit 10 of those.
  • Turnovers. ETSU didn’t have many issues with them against App, but they turned it over on 27% of possessions in a scrimmage with “Catawba” (?) and posted TO% numbers of 32.4%, 24.1%, and 27.5% against their three Top 100 opponents last year.

Key matchups

Kennedy Chandler vs. David Sloan. Sloan is very good at weaving his way to the rim, but Chandler still has to play him tight to avoid the pull-up jumpers.

Josiah-Jordan James vs. Ledarrius Brewer. Triple J draws a very good shooter as his opponent; I would like to see him shut down Brewer in a manner of “holds him to single digit points.”

Three predictions

  1. Tennessee attempts 30+ threes but not 40+;
  2. ETSU turns it over on 20% or more of their possessions;
  3. Tennessee 76, East Tennessee State 60.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s