Show Me My Opponent, 2021-22: Memphis

OPPONENT Memphis (6-4)
(20-8, NIT champs 2020-21)
LOCATION Bridgestone Arena
Nashville, TN
Jay Bilas (analyst)
Andy Jacobson (reporter)
SPREAD KenPom: Tennessee -5
Torvik: Tennessee -2.6

Rivalries are strange. Rarely do two schools agree that both are at the same level of rival; Ohio State/Michigan or similar is the exception rather than the rule. In hockey, I’m always reminded of the Detroit Red Wings being the Nashville Predators’ main rival despite Nashville probably never ranking higher than fourth on Detroit’s priority list. This relates directly to Tennessee because neither of Tennessee’s supposed main rivals, Alabama or Florida, consider Tennessee their main rival. The only team who has Tennessee #1 on their priority list is Vanderbilt, and, well, yeah.

For some reason, we are here again. Tennessee’s main rival in basketball, for them, is Kentucky. I don’t feel that anyone comes close. Memphis’s main rival is no one, but if asked, fans would name Tennessee. These two programs cannot agree on anything. The two coaches cannot agree on anything. East Tennesseans despise Memphis and vice versa. 5.5 hours separate two programs that hate each other for reasons no one can seem to articulate why they hate the other and how much they actually do hate their competition. A loss by either side turns into days, weeks of fighting online, neither side coming out on top at year’s end.

The Basketball Battle of the Somme returns, possibly for the final time this decade. Seatbelts buckled, overhead restraint firmly clamped down, hang on and enjoy the ride.

Memphis offense

Alright! So here we are: Memphis is coming off of their best offensive performance of the season by a mile, which obviously means that progress in college basketball is linear and they will play like Gonzaga against Tennessee. Adjusted for opponent quality, Torvik places the Memphis performance against Alabama as the equivalent of 1.272 PPP, which is great. Naturally, this independent event occurring directly before the next independent event featuring Tennessee has caused Tennessee fans to commence freakout mode.

I’m a little skeptical, but we’ll get to that later. First, you’ve gotta know what you’re walking into here. Memphis has oscillated wildly between two types of offenses through ten games of play and it’s literally alternated on a game-by-game basis as to which one you get:

  1. Clogged Toilet Overflowing in Dimly-Lit Burger King (4 games). Well you asked me to paint the picture, didn’t you? The common threads among Memphis’s four nastier offensive games: very little off-ball movement, an over-reliance on one-man scoring exhibitions, and simply not much in the way of consistently telling you “this is what we’re doing and here’s why.” The Memphis CTOiDLBK Offense looks disjointed, as if the players on the court met each other for the first time 10 minutes before tipoff, possibly at said Burger King. An extremely high amount of turnovers (28.4% of all possessions) occur within this offense.
    • Shot attempt splits: 44.3% Rim/26.4% Mid/29.3% Three.
    • Shot efficiency splits: 58.5% Rim/35.7% Mid/27.4% 3PT.
  2. Promising, Incomplete, Appropriately-Flowing Offense (6 games). This is what you saw against Alabama: a team that gets out in transition, plays fast, hunts its shots early in the shot clock, and effectively runs its offense through the post, generally through Jalen Duren or DeAndre Williams. This is far from perfect – the TO% is still 22%, which is really bad – but when Memphis runs a functional offense, they get good looks and seem to understand their individual roles somewhat. You know what? It looks kind of like a Larry Brown offense! Who would’ve guessed?
    • Shot attempt splits: 39.7% Rim/24.3% Mid/36% Three.
    • Shot efficiency splits: 66.9% Rim/36.8% Mid/38% 3PT.

So: it’s hard to tell you which to expect because they broke the trend they had going against Alabama, but what they did against Alabama is unlikely to be repeatable versus Tennessee, because Tennessee’s approach to ball screen coverage and rim protection is far different. Alright! Let’s simplify this.

