Show Me My Opponent, 2021-22: Arizona

GAME INFORMATION
OPPONENT #6 Arizona (11-0)
(17-9, fired coach 2020-21)
LOCATION Thompson-Boling Arena
Knoxville, TN
TIME 7 PM ET
CHANNEL ESPN2
ANNOUNCERS Tom Hart (PBP)
Jimmy Dykes (analyst)
SPREAD Sinners: Tennessee -2
KenPom: Tennessee -2

Torvik: Arizona -0.5

Well, hopefully they play this one.

Two months ago:

“Of these six [then-Quadrant 2 opponents], the obvious best team is Arizona, who gets Gonzaga assistant Tommy Lloyd as their new head coach and seems to be generally agreed-upon as a low-end NCAA Tournament team. That would be a good win at home and could potentially end up a Quadrant 1 victory if they just overachieve by, like, eight spots.”

Now:

Dearie me.

The TL;DR here: Arizona is legitimately great, presents serious height challenges for basically every opponent, and seems as serious a title contender as anyone right now. But: they did almost lose to Wichita State and had to battle a full 40 to escape Illinois. Let’s discuss.


Arizona’s offense

To be frank, I liked it more when they were coached by an overly-sweaty repeat NCAA offender who had bad offenses. In all of one offseason, Tommy Lloyd has turned a formerly-boring offense into perhaps the most exciting thing going on west of the Plains, which is a crazy accomplishment when, you know, Gonzaga exists.

Arizona’s roster rotation consists of eight players, seven of which are true/redshirt freshmen (5!) or sophomores (2). The starting lineup is four true/redshirt freshmen. The two leading scorers are freshmen. The three best shooters are freshmen. You get the concept; what I’m saying here is that this is what Kentucky wishes it was. The Wildcats are generating a ton of points at the rim, shooting 72.9% while they’re there with these shots taking up almost 40% of all attempts. That is terrifying.

Arizona has a few ways of accomplishing this, but one of the top things that will stand out is the proclivity for playing fast and making decisions efficiently. 37% of Arizona’s initial shots on a possession come within the first 10 seconds of the shot clock, per Hoop-Math. Unlike Tennessee or similar schools that are reliant on forcing turnovers to play faster, Arizona just plays at Daytona 500 speeds for an entire game, with a scary amount of offense being generated off of rebounds:

That’s Bennedict Mathurin (17.4 PPG), Arizona’s leading scorer and the only player on the team with 15+ makes at both the rim and from beyond the arc. Mathurin is a nominal 3, but can play 2-4 in this offense and sometimes takes on ball-handling duties offensively. Mathurin isn’t the best option to run the offense – we’ll get to him – but the level to which he pushes the pace and creates open shots for himself is pretty darn impressive. You’ll see Mathurin drive to the rim and pop out for a three on equal measure; do not, under any circumstances, leave this 40% 3PT% shooter uncovered. Ever.

When Arizona is forced into a half-court possession of sorts – and to be honest, they so rarely breach late-clock possessions that this is more “the opponent scored” than anything else – you’ll see a lot of action fed through the post. This is because Arizona possesses a dual-giant frontcourt in Azuolas Tubelis (6’11”, 16.1 PPG) and Christian Koloko (7’1″, 13.6 PPG). You may have heard that Arizona’s frontcourt is the Killdozer come to life. Unfortunately, you’ve heard correctly.

Of the two, the taller Koloko is naturally a little better at posting up, but they’re both fantastic. It’s why Arizona’s post-up offense ranks in the 94th-percentile, far more efficient than their ball-screen offense and as of now, their highest-rated play type on Synergy. Only two teams have really slowed down the pair much: Illinois and Wichita State, naturally the two best defenses on Arizona’s schedule to date. Even then, against Wichita, the Tubelis/Koloko Killdozer combined for 29 points, 22 free throw attempts, and a lot of pain.

