Show Me My Opponent, 2021-22: Texas Tech

OPPONENT Texas Tech (6-1, #19 KenPom)
(18-11, Round of 32 in 2020-21)
LOCATION Madison Square Garden
Jay Bilas (analyst)
HOLLY ROWE! (sideline)
SPREAD Sinners: Tennessee -2.5
KenPom: Tennessee -1

Torvik: Tennessee -2

One of the strange things about following a program who has overseen a significant rise in stature and quality of play in the last five years is getting used to playing these neutral-site games in cities that do not match the teams involved whatsoever. Tennessee has somehow managed to become part of the Jimmy V Classic, an event that takes place in mid-December and typically involves the Dukes and Villanovas of the world but has graciously opened its doors to Tennessee for the first time since 2000.

Their opponent, Texas Tech, has been one of the few teams outpacing Tennessee in the “here’s how much Tennessee’s offense has changed compared to other schools” charts I’ve been posting on Twitter. They kept it in-house with Mark Adams after Chris Beard left. Tech has played seven games; they are 6-1 and the one loss is to the only team they’ve faced in the KenPom Top 200, Providence. I hope you’ll understand why I still can’t confidently tell you just how good they are. Let’s find out together on national television.

Texas Tech’s offense

All data from KenPom and Hoop-Math. SMALL SAMPLE SIZE! until December 23.

Sometime this offseason, a Texas Tech fan site wrote an article about new head coach Mark Adams and the new-look offense. They were hoping to have it somewhat resemble Northwest Missouri State, an offense I’ve written about extensively in the past and which is referenced in that article. This is not a self-indulgent Look at Me, Important Man thing, but rather an opportunity to provide a check-in. How similar is Texas Tech to Northwest Missouri thus far?

2020-21 Northwest Missouri:

2021-22 Texas Tech:

The answer here: they aren’t like Northwest Missouri yet, beyond the similarities in post-up rate and an uptick in basket cuts. However, as noted in the offensive summary graphic, this Texas Tech team has radically changed their shot selection:

  • 2020-21 Texas Tech: 33.8% of all attempts at the Rim/34.8% Mid/31.4% Threes
  • 2021-22 Texas Tech: 44.1% Rim/19.2% Mid/36.7% Threes

Only one team in America (Tennessee-Martin, who also had a coaching change) has upped their rim-and-threes rate more intensely than the Red Raiders have. They’ve attempted just 40 mid-range jumpers (per Synergy) through seven games; that number was an astounding 106 last year, a rate as high as Tennessee’s. It helps(*) that they lost Mac McClung, someone frequently responsible for those mid-range twos, and as of now, their 2020-21 to 2021-22 minutes continuity is a hair below 32%, per KenPom. Still: this is a huge shift that’s clearly philosophical, not personnel-driven.

Only two teams in America get more minutes from their bench than Texas Tech’s 44.5%. The leading minutes-getter is Mylik Wilson, who’s sitting at 22.8 MPG and takes fewer shots per 100 possessions than anyone else above 10 MPG. Along with that, five different players average double-digit points per game, but the only guy with a higher-than-22% USG% (a Significant Contributor, per KenPom) is Terrence Shannon, Jr. Shannon is solidifying himself as a late-first-rounder and for good reason:

Shannon missed the first three games of the season but has scored 64 points across Tech’s last four games; he will surely be the main focus of Tennessee’s defensive scouting report. Shannon’s shooting ability has increased year-over-year and has become a legitimately scary threat for a 6’6″ guard/forward. He’s hitting 44% of his threes this year after making 36% last year and has made at least two threes in every Tech game thus far. He’s very much a shoot-first player in Tech’s motion offense, but will drive to the rim a few times per game and is pretty good at scoring once he gets there.

Beyond Shannon, given our limited space here, it probably doesn’t make too much sense to focus on individuals. It might be better to show the Tech offense as a whole and explain why Synergy’s a believer (93rd-percentile) and so is Torvik (33rd nationally with all preseason baselines removed). Tech isn’t playing significantly faster than they did under Chris Beard; they’ve mostly just spent a lot of time hunting good shots and almost entirely erasing ISOs from the offense.

Texas Tech has done an excellent job of looking for basket/flash cuts, the most efficient play type in college basketball and one they already got points from last year. (This game could set a Barnes-era record for combined cuts; Tennessee runs a ton, too.) You’ll see Bryson Williams hang out in what’s called the ‘dunker spot’ (obligatory) as Tech’s main option at center, a fine role for someone who isn’t a shooter. The excellently-named Adonis Arms (Winthrop transfer) looks with high frequency for Williams or his backups.

