Show Me My Opponent, 2021-22: Tennessee Tech

OPPONENT Tennessee Tech (5-22 in 2020-21)
LOCATION Thompson-Boling Arena
Knoxville, TN
CHANNEL SEC Network+ (online)
Steve Hamer (analyst)
Kasey Funderburg (sideline reporter)
SPREAD Sinners: Tennessee -24
KenPom: Tennessee -25

Torvik: Tennessee -20.3

Tennessee Tech is a school in Cookeville, TN; you have probably heard of them if you’re from Tennessee and you have absolutely heard of them if your major was in the field of engineering. They have a Popeyes closer to their downtown (exit 287 on I-40) than Knoxville has to its downtown, which is really depressing to type, but alas. Tennessee Tech’s last three years of basketball: 8-23, 9-22, 5-22. Uh…yeah. The good news: when this game ends, you get to go home and eat leftovers.

Tennessee Tech’s offense

All numbers via KenPom and Hoop-Math. 2021-22 numbers, so SMALL SAMPLE SIZE.

When this team last visited Knoxville, I had this to say about their offense:

“It would be one thing if Tech had an offense that created good shots, worked the ball around, generally tried to do the right things, but just didn’t have the players capable of taking advantage of these opportunities. That’s not really the case here. Shot Quality ranks the Golden Eagles’ offensive shot selection in the 4th-percentile nationally, the lowest of anyone on Tennessee’s schedule. Tech takes a lot of bad shots and they don’t hit ‘em.”

I’m pleased to report two things:

  1. Tennessee Tech was not the worst offense Tennessee played in 2020-21 – that would be USC Upstate – but Tech was second-worst.
  2. As of now, they have improved to merely being third-worst among the offenses Tennessee draws in 2021-22.


In fairness to the Golden Eagles, some things do appear to be improving. After their 88-77 win over Lipscomb on Tuesday, Tech’s getting more assists than normal, hammering the boards (12th in OREB%), and has done a pretty good job of taking analytically-friendly shots under an older-school coach. While the Ohio Valley is a husk of its former self and will be even more a husk next season, Tech could legitimately finish in the top half of the conference.

Similar to last year, Tennessee Tech utilizes an above-average amount of ball screens, which either makes you commit really hard and allow for a kickout or accept a one-on-one matchup that allows the ball-handler to drive to the basket. Keishawn Davidson (fairly good) and Jr Clay (not) (also yes that’s “Jr” Clay not J.R.) have been the two main handlers; Davidson is more likely to shoot over the top while Clay is a bit better at driving. You can tell them apart fairly easily, in that Davidson never goes away from the pick, using the screen to his advantage:

While Clay is more up to pass and is particularly interested in getting the roll man involved, whether that’s to the basket or on the perimeter.

The third important guy, and the only other double-digit-per-game scorer, is Mamoudou Diarra. Diarra was a nondescript bench guy for Cincinnati before heading to Tech for a grad transfer year. Diarra has added a new dimension to the Tech offense by serving as a surprising stretch 5; he’s attempted more threes than twos and has showed some quality mobility. He’s my candidate for Guy That Scores 17 Points or So and Gets Mentioned As “A Guy That Can Play” With 32 Minutes Left in the Game on Twitter.

I’d like to note here that, while Tech is shooting under 27% on threes for the season, this is because of one game (UNC Asheville) in which they went 0-for-21. If you have the capability to go 0-for-21, you are probably Not Good at shooting the basketball, but I don’t think they’re 27%-level bad. That’s basically all I’ve got; it is hard to get up for scouting a lower-tier in-state opponent, but it beats standing in line at Best Buy.

Tennessee Tech’s defense

All numbers via KenPom and Hoop-Math. 2021-22 numbers, so SMALL SAMPLE SIZE.

I entered 2020-21’s game imagining that the defense was the less-bad unit; instead, it turned out to be the nation’s 316th-best and allowed 20 of 27 opponents to top a point per possession as the Golden Eagles went 5-22. This means that, so far, surrendering 1+ PPP to three of five opponents represents real progress in the sense that it’s 60% and not nearly 75%. Sorry, do you want to try and make a Black Friday buy game against a profoundly bad in-state opponent interesting?

In the interest of letting the wheels of American commerce turn unabated, I’m thrilled to report that you can spend your shopping time today thinking about the facets of Tennessee Tech’s 1-3-1 zone, which they’ve started running more often this year (as in 25 possessions against Memphis and 11 against Chattanooga).

The zone is not great, but it has caused opponents to turn the ball over on nearly 24% of possessions so far and gave Chattanooga (a team considered by many to be a serious SoCon contender) some fits at times before the Mocs broke the zone apart early in the second half. Like any zone, it’s going to have its holes, and that screenshot above should tell you two really obvious ones: the corners and about 10 feet away from the rim in the paint. Chattanooga exploited the latter of those quite well, which forced Pelphrey to go back to man-to-man for the rest of the game:

Our official stance on mid-range jumpers at Stats by Will dot com: if they’re that open, obviously, you should take it.

The Lipscomb game was quite intriguing: Tech’s opponent had an utterly amazing shooting night (19-30 2s, 10-15 3s), but lost by 11 because they lost the turnover battle 22-10 and the offensive rebounding battle 15-4. When you give your opponent 23 extra chances offensively, you will likely not win the basketball game. To put it politely, I would be floored by Tennessee losing the rebounding battle in such a manner and would probably be a bit surprised by Tennessee losing rebounds, period. Tennessee is simply taller and more physical on the whole; a good comparison would be Memphis, who rebounded 40% of their missed shots and got 49 of 59 shots either at the rim or from three.

