Show Me My Opponent, 2021-22: UNC Greensboro

OPPONENT UNC Greensboro (7-2)
(21-9, Round of 64 in 2020-21)
LOCATION Thompson-Boling Arena
Knoxville, TN
Mark Wise (analyst)
SPREAD KenPom: Tennessee -18
Torvik: Tennessee -15.1

Let us rejoice that this game is not in Madison Square Garden and is instead in our beloved nuclear fallout shelter with soft rims and softer basketballs.

UNC Greensboro’s offense

Let it be known that every time I have to type out “UNC Greensboro’s” it sounds so wrong that it auto-corrects to “UNC Greenboro’s” in my head, which is not correct. ANYWAY,

The offense. Prior to this season, the head coach from 2012-13 onward (he took over midway through 2011-12) was Wes Miller. Miller oversaw offenses that never shot particularly well, but played fast, did a great job of avoiding turnovers, and hammered the boards. They also had one of the most electrifying players college basketball had to offer in Isaiah Miller, a player that was an absolute terror on both ends of the court and closed his career by putting up 17/5/4 plus a pair of steals against top 15 Florida State.

Both Millers moved on: Wes to Cincinnati (who recently defeated Illinois), Isaiah Miller to the Iowa Wolves of the G-League. UNC Greensboro had to replace two huge holes in their team, as Isaiah had a 35.2% USG% (4th-highest nationally) in 2020-21. They’re doing this with a score-by-committee approach where no player is currently topping a 23.5% USG%. That’s fine. The new head coaching hire is more interesting, though. UNC Greensboro hired Mike Jones (who? Mike Jones!) from Radford. Jones did a very good job at Radford and deserved the life upgrade. I’d argue he’s done fine so far at UNCG, too.

But man, the Mike Jones Experience is just not my preferred style at all.

  • 2020-21 UNC Greensboro: 91st in Average Offensive Possession Length (AOPL), 135th in Three-Point Attempt Rate (3PA%), 56th in Defensive TO%, 40th in Block%
  • 2021-22 UNC Greensboro: 350th in AOPL, 246th in 3PA%, 353rd in Defensive TO%, 284th in Block%

I mean it’s like 2004 Barry Bonds in terms of a hit rate of things purely antithetical to what I want basketball to look like. Mike Jones (who?) is undeniably good at what he does. I respect his work. I do not have to enjoy any of it, and I do not have to tell others that they have to enjoy it, either. It’s like attempting to convince people that 2021 Georgia football is both watchable and a good story to root for.

Anyway, there are players on this team. The leading scorer is De’Monte Buckingham, a Cal State Bakersfield transfer (started at Richmond) who is both the best shooter on the team (42.9% on 35 attempts) and its leading scorer (13 PPG), though he entered this season as a 31.4% career 3PT% shooter so I’m not sure how real that is. He’s also easily the best rebounder on the team at a crisp 6’4″ (8.3 RPG), so you gotta watch out for that. Among the five players with 50+ field goal attempts, Buckingham is in the middle in terms of self-creation. He can get to the rim, sure, but he’s more comfortable from deep as a spot-up shooter on shots from UNCG’s numerous ball screens.

Beyond Buckingham, no one else on the team averages double figures. The big key here is that UNCG is going to run a ton of ball screens, just like Radford did under Jones. Dante Treacy and Kobe Langley are the two main ball-handlers, and while neither are good finishers at the rim (Treacy 44.4%, Langley 50%), they’ve found fair amounts of success using these screens to draw attention away from the paint and turn these into basket cuts for their big men.

Here is a summation of what we’re collectively looking at: an offense that runs more ball screens than all but seven teams in America, has two players with 10+ made threes through eight D-1 games, is making barely 54% of their attempts at the rim, and has a slow-as-snails offensive style that is just not my thing whatsoever. BUT: slow-as-snails usually means a sub-1:50 game.

CHART! Can this player score from this area of the court? Will you be mad when they do? Find out!

UNC Greensboro’s defense

Here’s a weird one: UNC Greensboro is allowing almost 51% of opponent attempts to be from beyond the arc, and the opponent assist rate is well above the national average. However, they don’t run a zone consistently at all and are mostly man-to-man in half-court. This is despite a block percentage that ranks 284th nationally. So what’s going on here?

The not-that-exciting answer is: this is just what Mike Jones (who?) teams do. Radford had a similar strategy of walling off the paint and forcing opponents to shoot over the top of them. Greensboro have only played two top 200 teams, UMass and Vermont; they combined for 24 (!) attempts at the rim out of 111 total shots, per Synergy. They haven’t played anyone near Tennessee’s level yet, but you can assume they’re going to make Tennessee hit threes before they extend all the way out to guard them.