You’ll also see Tech use post-ups to generate a good amount of offense. Normally, I’m pro-forcing the opponent to post up, as it’s one of the least efficient things a player can do. Because basketball is designed specifically to break my brain, Texas Tech is one of the nation’s best teams at posting up, whether that’s Williams or the former VCU star Marcus Santos-Silva or, yes, former Oral Roberts star Kevin Obanor hammering their way to the rim:

Or by using the attention they draw in the post to flip it out for an open three:

It’s a fairly difficult offense to defend in some ways. Of Tech’s ten (!) man rotation, seven are at least somewhat-serious shooting options with four hitting 40% or better of their threes in this seven-game season thus far. Along with that, Tech’s been fabulous at applying pressure to the rim, whether that’s through the post or by using their size at 2-4 (all but two players in the rotation are 6’6″ or taller) to drive to the rim from spot-up situations. We didn’t even get to how utterly dominant they’ve been on the offensive boards, where they’ve posted a 40.6% OREB% or better in every single game. It’s overwhelmed already-overwhelmed Quadrant 4 opponents, and the offensive rebounding dominance – particularly from Williams and Daniel Batcho – are quite scary.

Here’s the problem: they’ve played seven games. Six were against Quadrant 4 opponents. They didn’t play anyone above that until playing #53 Providence last Wednesday; that resulted in 0.982 PPP and a 12-for-23 hit rate at the rim in a loss. That’s a one-game sample size against real competition, but the first report back was…well, underwhelming. Can they get back to high-quality offensive basketball against yet another great Tennessee defense?

CHART DESCRIBING EACH PLAYER’S SCORING ABILITY! No longer new but you get it: can this person score at a certain level? Use this to determine how annoyed you are when a shot is hit by a certain player.

Texas Tech’s defense

All data from KenPom and Hoop-Math. SMALL SAMPLE SIZE! until December 23.

A moderately intriguing defense! Hallelujah! Eight previews so far this season…eight mostly unremarkable defenses, with Villanova receiving the most attention because they switch a lot and appear to have fixed some of the issues they’d had prior to playing Tennessee. Sometimes, you do get what you want.

Texas Tech is the best defense Tennessee’s played thus far by a fairly solid margin. Again, the Red Raiders have played all of one (1) opponent currently in the KenPom Top 50 and lost, but there’s some amount of value in whooping bad teams. Exactly one of TTU’s first six opponents got above 0.87 PPP (North Florida, who happens to have the best offense of any of them) and their less-special efforts have pretty much entirely been driven by the opponent’s three-point shooting quality. Even Providence, who actually has a really good offense, only got to 1.04 PPP (0.92 PPP when adjusted for opponent) with a 43.1% eFG%.

I’ll spoil the big drop here for you early: Texas Tech is going to switch a lot. Like, all the time. Tech’s main rotation gives 83.3% of its minutes to players between 6’6″ and 6’8″. (This is where I note that Memphis and Kentucky have tried a similar strategy to hilariously different results.) What this does is eliminate a lot of advantages smaller guards may have by keeping these players in front of Tech defenders and forcing them to pull up before they’re actually able to get to the rim.

As evidenced above, Texas Tech has only allowed 26.5% of opponent attempts to be taken at the rim, one of the lowest rates in America. This follows after a season in which opponents only got 26.3% of attempts within four feet, so I think this is more a Texas Tech thing and not just a Mark Adams thing. The Red Raiders have been hyper-aggressive in forcing difficult shots, and as mentioned, even Providence was only able to post a 43.1% eFG%.

The real reason this defense is so stout, however? Turnovers. Tech is forcing them on 27.8% of opponent possessions, the fifth-highest rate in the nation. This is pretty obviously inflated by a very weak slate of opponents, but Providence turned it over on 23.1% of possessions and was having trouble avoiding risky passes and poorly-timed drives against this defense. Something that counts as a ‘turnover’ but isn’t the traditional steal or bad pass is a charge, which I saw Texas Tech take seemingly a billion of in the games I watched:

You can’t really predict these; they’re very situational and are at least fairly dependent on the whims of the officiating crew you draw that night. However: we have some amount of data that would suggest this is a legitimate goal of the defense. More than half (51.8%) of turnovers forced by Texas Tech are of the non-steal variety; they rank 14 spots higher in non-steal turnovers than they do in steal percentage. Obviously, watching out for long limbs and switchable switchers that want you to take the worst shot possible is key here; it’s why it’s a difficult task.