If you’re in need of a little scouting comfort, I do think that the book, in the hands of the right opponent, is going to get out on the Tubelis/Koloko pairing soon. Why? Well:

Single-coverage post-up possessions, per Synergy (yes, I watched them to verify)

  • Tubelis: 33 possessions; 24 turning to his left (73%), 5 to his right (15%)
  • Koloko: 37 possessions; 6 turning to his left (16%), 21 to his right (57%)

If you can predict within reason that Tubelis will turn to his left almost three out of every four tries, you can create turnovers against him. (It also helps to flop; Tubelis is good for at least one charge, if not two, in every game I’ve watched.) The same goes for Koloko, though Arizona has remedied this somewhat by running a bunch of over-the-top post pins for him that don’t require a dribble move. (I would also note here that you’d get much more out of doubling Koloko than you would Tubelis; the latter is one of the best passing bigs I’ve seen this year.) Still: this is a pair that has some amount of scouting out there and is still wrecking shop. They’re quite good.

Lastly, a big chunk of the Arizona offense will remind you of Gonzaga’s: free-flowing ball-screens that seem to pop up throughout the possession and attempt to create mismatches no matter what coverage you throw at it. The main ball-handler is Kerr Kriisa (11.8 PPG), the last of Arizona’s four double-digit scorers but perhaps its best passer and definitely the player with the highest odds of making you mad online. It’s very easy to understand how: he is white and he hits a lot of threes and he lets you know about it.

That sort of baseline ball-screen is hard to repeat against basically any Tennessee lineup because even Uros Plavsic isn’t that tied to the paint, but it gives you an idea of the mismatches created within this offense. Overcommit to the ball screen and Kriisa can dish it to the open roller; stay with the roller too long and Kriisa will pull up for a three. Kriisa and team have also been remarkably good at hitting backdoor cutters or by finding guys in the dunker spot, which will also provide some amount of infuriation for the viewer. Other things: Mathurin, despite being 6’6″, is an absolute terror on the boards along with the obvious frontcourt players. Unlike Memphis, Arizona seems to know how to get two shots.

“WHY CAN’T WE STOP THESE GUYS?,” you bellow? “Look at them,” I solemnly respond. I don’t know if this is the best offense Tennessee will draw this year (I still believe Villanova’s better), but this is probably the best team.

CHART PARTY! Will you be annoyed? Upset? Murderous? Ready to tell everyone you’re vaccinated when you really aren’t, wasting everyone’s time and money, when (insert player) hits a three? Find out.

Arizona’s defense

If you’re a Tennessee fan and you read the previous offensive section, you will surely be thrilled to learn that the defense is just about equally good. BUT: like any college basketball defense, it is not unbeatable. We’ll explore why in a minute. First, the basics.

At a surface level, Arizona’s defense appears to be a basic man-to-man with an occasional full-court press. They force a good amount of turnovers, but nothing elite; they protect the boards well, but it’s not perfect; they don’t foul much, but both Michigan and Wichita State managed to get multiple starters in serious foul trouble. But: again, the length. The length is simply so much to deal with for pretty much everyone.

Koloko alone is responsible for an unreal 38 blocks through 11 games; the team as a whole has blocked at least five shots in every single game it’s played. The Arizona defensive structure is built around funneling shooters inside the three-point line, running them out of catch-and-shoot situations and attempting to get them not to the rim, but within seven feet of it, where Koloko/Tubelis/whoever can take care of business.

Arizona’s extraordinary amount of athleticism allows them to play this hyper-aggressive style, and it’s working. Only four high-major teams (87 total, including the AAC) are forcing a greater amount of non-rim twos than the Wildcats, and isn’t it extremely easy to see why? The number of guards that are actually able to get to the rim and finish against Arizona have been few and far between; while some of that is obviously schedule-related, it’s not as if, say, Illinois is exactly short of talented guards. Even they only hit 11 of 34 twos against this frontcourt, with only 12 attempts being classified as “at the rim,” per Hoop-Math.

