Show Me My Opponent, 2021-22: USC Upstate

OPPONENT USC Upstate (2-7)
(5-18 in 2020-21)
LOCATION Thompson-Boling Arena
Knoxville, TN
CHANNEL SEC Network+ (online only)
ANNOUNCERS Michael Wottreng (PBP)
Steve Hamer (analyst)
SPREAD Sinners: Tennessee -35.5
KenPom: Tennessee -32

Torvik: Tennessee -27.7

Another one of the “I feel bad that you’re here, but at least you’re getting paid for it” games. USC Upstate hasn’t finished above .500 in conference play in seven years; they haven’t finished above 322nd on KenPom since 2016-17. The most interesting things about them: 1. They are Tennessee’s second-straight Spartan opponent, which provides an opportunity to remind you that 300 is a terrible movie; 2. When they came to town last December, they uncorked one of the most absurd made threes of all time:

This is a look-ahead scenario where Tennessee must play Upstate before playing Memphis on Saturday, certainly. But: please no more absurd made threes.

USC Upstate’s offense

Well: they’re ranked 333rd on offense, have yet to keep a game against a Top 200 opponent within single digits, and have gotten over the 1 PPP hump three times in eight D-1 games. It’s not good. HOWEVER: unlike UNC Greensboro, they do not play an excruciatingly slow style of offense, so there’s that.

Upstate has two double-digit scorers on their team; the leader is Bryson Mozone (13.6 PPG), a senior who you may remember from last year’s game against Upstate when he hit several threes in a game that was mostly annoying until the end. Mozone is the nominal 4 in this offense, but is quite small for a 4 at 6’6″ without much weight or muscular definition to back it up. This obviously works fine when you play Big South competition; it’ll be less fine when he is going up against the nation’s #1 offense. Anyway, Mozone is tricky to guard: he uses more possessions than anyone else and does offer some amount of self-creation, but he’s oddly most efficient when pulling up off the dribble.

Upstate’s offense features a lot of off-ball screens with some handoff actions, and while Mozone isn’t the best ball-handler of the lot, he’s happy to use his own dribble to create space. Mozone has taken 25 jumpers off the dribble compared to 39 catch-and-shoot looks, per Synergy, which is an unusually-weighted split for a lot of mid-major players, much less a power forward. Mozone takes more threes than twos, and Tennessee will have to watch out for off-ball screens or drive-and-kicks that set Mozone up to get a shot off. His 54 three-point attempts are 19 more than anyone else.

Secondary in scoring, but first in Tennessee’s staff’s hearts, is freshman Jordan Gainey (10.1 PPG), son of Tennessee assistant Justin Gainey. Like Mozone, Gainey will do a lot of running off of off-ball screens to free himself up for looks from downtown. The main difference: Gainey is shooting 16-for-33 (48.5%) in his first season against Division I competition. Together, Mozone and Gainey are 35-for-87 (40.2%) from deep; all other players on the USC Upstate roster are 24-for-91 (26.4%).

However, Gainey’s a bit more prone to pushing his off-ball screens inside the perimeter, similar to Mozone. You can’t underpursue these, but you can’t overpursue them either, lest you leave a very good shooter a chance to get closer to the rim.

Beyond Mozone and Gainey, there’s just not much in the way of consistent scoring; Dalvin White, who averages all of 7 points a game, is USC Upstate’s third-highest scorer. Forcing Upstate to play slowly is going to be the key. Per CBB Analytics:

  • USC Upstate, possessions lasting 10 seconds or shorter: 54.9% eFG% (172nd)
  • USC Upstate, all other possessions: 47.8% eFG% (248th)

Not a huge difference, but they’re clearly worse in half-court and they can’t use their smaller lineups to create an advantage in transition. They also take a ton of mid-range twos, as noted, and are not great at hitting them. So: get back quickly, force bad shots, and cover Mozone and Gainey on three. This is how you create an enjoyable Tuesday evening.


USC Upstate’s defense

For what it’s worth, Synergy grades this out as an okay little unit, and aside from the very obvious rebounding issue outlined by that graphic, I’ve seen worse defenses come to Thompson-Boling Arena. I’m not saying this is good – Torvik’s ratings with the preseason baselines removed have this as the 304th-best defense in America – but, I mean, I’ve seen worse.

Upstate can be mildly tricky to prepare for. True Basketball Heads may remember Upstate running a zone for several second-half possessions last season in an attempt to stay in the game against Tennessee, using it nearly as much as their normal man-to-man defense. That zone defense still exists: a 2-3 that can shift into a 2-2-1, 2-1-2, and occasionally a 3-2. Is it effective? Not really; Synergy rates it as roughly 0.1 PPP worse than the normal man-to-man. But it is there, and Tennessee should prepare for it to be deployed, whether it’s out of desperation or to exploit a Tennessee cold streak. The key: be patient and be decisive with your passes.

The normal man-to-man, which Upstate runs just under 88% of the time, is okay at forcing turnovers but decidedly not great at forcing difficult shots. Upstate doesn’t force many jumpers off the dribble (311th in America in doing so) and allows a thin amount of mid-range attempts in general. (There’s very few runners/floaters forced as well.) Upstate doesn’t allow a ton of rim attempts because 6’8″ center Josh Aldrich has done a solid job of protecting the rim, but it’s not gonna be impossible to get to the rim and score there. Wake Forest, who’s just barely inside the KenPom top 60, just went 15-for-22 at the rim against this squad and only had two shots blocked, both by Aldrich.