Memphis’s first goal offensively is to push the ball in transition as frequently as they can. This lends itself more to a defensive approach than anything else, and it helps when you force lots of turnovers, but they’re pretty consistent about wanting to push it off of misses, too. Considering that transition is about the only place 5-star wunderkind Emoni Bates has even looked moderately comfortable on offense, it seems important to note it. Over a quarter of all Memphis field goal attempts come in the first 10 seconds of the shot clock, and Memphis plays at the 26th-fastest offensive pace of all college basketball teams.

There’s several things to look for in transition, but the first is Bates or Alex Lomax handling the ball down the court. The pair have very different strategies. Bates is more likely to pull up from three than he is to go inside the perimeter:

While Lomax is much more likely to attack the rim and try to pick up a foul call. I probably left out the most notable thing of all: Memphis doesn’t have a real point guard, and Bates is genuinely not a good passer right now. So when Memphis wants to up the tempo, it’s up to Lomax or, somehow, Tyler Harris to generate looks for others rather than themselves. The most frequent beneficiary of their kindness has been Jalen Duren, a guy who can jump out of the gym:

Duren is probably the #1 Walk Off the Bus All-Star on this team, a true destroyer of a man when given the ball in an advantageous situation. The problem: Duren cannot create his own shot and is a poor dribbler/ball-handler, which means he’s reliant on the kindness of others to get him the ball, which doesn’t happen often in this offense, which will explain to you why a guy with a 67.2% eFG% who draws fouls like crazy barely cracks double digits in points per game. Basically, when Memphis has to run a real half-court offense – i.e., take more than 10 seconds to find a shot – things go south quickly.

  • Memphis transition offense: 80th-percentile, per Synergy
  • Memphis half-court offense: 34th-percentile

When Memphis is forced into half-court action, it’s…just not pretty. You may notice that I haven’t done the usual thing where we cover one or two guys and then go on to what the team does. You can’t do that with Memphis because there is no one guy. The leading scorer right now is DeAndre Williams, who is scoring all of 11.2 points per game. In some fashion, they have strength in numbers – seven guys score 6+ PPG – but there’s no one offensive freak you have to be aware of. Which leads us to the turnover parade, because Memphis has no true point guard, no #1 scorer, and no person to go to when it’s late-clock panic mode time.

Look at Alabama’s coverage on this play again.

No one in red is afraid of Emoni Bates passing the ball. In fact, no one in red is afraid of anyone passing the ball in a half-court setting. The best passer on the team genuinely may be Landers Nolley, who I anticipated would be the best player on the team and instead nearly fell out of the rotation during the four-game slide. When your best passer is a wing and when you have a slim few consistent shooting options from outside, you end up with several truly dire possessions every game, even when things are working.

One last thing of note: we have all of 127 possessions to go on in 2021-22, but Memphis is having serious issues with zone defenses. Synergy ranks their zone offense in the 16th-percentile nationally, and while I’d guess Penny would like to rate that as a one-off, their zone offense the last three years has ranked in the 28th, 30th, and 31st-percentiles. (The man-to-man offense has ranked poorly all four years too, of course.) If I can see that Memphis is struggling mightily to shoot their way out of a zone and turns it over more frequently (by about 3%) than they do in man, then surely Tennessee, Mike Schwartz, and Rick Barnes see that, too.

So: what do I expect? I wish I had a better answer for you. When the Memphis offense works, as it did against Alabama, it’s by speeding up the opposition and forcing them to scramble back even after made baskets. (A special note on Alabama, as promised: Alabama entered that game 239th in FG% allowed at the rim and has struggled in ball-screen defense this season. Tennessee will enter this one 10th and has been lights-out against screens in nearly every game. That’s why I don’t think it’s that relevant.)

When it isn’t working, Memphis has either failed to generate enough turnovers/missed shots to turn into transition baskets or the opponent has correctly gotten back in time to force them into a slower, more half-court oriented game that eliminates a key part of their athletic advantage. What I’ll say is this: I think within the first eight minutes of this game, you’ll know which version of Memphis made the trip to Nashville.