Please note that “difficult” =/= “impossible.” By Bart Torvik’s estimations, Tech has had three unimpressive defensive performances thus far through seven games. Torvik’s opponent-adjusted defensive efficiency has the Red Raiders allowing 1.092 adjusted PPP to North Florida, 0.995 to Grambling State, and 1.016 to Incarnate Word. There’s a very easy thread to follow through these three games:

  • UNF/Grambling/”Incarnate Word”???: 30-for-63 on threes (47.6%)
  • The other four opponents: 25-for-93 on threes (26.9%)

As you probably guessed from the part of the graphic that mentions Texas Tech is allowing a crazy 45.3% of opponent attempts to come from beyond the arc, this is the part of the game Tennessee can take serious advantage of. The scout on Texas Tech, as mentioned, is that they’re willing to switch everything and force you to shoot over the top of them as frequently as possible. This is all fine and dandy for a lot of opponents, because many a college team either A) doesn’t have enough shooting, or B) does, but isn’t consistent enough for them to change what they do and can’t hit them off the dribble.

When they run into teams that do have the shooting and are willing to wait out the switches, Tech’s had some issues running them off the three-point line. Patient ball-handlers have caused Tech to sometimes accidentally double, which frees up a shooter elsewhere:

This is a tough task, but not an impossible one. Stay patient, look for good jumpers, and hunt for the mismatches you can find. If Providence can do it, you potentially can, too.

How Tennessee matches up

I think we’ve seen enough basketball to have a fairly good idea that the best version of Tennessee’s offense is gonna run through Kennedy Chandler and Santiago Vescovi. The and is important here. Of course fans are going to want the Kennedy Show after the Colorado game; they’re right to want that. But Chandler cannot do it alone. He’s the superior ball-handler and better driver, but Vescovi is threatening to become the exact post-hype All-SEC semi-star that Tennessee has needed at the 2 since…uh…JaJuan Smith? (May you be as surprised as I was to find out Vescovi is an inch taller than JaJuan. Also, Josh Richardson is technically the last great 2-guard…but his skill set isn’t anything like Vescovi’s.)

The path to Tennessee’s points in this game specifically runs through these two. The Tennessee offense has sputtered somewhat at times, but it clearly runs most efficiently when Chandler is on the court and the main ball-handler. An underrated story to me is just how much more effective Tennessee has been in ball-screen sets. They still don’t run them all that often – just 18% of the time, per Synergy – but they currently sit in the 97th-percentile in efficiency with ball screens, which would be Tennessee’s best ranking by a mile in the Synergy era (2006-present) if it held.

The biggest part of this boon is Chandler, a guard who writhes and wiggles and creaks and stops and starts and bursts, all in equal measure. Ball-handling point guards this patient don’t come around often in the SEC, and they’re almost never freshmen.

Tennessee will need Chandler to be patient from the tip in this one. Tech will switch frequently and is generally okay with the concept of a 6’6″ guard/forward type ending up as his defender, and it won’t be quite as easy for Chandler to blow past them as it was for the Colorado game. (I would note that Tech’s ball-screen defense currently ranks in the 20th-percentile, though, perhaps because of all the switching.) Tech’s penchant for drawing tons of charges also presents a new-ish challenge, though Chandler and company got some experience with this in the annoying-but-informative Villanova game. Even if he draws secondary attention, that would be great: a double team frees up a shooter, which gets us to…

What version of Vescovi you get is obviously going to vary from game to game. Sometimes you get a night where he looks like the team’s very best scorer (Villanova, 23 points); others, he’s gameplanned to be a secondary focus because the team sees an opportunity elsewhere (Colorado, five shot attempts). In this one, it would make perfect sense if he ended the game with the most or second-most shot attempts.

Texas Tech’s style of defense, which aims to shut off the paint and switches everything, could present Vescovi with several open three-point looks. The three is the shot they’ve been most willing to give up so far. This might be an advantage for several players on Tennessee’s roster, obviously including Justin Powell, but this feels like it could be a huge Vescovi game. Texas Tech’s had some issues with giving up cuts to the rim, too; Vescovi has shown a keen ability to spot a backdoor cut at times when it doesn’t immediately jump out on camera. A win, or at least an A-grade offensive effort, will be driven by the Chandler/Vescovi tandem if it happens.