Also, we have to discuss perimeter shooting. Upstate allows more threes than any other type of shot and is allowing a bang-on average Guarded/Unguarded ratio of 55/45. To be frank, they’ve been quite lucky that only one opponent (Furman, predictably) has really exploited them from deep; their expected 3PT% allowed based on schedule is 32.9%, meaning opponents have shot 2.6% (30.3% actual) below expectation. That could reasonably hold for a while because it’s all of 2.6 threes per 100 attempts, but, eventually, someone’s gonna roast them.

This reasonably could be the game. Something of interest is that, for three straight seasons now, USC Upstate has allowed an above-average amount of attempts from both the left corner and left wing, per CBB Analytics. Normally, I would treat this as a one-off blip, but when it happens three consecutive seasons, it’s systematic. Considering that the left wing is responsible for the lowest 3PT% of the five three-point shooting zones this season, I guess I get it, but…

Eventually, someone’s gonna exploit this and force Upstate to over-compensate.

How Tennessee matches up

Any time you’re playing a defense ranked in the 300s, you can simply answer “they match up well,” but it goes deeper than that. Tennessee will look to exploit USC Upstate in a pair of ways: creating mismatches with screens, both on- and-off-ball, and using penetration to create opportunities on the perimeter for open shots.

Tackling the first requires us to look at some metrics, namely those of Upstate’s on-court defenders. This year, they aren’t a fan whatsoever of Bryson Mozone, Upstate’s leading scorer, who ranks in the 12th-percentile on Synergy and as someone who holds a -2.4 Defensive Box Plus-Minus (DBPM) on Torvik. However, Mozone graded out alright last year and seems to be the victim of poor jump shot luck. So: Mysta Goodloe (amazing name, by the way) is Upstate’s top minutes-getter at the 3. Here’s Mysta Goodloe’s defensive metrics, year-by-year:

  • 2019-20: -3.4 DBPM, 19th-percentile on Synergy
  • 2020-21: -2.9 DBPM, 7th-percentile on Synergy
  • 2021-22: -2.7 DBPM, 20th-percentile on Synergy

By any metric you choose, he appears to be a horrific defender, and this season, a number of players have been able to take him to the rim out of spot-up situations with ease. Tennessee could either isolate him or force him to switch onto a guard, which he’s shown no real ease with doing so. Any time Goodloe is in the game, Tennessee should immediately find a way to get him matched up with Vescovi or Powell. It won’t end well for Upstate.

Also, the threes. Tennessee correctly used the Greensboro game as an experiment in seeing how many threes they could take against a defense happy to allow them and collect their check. 13-for-35 (37.1%) is a hit rate that sounds bad for twos but is good for threes, and every coach in America would probably take a season-long 37% hit rate on threes. It’s good. Tennessee will get their share of chances to bomb away against Upstate, and while I would prefer to not see 35 of them in this game – maybe 27-30? – a healthy amount of these should be open. Any three that results from a Kennedy Chandler drive-and-kick (or a Fulkerson post-up) is perfectly reasonable.

Defensively, again, slow down Mozone and Gainey and this should be fairly easy. Upstate possesses just two players (those two) that are averaging more than one made three per game, and only Gainey among the five players with 15+ attempts is hitting more than 35%. Upstate has shown a surprising willingness to take mid-range twos, with a lot of them resulting from off-ball screens similar to ones Tennessee uses. I figure that if the #1 defense on KenPom has to defend these every day in practice, they’ll probably do a decent job of covering them in-game. The idea here is to force Upstate inside the perimeter, but to keep them out of the paint; a nice 17-footer off the dribble will suffice.

You’re playing an Upstate team that hasn’t come close to playing a game that would suggest they could even keep this final margin within 20. They have a severe negative turnover margin and an even more severe negative rebounding margin.  Against the two Quadrant 1/2 opponents they’ve played, they’ve posted PPPs of 0.685 and 0.703 with a combined hit rate at the rim of 15-for-40 (37.5%). Anticipate their main ideas, scout them correctly, get out of here and get on to Saturday.

Starters + team rotations

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

  • Can Tennessee do a slightly better job of guarding threes? It’s not my job to tell the #1 defense in America to somehow get better, but the Guarded/Unguarded ratio of 55/45 is a little more pale than I’d hoped. Upstate averages 17 catch-and-shoot threes per game; Tennessee really needs to let no more than six of these be marked as Unguarded, especially if the shooter is Mozone or Gainey.
  • How thoroughly can Tennessee dominate shot volume? When the opponent ranks 293rd in TO% and 342nd in DREB%, my natural thought is that Tennessee should get at least 10 more shot attempts than Upstate. We’ll see.
  • Hot seat: Aramark. I went to the Presbyterian game and received a hot dog that was a solid 55 degrees in the middle. Part of this is my fault for assuming an arena hot dog was a wise investment, but, like…surely you can leave it on the roller a little longer?

Key matchups


…alright, fine. Olivier Nkamhoua and Santiago Vescovi vs. Bryson Mozone and Jordan Gainey. I would like to see Nkamhoua demonstrate that he can dominate undersized, overmatched opponents; I would also selfishly like to see a couple Vescovi threes and a drive to the basket. And, because I am attempting to manifest another All-SEC Tennessee season, a few impressive defensive plays to underline the fact Vescovi is probably the single-most improved player on the roster.

Three predictions

  1. Tennessee wins the turnover battle by 6 or more;
  2. Tennessee wins the offensive rebounding battle by 5 or more;
  3. Tennessee 85, USC Upstate 54. 

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