CHART CHART CHART CHART CHART! Will you curse the heavens above when (insert player here) makes a three? Find out.

Memphis defense

There have been two main consistencies of the Penny Hardaway tenure at Memphis:

  1. The offense is almost universally unwatchable and ruins Memphis’s odds of getting big wins;
  2. Memphis is in a spot where they can get these big wins in the first place because the defense is almost universally elite.

This year is seeming to promise a surprising reversal of those two trends. For the first time ever in Penny’s tenure, the offense ranks in the top 50 on KenPom in mid-December, while the defense is down to 33rd there and 37th on Torvik. It’s exceptionally weird to tell you this, because Memphis is actually still doing most things really well. Look at that graphic: 42nd in eFG% allowed, 27th in TO%. Along with that: 10th in FG% allowed at the rim, third nationally in Block%, and their 3PT% allowed is better than the national average. So what gives?

A couple clear and obvious things stand out if you’re looking at that graphic: Memphis is giving up an insane amount of offensive rebounds – something they were excellent at last year – while keeping up their same rate of fouls and forcing an alarmingly low amount of mid-range twos. You’ve still got a great chance of either getting your shot blocked or missing against this defense, but if Memphis can’t block the shot, you have a very good chance of scoring at the rim.

Memphis allows a shot attempt split very similar to Colorado’s, and while the Tigers are obviously a lot better defensively, that could pose a problem against a Tennessee team that got 30 of its 61 shot attempts at the rim and 54 either at the rim or from three. What Iowa State did on Black Friday actually seems like a fair strategy to copy: ISU’s guards would drive, hold the ball for an extra half-second, and wait for a Memphis big to over-commit to the block. Tennessee is well-versed in basket cuts, so they could get their fair share of points in this one from them. Then again:

Jalen Duren is very scary and I’m not looking forward to him protecting the rim.

The Memphis defensive split is the exact reverse of the offensive one: 31st-percentile in transition, 96th-percentile in half-court, both per Synergy. If Memphis is able to slow you down by speeding you up on the other end, it becomes much, much harder to hunt down consistent points. The rim protection game when it works is terrific, as previously mentioned, and it’s been great at shutting down the basket with their ball-screen defense. Shades of the Texas Tech game may flash in your memory here; it is very, very uneasy for guards to find many points at the rim against this offense.

The key, as it is for the Memphis offense, is speeding this unit up. You can do this by generating a bunch of turnovers, obviously, but Memphis has had some weird issues getting back after made baskets, which I’m not sure I totally understand. About three or four times a game, this otherwise-excellent defense will completely brain fart, fail to get back in transition, and it leads to the opponent getting wide-open threes.

Memphis will accept a decent amount of this risk because they press after almost every made basket. It’s nothing groundbreaking – just a simple full-court man-to-man pressure similar to what Tennessee runs – but the frequency with which Memphis runs it is pretty intriguing. You’ll probably see it 20-25 times in this game, and depending on where the ball ends up, Memphis is willing to send a quick double-team to create some stressful, annoying turnovers.

But: when you’re able to speed this defense up appropriately, it becomes much less scary. Tennessee can do this by creating turnovers, but if you’re able to push the pace in general, Memphis will not have time to get set. I do think Tennessee has a path to creating points in the half-court with patient ball-handling that forces Memphis to over-commit to Kennedy Chandler, and if Tennessee’s ball-handlers are able to suck in the Memphis defense, they’ll be able to get off open threes on the perimeter. Memphis is mostly fine allowing threes to happen, and they don’t close out at a great rate.

TL;DR: they’re great, but they’re beatable. If they were unbeatable, they wouldn’t have lost to offenses that rank 79th, 143rd, 155th, and 178th on KenPom. It’s not as elite as the last couple of Memphis defenses, and it seems like a smart offense can take advantage of their flaws.