So: all of that is going to be a bear to deal with. Tennessee is getting significantly more action at the rim this season versus last year, but even Texas Tech wasn’t quite like this. Tech was long 1-5; Arizona is just monstrous at the 4 and 5. You’ve got to get creative, and this is where ball screens may potentially come into play.

Arizona’s ball-screen defense is fairly great, as Synergy ranks it in the 84th-percentile nationally. Only a couple of teams have been able to generate significant pressure with their ball-screen possessions against this defense: Illinois, Michigan, and, strangely enough, Northern Colorado. Something that Rick Barnes noted in his press conference this week piqued my interest: “They mix their defenses. . . . They do [things] a little bit differently with ball screens.” So: I went chartin’.

I watched the Wichita State, Wyoming, and Illinois games (the three teams most similar to Tennessee on Arizona’s schedule) to see what sort of coverages Arizona runs. Across 66 relevant possessions of data, here’s the results:

  • Drop coverage (the post player hangs back to protect the rim): 42 of 66 possessions (63.6%)
  • Switching (precisely what it sounds like): 16 of 66 (24.2%)
  • Hedging/doubling (the post player runs the handler off the screen, then scrambles back to his man): 8 of 66 (12.1%)

This is indeed quite a bit different than what Tennessee is used to. Most of Tennessee’s own ball-screen defense is hedging (or icing, where you force the ball-handler to the sideline rather than the middle third of the court); aside from Plavsic lineups and some other rare instances, Tennessee doesn’t do as much in the way of drop coverage or switching. (Loyal Tennessee fans will remember Tennessee switching ball-screens against Vanderbilt and watching as Saben Lee went crazy in the Near-Horror Game in 2019. Let this stand as proof that Rick Barnes isn’t that stubborn.)

These numbers get more interesting when you split them up by the four players I charted: Koloko, Tubelis, Matherin, and Gonzaga transfer Oumar Ballo.

  • Koloko: 26 drop, 2 hedge, 2 switch
  • Tubelis: 11 switch, 4 hedge, 2 drop
  • Ballo: 14 drop, 1 switch
  • Mathurin: 2 hedge, 2 switch

There’s obviously not much of a sample on Mathurin because you don’t see a ton of 1-3 ball screens, but the other three are of serious interest. Arizona does employ mixed defensive coverages for ball screens; the mix seems to be mostly based on the player involved. For instance, here’s Koloko dropping to protect the rim as the larger and generally slower big:

And here’s Tubelis switching because Arizona seems to see him as a more mobile option at the 4. Note here that Northern Colorado’s doing something pretty interesting: they run two ball screens, one to switch Tubelis onto the ball handler, the second to draw Koloko out of the paint and into his usual protect-the-rim coverage.

The tough thing is that Arizona has the rim protection, the overall defensive excellence, and the length to make whatever strategy you’re hoping to execute difficult to bring to reality. They’re also a good ball pressure team, and you have to be smart and decisive with your passes. (Throwing it at your post player’s ankle is a bad idea in general, but especially against the Wildcats.)

The strategy against this defense genuinely may just be to bomb away from downtown, as long as you’re able to apply appropriate pressure in the paint and kick the ball out. Arizona’s Guarded/Unguarded rate of 63/37 is very good, but the only two close games they’ve played in have been games where the opponents (Illinois and Wichita State) got off a combined 75 threes. The two worst Arizona defensive performances, adjusted for opponent quality, have seen the opposition go 27-for-62 on threes. Considering Tennessee’s favorite shot is the three, and considering this is at the Soft(ish) Rim Gym, hoisting to win is a fine enough concept.

How Tennessee matches up

So: let’s discuss ball screens. Among all 358 college basketball teams, Tennessee ranks 338th in frequency of usage. You don’t see a ton of Tennessee possessions end in a ball screen – roughly 12-13 per game, says Synergy – and you see involvement of the screener/roller even less frequently. This is okay, because you’re not required to use them to have a great offense (Purdue ranks 356th in usage, as an example), but the fact Tennessee ranks 11th nationally in PPP on ball-screen possessions seems very notable.