I wouldn’t be surprised to see Tennessee bully-ball their way inside like they did with North Carolina (more a finesse game than bully-ball, but bear with me); Synergy ranks Tech’s rim defense in the 31st-percentile nationally. However, I think Tennessee’s going to get a lot of opportunities to work on threes in this one. Tech allowed 37% of opponent half-court possessions in 2020-21 to end in a catch-and-shoot three, the 306th-best rate out of 347 participating schools. That is…not good! This is a team that simply doesn’t force many jumpers at all off the dribble and doesn’t close out well:

Watching the Lipscomb game, it was like “oh yeah, I understand the 10-15 3s now” followed by “wait why did they only take fifteen threes.” Again: really stinky rim defense. Tech has faced close to a bang-on average schedule thus far (KenPom opponent rankings: #17, #117, #283, #202) and has given up a 63.7% FG% on attempts at the rim (Hoop-Math) against teams with less speed and height than Tennessee offers. Tech didn’t have any standout defenders last year, and while Clay (and more specifically power forward Amadou Sylla) have graded out decently thus far, it doesn’t seem like they’ll be able to do a ton to slow down whatever it is Tennessee wants to do.

How Tennessee matches up

I cannot imagine it will come as a surprise, but a game where Tennessee is 99% likely to win and will enter as a favorite by a margin in the low-20s is a good game to experiment with some stuff. I don’t think that will come with the starting lineup; Tech’s frontcourt is 6’8” and 6’9”, same as Tennessee’s, and starting off with Nkamhoua and Fulkerson is perfectly fine. However, this is probably the ideal fixture to start giving three- and four-guard lineups more run.

As covered, Tennessee Tech does a poor job of forcing bad shots, and Tennessee will get more than enough looks at the rim and from three. On the former, Tennessee was fabulous at applying pressure in the paint in the North Carolina game via the handling skills of Kennedy Chandler and Zakai Zeigler and even Justin Powell. Tennessee got a shockingly high amount of points at the rim against UNC in part because these guys handled the ball well and forced UNC to commit two to a ball-handler, which opened a cutter for an easy two. Tennessee can continue working on that in a game against a team ranking out as a poor interior defense that’s suffered from foul issues this season.

Along with that, bomb away; we’ve covered that Tech is not really going to prevent you from taking the threes you want to take. Tennessee has been very good at generating open threes through off-ball screens so far, but they’ve been a bit unlucky (3-for-19) in those attempts actually going down. I say keep taking them and the hits will come.

Defensively, Tech’s first instinct will be to get to the rim, as that’s where 44% of their shots have come this season. (Synergy says 41%, for the record; either number is pretty high.) They’ve victimized some opponents on what Tennessee will be trying to do offensively (backdoor cuts and the like); Tennessee would be wise to not let that happen. I think that Tennessee is probably going to be fine doing two things: icing Tech’s ball screens (AKA, sending a second defender to keep the ball-handler 25 feet from the basket and eliminating temporary space), and if the ball-handler does broach the paint, forcing him to finish one-on-one.

Instinct does come into play here, but Tennessee has been very good at rim defense and very good at recoveries for some time now. I imagine KenPom’s 281st-ranked team and 263rd-ranked offense are fairly unlikely to do much more than North Carolina did, and the Tar Heels barely eked out an 8-for-20 hit rate on layup/dunk attempts.

Get outta here alive, move on, celebrate the holiday.

Expected starters

Metric explanations: MPG is minutes per game. PPG/RPG/APG/Fouls/Twos/Threes are what you’d guess. USG% is the percentage of possessions a player uses on the court. OREB%/DREB% are your available rebounds usurped. Finally, PRPG! is Bart Torvik’s Points Over Replacement metric; the higher the better. If you’re on mobile, zoom in; if on desktop, right click -> Open Image in New Tab.

Three things to watch for

  • What’s Tennessee’s rim-and-threes ratio in this one? Against two overmatched opponents, Tennessee got 78.1% of all shots either within 4 feet of the rim or from three, per Synergy; against two Top 25 teams, that number was…78%. This is despite the uptick in opposition; I would really like to see this number breach 80% consistently against weaker teams.
  • Who gets the majority of backcourt minutes? A potential Josiah-Jordan James return is less intriguing than Tennessee’s suddenly in-flux backcourt situation. In the weekend tournament, the most-used three-man backcourt was Chandler/Zeigler/Vescovi, followed closely by Chandler/Powell/Vescovi. Can Victor Bailey get another chance to re-earn minutes?
  • The Warren family mental health. My dad is a Michigan graduate and most people know by now I support their football team; by 3:30 PM on Saturday I will either be heading to the Nashville area to celebrate with him or heading on a solo drive of Foothills Parkway to avoid the internet.

Key matchups

Jr. Clay versus Kennedy Chandler. Clay is the main possession-user and has mildly interesting defensive metrics, but Chandler needs to win these matchups handily; he’s just way more athletic.

Mamoudou Diarra versus John Fulkerson. Or Olivier Nkamhoua, not sure. BUT:

Small sample size and all, of course, but those are Diarra’s on/off numbers this year. There’s absolutely no way it’ll hold, but Tech is obviously way better when he’s on the court. I do not trust his 2021-22 Fouls/40 of 1.6; his career rate is 5.0. Fulkerson and Nkamhoua are both good foul-drawers and I’d like to see them make it happen here.

Three predictions

  1. Tennessee gets 65+ field goal attempts;
  2. Roughly 80% of those attempts are within four feet of the rim or from three;
  3. Tennessee 83, Tennessee Tech 59.

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