How Tennessee matches up

If you can consider it a ‘battle’ of sorts, Tennessee can basically look to break even against this Memphis defense. A good offensive performance for Tennessee here is obviously going to look a lot different than it has the last two games: get out of here at 1 PPP or better and you’re going to have an excellent shot at the win. Tennessee has to use their possessions wisely and make some calculated decisions: can we go fast here? What about there? Is this where we attempt to slow the game down and force Memphis to play at our pace?

The good news for Tennessee – and really, for any fan who’s purchased a ticket to this game – is that Tennessee is playing faster than ever before under Rick Barnes. The current average possession length is 16.6 seconds, which is in the top 100 nationally. Remember what I mentioned in the Memphis section about how teams have been able to get quick points off of them because they’ve struggled to get back in transition? Tennessee ranks 26th nationally in percentage of FGA in the first 10 seconds of the shot clock after a made basket. The main driver, unsurprisingly: Kennedy Chandler.

Tennessee’s going to have to get comfortable with the idea of breaking the Memphis press quickly and efficiently. If Tennessee lets the Tigers hang around in this press, the odds of them turning the ball over increase, as well as the odds of longer possessions and less-ideal shots. Barnes and company must be alright with letting Tennessee’s excellent backcourt take the reins here; it’s where they have the clearest advantage in the rotation.

Once Memphis does force Tennessee into half-court work, it again flows through Chandler, Zakai Zeigler, and Santiago Vescovi. Tennessee’s going to have to reverse the ball at least once, preferably twice, on every half-court possession that they can do so. Keeping the ball moving is critical to ensuring it doesn’t get stuck, which creates opportunities for Memphis to get turnovers and easy points. Tennessee, whether fans want them to or not, must work the ball inside. I wouldn’t mind testing Memphis in the post, where they’ve been fouling like crazy, but I would more prefer to see Tennessee get paint touches that draw the attention of multiple defenders. Considering what we’ve seen from Memphis so far, this is a logical strategy that can generate open threes, just like Murray State did.

There’s also a potentially very interesting ‘tell’ in Memphis’s ball-screen defense, after watching about 70 clips of it as last-minute preparation. I don’t feel confident enough in my research to put it here because I am a stats goof, not a coach, but: 1. If it is real, Tennessee’s staff surely knows about it; 2. If it is real, it is entirely based upon the personnel involved. We’ll see if this super-secret find turns out to be right.

Defensively, at the beginning of this week, I had the following theory:

  1. Alabama may be a hair better than Tennessee in terms of Memphis’s two opponents and is obviously more dangerous offensively;
  2. This being said, Tennessee is the harder matchup for Memphis because of the severe turnover differential between the two, as well as having the much better overall defense.

And would you look at that: precisely 50% of this 100% equation has come to life.

Tennessee will have to get back in transition. That, beyond anything else, is #1 on my list. Alabama struggled to get back after both makes and misses and it led to a lot of disjointed defensive possessions that gave Memphis easy points all over the court. Tennessee will miss shots in this game, but for once, it’s not a huge deal if they don’t get a ton of offensive rebounds. It would be great to have them, but if the rush to get them comes at the expense of two or three points the other way, it probably isn’t worth it.

The actual stuff I can GIF for you is two-fold: shutting down ball-screens and forcing turnovers, possibly by way of trying out a zone defense. I would make a fairly easy bet that Memphis’s coaching staff is going to see what worked against Alabama, believe they can run that exact same thing against Tennessee (at least in the first 10 minutes) despite entering the Alabama game in the 8th-percentile in ball-screen offense, and potentially be very disappointed. Or at least I’d like them to be disappointed.

Tennessee’s ball-screen defense has been phenomenal outside of the first half of the Tennessee-Martin game and parts of the North Carolina one. Memphis will use middle ball-screens to free up space for one of three options: the ball-handler, the screener, or a shooter in the corner. Tennessee has to cover all three, but any sort of scenario where the ball does not end up in Jalen Duren (or De’Andre Williams)’s hands is very much ideal. Force the ball-handler to score against this awesome backcourt.