It helps when you have the best point guard you’ve possibly ever had, at least in my lifetime. The way Kennedy Chandler controls the space around him during these possessions is a marvel; he’s a terrific scorer and passer and is obviously Tennessee’s most indispensable player. His most indispensable game to date at Tennessee is the next one up.

To date, Tennessee has only used ball screens to generate a plurality of their half-court offense against one opponent: Colorado. Essentially, Tennessee found an advantage early in how Colorado covered their screens and punished that advantage over and over by way of giving Chandler freedom to do whatever he wanted with the screen.

Something similar is going to have to happen in this game. Refer back to the numbers in the defensive section; any lineup with Koloko or Ballo at the 5 is going to feature drop coverage in a 1-5 ball screen. That’s what Colorado used, and Tennessee exploited it over and over with Chandler’s mobility and basketball smarts. It’s also worth noting that Chandler has displayed a tendency to take runners/floaters from 6-8 feet; while I would just prefer he get to the basket, this is certainly an easier way to get a shot off against 7’0″ and 7’1″ centers.

The problem with this is going to be the obvious: Tennessee has played nothing like this defense. Texas Tech is the best defense on Tennessee’s schedule thus far, and even they rank 55 spots lower in 2PT% and block half as many shots. Tennessee barely bothered to run true ball screens against Texas Tech because the Red Raiders just switched everything.

The good news is that, as demonstrated, Arizona isn’t switching everything because they’re not all 6’6″ or 6’8″. There are small players and there are large players. I’m fascinated by that Northern Colorado possession noted earlier in the defensive half of this preview. Chandler (and Santiago Vescovi, of course) is a smart guy; Barnes is a smart coach. Can they run multiple screens in a possession while running all of their usual off-ball College Crap to find open threes against a defense that seems to be beatable from deep? I’d like to find out.

Defensively, I would like to reassure you with three bullet points:

  1. There is no other opponent anything like this on the schedule, though Auburn comes somewhat close with their frontcourt;
  2. Even the Killdozer Offense has had off nights (5-for-27 from three against Wichita State and 0.93 PPP);
  3. The shooting in general has yet to translate away from home.

You could easily point at all three of these and say “they’re 11-0 and look like one of the 3-5 best teams in America” and, well, you’re right. But: it’s not impossible. By any metric you choose, this is the best defense Arizona has drawn thus far. Among their 11 opponents, only three have ranked inside the KenPom Top 100 in defense (Wichita State, Michigan, Illinois), and only one (Wichita) has ranked in the top 50 in eFG%, TO%, and Block%. Tennessee covers all of these pretty easily.

The transition piece of defense is going to be similar to what I’d plotted out for the Memphis game: you may have to be okay with nixing some potential offensive rebounds if it means you get back in transition and force Arizona into a half-court offense. Will this fix everything? No. But Arizona goes from having the 12th-highest eFG% nationally in transition to merely the 72nd-highest in half-court, per Hoop-Math. That’s a noticeable downgrade; every extra second you force Arizona to take offensively is a win, as far as I’m concerned.

In terms of the stuff I can actually GIF, this will test Tennessee’s frontcourt defense like nothing before or after. As mentioned, Auburn is the only team in the SEC I can imagine coming somewhat close to this amount of length and width down low; it is a truly scary pairing to have to deal with. But Tennessee is going to one key advantage: 11 teams have gone before them. All 11 have failed, but together, they’ve produced the scout in the offensive section that Tubelis almost always turns to his left, while Koloko is far more likely to turn to his right. If Tennessee has active hands here, they can force turnovers before the shot even goes up.

Unfortunately, on almost 84% of Arizona possessions, a shot goes up, whether that’s a field goal or a free throw. So: you gotta deal with that. Arizona’s been utterly terrific in basket cuts and screens that open up easy twos at the rim all season, and they’d love to get the 12-13 points they’ve been averaging per game off of cuts in this one. Tennessee has to take away both the cut and the potential extra pass. This isn’t easy, but Tennessee’s been excellent in their own right at defending the basket and, in particular, stuffing cuts. If Tennessee keeps Arizona to nine or fewer points on these cuts, they’re winning the game.