Defensively: you gotta watch for the cuts. Texas Tech wants to make the extra pass, whether that’s off of a drive to the basket or just a backdoor screen that catches a snoozing defender off guard. It’s with great pleasure that I announce Tennessee’s defense has been capital-A Awesome against these cuts so far this season and has shut down almost all opponent attempts to make them work. Tennessee is just…never caught off guard by this stuff, seemingly ever? Which is a testament to the fact they’re doing this with seven new players and two new assistant coaches.

The other thing is that you’re gonna have to watch for a lot of drives to the rim. Texas Tech does take more threes than they did last season, but while every player in the starting lineup attempts over a three per game, they attempt to use the space that creates for inside pressure more than perimeter pressure. You’ll see a bunch of kickouts and drives to the rim from spot-up situations; it’s what they’re most comfortable doing, and when nearly every player you have is a 6’6″-6’8″ guy that can dribble and shoot a basketball, you might as well do it.

The good news, again, is that Tennessee has been largely fabulous at interior defense thus far. Synergy ranks them in the 94th-percentile; Hoop-Math has the Volunteers as the sixth-best rim defense in the nation. No matter what metric you use, it has been oddly difficult to score at the rim on a team that no longer rosters Yves Pons.

Lastly: this is more offensive than defensive but it needs to be said. Texas Tech commits way more fouls than the average team, as they’re sitting 314th in defensive free throw rate. This could be pointless, because Tennessee is getting fewer free throws than almost any other team in existence, but if it’s going to happen in non-conference play, this is the game.

The upshot here is that Tennessee faces a tough test with a team built to test two things that need testing: rim defense and the offense’s three-point shooting consistency. If Tennessee can pass one or both efficiently enough, they’ll get out of New York alive with a win.

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 Texas Tech’s FG% at the rim? So: Tennessee has now played three games against major-conference teams. Two of those teams (Villanova and probably North Carolina) will make the NCAA Tournament. None of the three cracked even a 50% FG% at the rim on Tennessee. This is the Volunteers’ stiffest test yet, supposedly.
  • How often can Tennessee get inside? Texas Tech has been awesome at forcing opponents to shoot over the top of them, but Providence got 21 of their 51 shot attempts within four feet of the rim and only attempted 10 non-rim twos. Tennessee getting a similar 80% rim-and-threes rate would be a holiday heartwarmer.
  • What cracks first: Tennessee’s inability to draw fouls or Texas Tech’s inability to stop committing them? Longest bullet point ever! Tennessee: 355th in offensive FT Rate. Texas Tech: 314th in defensive. Something’s gotta give. Which way it gives will have a moderate implication on the game’s outcome.
  • BONUS ROUND! Can Tennessee hold Texas Tech to a lower-than-average OREB%? When the opponent is literally the best offensive-rebounding team in college hoops, it has to be asked. Tennessee has yet to allow an OREB% worse than 35.5%; holding Tech below 40% (which no team has done) is a reasonable goal.

Key matchups

Santiago Vescovi vs. Terrence Shannon, Jr. This is a situation where Powell might get the majority of the minutes, but in a close, late game, it will indeed technically be Vescovi (or, well, Powell) who draws this assignment. Shannon has been fabulous in four games of play, but struggled with fouls against Providence. If Vescovi can force Shannon into guarded threes while taking advantage of Tech’s switching on the other end, he could have quite the night.

Justin Powell? Josiah-Jordan James? vs. Kevin McCullar. Hopefully Tennessee never plays a team with this jumbled of a depth chart ever again. McCullar is Tech’s best individual defender and has a size advantage on many he gets matched up with; that shouldn’t be the case here. Force McCullar to take threes, where he barely cracks 30% for his career.

Kennedy Chandler vs. Mylik Wilson. I think Chandler is the better player by several miles, but Wilson is a strange talent at point guard who cannot shoot a basketball but is a good passer that draws fouls and gets to the rim often. He could reasonably get Chandler into foul trouble if Chandler isn’t careful.

Three predictions

  1. Tennessee out-shoots Texas Tech from three in terms of 3PT%;
  2. At least three Texas Tech players get 4 fouls but none foul out;
  3. Tennessee 71, Texas Tech 68.

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