The first thing is that Greensboro have been fabulous at shutting down drives to the paint. The leading play types for attempts within 4 feet at the rim have been Cuts and plays in transition; barely anyone has been able to take a defender one-on-one to the rim and score. Watch the center sag back here and essentially demand that the shooter has no path home:

Greensboro doesn’t have a terribly imposing rim protector, really; 6’9″ Mohammed Abdulsalam comes closest, but he’s by no means elite. It’s just that the team as a whole is built on the principle of not allowing the ball-handler to breach the paint in the first place. So if you’re like me and you naturally want to see Kennedy Chandler, Justin Powell, Zakai Zeigler et al get back to attacking the rim off of a screen or out of a spot-up situation, this probably won’t be the game for it. Which is where the cuts come in:

Other teams have found success scoring at the rim getting creative with off-ball screens to free up basket cutters, which could be of great use to a Tennessee team well-versed in doing that exact thing. Greensboro doesn’t actually rank highly in any individual play type; they’re just sort of okay at defending everything and it all adds up to an above-average whole. Tennessee will be far and away the most athletic team they’ve played, so I would think Tennessee should get a higher-than-average (for UNCG) number of attempts in the paint.

Lastly: the threes. 51% of all opponent attempts! That’s so many. It feeds the notion that UNCG packs it in within ~15 feet and wants you to take any and all shots over them that their Guarded/Unguarded ratio on Synergy is just 49/51, which is well off the national average of 55/45. Obviously, the first thing anyone’s gonna notice is that opponents have only shot 27.6% from three against them, but:

  1. Only four defenses in the last five seasons have held opponents at 27.6% or lower for a full season;
  2. Three opponents (UMass, FIU, NC Wesleyan) have shot 39% or better; the real outlier is that three other opponents (North Carolina A&T, Coppin State, Vermont) combined to shoot 13.9% in games UNCG won by a combined 14 points.

So: shoot the ball. It will go in eventually.

How Tennessee matches up

This is an interesting psychological matchup for Tennessee in one specific aspect: how willing will the Volunteers be to take as many threes as UNC Greensboro is likely to allow them? If Tennessee’s per-game average of roughly 67 shot attempts held, you would expect anywhere from 28 (Tennessee’s current average) to 34 (what UNCG would expect to give up on a per-game basis) three-point attempts. I would wager that there is some segment of the Tennessee fan base that would like to never see a three-pointer again. I’m not sure I can blame them, so we’ll go with twos first.

The amount of one-on-one drives Tennessee is likely to get in the first ten minutes of this game, unless things really open up in UNCG’s defense, is minimal. Greensboro are built to take away some of these advantages with a larger frontcourt and a defensive system that routinely has eight feet in the paint when the ball is on the perimeter. Tennessee can still drive, but they might get shut down 10-15 feet from the basket. What do you do? Cut away from the ball to the basket.

Cuts have been the one sustainable source of points at the rim against UNCG; Tennessee has genuinely done a very good job this season in particular of freeing up speedy guards for easy points at the rim on these designs. More of them, please.

Also, let’s revisit the “get shut down 10-15 feet from the basket” thing. That can still be useful in drawing a second defender and freeing up a shooter on the perimeter. UNCG has not shown themselves to be truly special in actually guarding the threes; they just allow a lot of them and hope that 18-22 year-olds are not consistent from night to night. That’s a pretty good bet when you play the schools UNCG generally plays, but Tennessee does have the level of shooting talent on its roster to exploit this. If Kennedy Chandler or whoever the ball-handler is is able to get it to the free throw line or slightly deeper, this will draw a second defender and allow for Tennessee to get a shot up they’ll be happy with. This might happen 30 times, and you’ll have to live with it.

Defensively, you’re in for what I would politely call “boring stuff.” This is a team that runs a ton of ball-screens and will run them multiple times a possession to get the matchups they want. Tennessee has to be smart in how they cover these; one false mismatch could result in UNCG being able to exploit for an easy two or an open three. I would prefer that Tennessee actually employ UNCG’s strategy to some extent: force a below-average jump shooting team to shoot lots of jumpers.

I don’t want Tennessee to allow all of the backdoor cuts UNCG has been getting; active hands from both the frontcourt and the backcourt will be highly necessary in this affair. If Tennessee shuts down UNCG’s first option (the basket/backdoor cut) and their second (kickout to the corner/wing for a three) with the sort of regularity we’ve generally come to expect from Rick Barnes teams, this should be a relatively comfortable victory.

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

  • How many attempts can Tennessee get in the paint? Per CBB Analytics, an astounding 48% of Tennessee’s shot attempts have been either at the rim (37.8% of attempts, per Synergy) or in the paint this season. UNCG’s allowing about 36.7% of opponent attempts to be there, but only 22.8% have been within four feet of the rim.
  • Which team plays faster? The answer is almost certainly Tennessee, but UNCG will try to slow them down; Tennessee has shot just 12-for-61 on threes on possessions lasting 24 seconds or longer, per CBB Analytics.
  • Boosters! I got mine yesterday and don’t feel horrid, get yours if you’re able to. Sorry if this upsets but whatever.

Key matchups

Santiago Vescovi vs. De’Monte Buckingham. Through nine games, Buckingham appears to be UNCG’s best player by some margin and is an elite rebounder for his size. Vescovi has a weird matchup here: he can exploit Buckingham on backdoor cuts but will have to box out Buckingham at various points.

John Fulkerson vs. Bas Leyte. Leyte is the best offensive rebounder UNCG has and draws 6 fouls per 40. Would prefer just a traditional Good Fulkerson game where he puts up 10 & 8 in 25 minutes of work.

Three predictions

  1. Tennessee wins the turnover battle by 6 or more;
  2. Tennessee attempts more threes (29 or higher) than they did in any 2020-21 game;
  3. Tennessee 74, UNC Greensboro 55.

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