Lastly: we must talk about Arizona’s shooting. Anything with all of four games to speak for it is serious SMALL SAMPLE SIZE! territory. I know this. You know this. But: I do think that Arizona may reasonably have a weak spot with shooting. In four games played away from home, three of which were against Quadrant I or II competition, Arizona’s shot 23.5% from downtown. Against Wichita State, Michigan, and Illinois – the only other Top 100 defenses they’ve played – Arizona is 16-for-67 (23.9%) from deep. The only truly good performance against a Q1/Q2 team from deep was Wyoming (11-for-28), a home game. It’s not much, but it seems the path to beating this team is to giving them a taste of their own medicine. You can shoot over the top, but you’re not allowed to break through.

Tough. Yet not impossible, and not even unlikely. Tennessee is a very good college basketball team. Arizona may be a great one. Great teams lose to very good teams every week. Why not tonight?

Starters + rotations

Three things to watch for

Can Tennessee get either Tubelis or Koloko (or, well, both) into foul trouble? If you’re looking for Tennessee’s best and most realistic path to a win, this is it. Look at this:

The ON lineups are any Arizona lineups when only one of Tubelis or Koloko are on the court. It’s a gigantic dropoff on both ends, and that’s even with luck adjustments for 3PT%. Teams are shooting 14% better with these 1-on, 1-off lineups at the rim. It is beyond imperative that Tennessee finds a way to get one of the giants in foul trouble as early as possible.

Who wins the shot volume battle? Per Haslametrics, Tennessee ranks fifth nationally in Field Goal Attempts Per 100 Possessions. This seems notable against an Arizona defense that, while obviously awesome, isn’t as elite at forcing turnovers as Tennessee.

Which team defaults to mid-range twos first? Among 87 high-major teams, per Bart Torvik, Tennessee has attempted the eighth-fewest non-rim twos. Arizona’s in the upper third there, but more importantly, they force the fifth-most mid-range twos in this collection of teams. Tennessee doesn’t force as many, but two recent Arizona opponents – Illinois and Cal Baptist – have gotten the Wildcats to take some bad shots.

Key matchups

Azuolas Tubelis vs. Olivier Nkamhoua. Before you groan, hear me out. It probably won’t be Nkamhoua the whole way; you will get to see Fulkerson, James, and (preferably) Huntley-Hatfield all get a go. In fact, Nkamhoua may only draw 10 in-game minutes against Tubelis specifically. Nkamhoua is a quality team defender, but he really needs to hit a three or something in this one to make an impact.

Christian Koloko vs. John Fulkerson. I know seeing this will cause everyone chest pains. But I’d like to re-up my “John Fulkerson has quietly become one of the most foul-averse centers in basketball” take from the Memphis preview, which could come to be of serious importance against Koloko, who averages 4.7 fouls per 40 minutes of play. Of note: Koloko has been a little foul-heavy on post-ups.

Bennedict Mathurin vs. Josiah-Jordan James. I like this one. JJJ is Tennessee’s best individual defender; I do not think he will give up many open threes. But I would also like to see if there’s a way JJJ can make Mathurin sweat on defense. Could he test Mathurin on a post-up?

BONUS: Kerr Kriisa vs. Kennedy Chandler. I dislike doing four matchups because it’s a lot of writing, but, uh, Kennedy Chandler vs. anyone is going to be a key matchup the rest of the season. Spoiler alert. Of Arizona’s starting five, Kriisa has graded out as the worst individual defender by some distance.

Three predictions

  1. Tennessee wins the turnover battle by 3 or more;
  2. Some sort of block/charge controversy occurs that causes a multi-hour online uproar;
  3. Tennessee 74, Arizona 73. (The metrics composite I’ve put together produced a scoring margin of Tennessee +0.04.)

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