So: zone defense. Tennessee does not run one all that often; it’s essentially just been used this year when they want to slow the game down (Villanova) or they want to throw the opponent for a loop at the end of the first half (five different games). It is a shifting 2-3/2-1-2 that has holes in it like any other zone defense, but the more I’ve thought about this game, the more I’ve wondered if Barnes and Schwartz could reasonably see it as a good strategy.

We have four years of data telling us that not only is Memphis routinely bad at offense, they are particularly bad at breaking down zones. You’re facing a team that not only doesn’t shoot many threes (18.8 per game, 302nd of 358 teams), but a team that struggles mightily in half-court offense, doesn’t have a go-to scorer, is a poor jump-shooting team (29th-percentile, per Synergy), and has deep-seated turnover issues against any defense with a pulse. Tennessee is going to have to be comfortable with giving up various shots in this game; I think allowing long, spot-up threes to the right shooters is an idea worth exploring.

This is long, so here’s your shorter breakdown: keep your hands active defensively, force Memphis to finish through contact (but not overt fouls) down low, and make them shoot over the top of the defense to break things down. I’m placing a bet that a team with four games of a 48% or lower eFG% won’t break things down consistently.

Starters + rotation

Three things to watch for

  • Can the Memphis defense make up for the Memphis offense? Specifically in terms of turnovers. Memphis has a truly incredible split, as evidenced in the graphics: top 30 in defensive TO%, bottom six in offensive TO%. If Tennessee wins the turnover battle by 5 or more – as is inferred based on the to-date statistics – any path to a Memphis win that doesn’t include a significant eFG% advantage becomes pretty hard to visualize.
  • Who wins the battle at the rim? It’s #10 vs. #12, in terms of FG% allowed at the rim. This very well could be a game where both teams fail to crack 50%, but if Tennessee finds a way to be more efficient down low, again, the path to a Memphis victory gets smaller.
  • Which team shortens their rotation first? Take a look at that starters + rotation graphic above for both sides. If we’re calling a rotation spot one that generates 8+ minutes per game, Memphis’s rotation is an absurd 11 players deep right now. Tennessee’s is still 10. An easy way to win an otherwise-tight game is to play your best players a lot of minutes.

Key matchups

John Fulkerson vs. Jalen Duren. This is the big one. Duren is Memphis’s best player, a block machine who makes life hard on any opponent that tests him and is as frightening a vertical threat as exists on the Tennessee schedule. And yet: he commits 4.8 fouls per 40, turns it over on a quarter of his possessions, and has quietly struggled in post-up defense. Fulkerson turning into one of the most foul-averse forwards – literally the third-lowest foul rate of any center playing right now – seems like an advantage.

Kennedy Chandler vs. Alex Lomax. The story for two years has been that, if Penny Hardaway really wanted Kennedy Chandler, he would’ve recruited him harder. Instead, Penny has had to hand the reins to Lomax, a senior who has an utterly absurd TO% of 36.8% and is a career 30% 3PT% shooter. Lomax is a fine defender, but Chandler can use his own strength to get around him. To be frank, if Penny doesn’t let Tyler Harris run point for the majority of the game, he’s lost it before tipoff.

A mix of Olivier Nkamhoua and Brandon Huntley-Hatfield vs. DeAndre Williams. Over the last two months of 2020-21, Williams was the runaway best player on Memphis and who they ran the majority of offensive possessions through. Memphis seems to be reverting to that style of play somewhat, but it’s very jittery and disjointed. Williams was the best player on the court against Alabama; Tennessee cannot allow that to happen. Because I think one of these two players will end up in foul trouble somehow, I’ve included both.

Three predictions

  1. At least four players (three Memphis, one or two Tennessee) finish the game with 4+ fouls;
  2. Tennessee wins the turnover battle by 5 or more;
  3. Tennessee 74, Memphis 69.

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