Show Me My Opponent, 2021-22: Vanderbilt, Part One

OPPONENT Vanderbilt (10-6, 2-2 SEC, #77 KenPom)
(9-16, 3-13 SEC 2020-21)
LOCATION Memorial Omnidirectional Gym
Nashville, TN
TIME Tuesday, January 18
Dane Bradshaw (analyst)
SPREAD Sinners: Tennessee -6.5 (!)
KenPom: Tennessee -5

Torvik: Tennessee -4.2

Tennessee returns to the court after a game you may have heard about on Saturday to play Epic Reddit University. Aside from all of the other horrors these people have birthed upon the dying embers of this country, they also have a basketball team that is both the most recent SEC program to go 0-18 and also is the only SEC program to play in a gym where the benches are under the basket rather than along the baseline.

The nicest thing I can say about Tennessee’s opponent is that I rewrote this section four times to be less personally vindictive and harsh.

Vanderbilt’s offense

One of the few general positives of the Jerry Stackhouse Era has been Scotty Pippen, Jr. Pippen has allowed Vanderbilt to build a heliocentric offense (not that much unlike what the Mavs did with Luka pre-Jason Kidd) where he’s free to create shots, whether they’re his own or someone else’s. This year is no different; Pippen is responsible for 39% of Vandy’s points this season through both his shots and his assists, per Synergy.

For a guy who gets the headlines as a ball-dominant guard, Pippen’s passing acumen is genuinely fairly good.

The problem comes when Pippen has to pass the basketball. Pippen still draws fouls like crazy (6.8 fouls drawn per 40, 17th-most nationally), but no one else comes close. Pippen is the only guard on the team that can get to the rim. Pippen is the only guy that can regularly create his own shot from deep. That’s why this Vandy offense has genuinely been pretty disappointing. Pippen is capable of spectacular things when the ball is in his hands.

Unfortunately, you can’t spend the entire game with the ball in your hands. Pippen leaves the floor for about a 3-minute break in each half, usually near the midway point. When that happens, Vanderbilt’s already just-okay offense becomes dust. Vandy’s offense goes from performing like a top-80 unit with Pippen on to a top-290 unit when he’s off. Pippen is only really allowed to take about five minutes off in a close game; any more and Vandy’s simply accepting a loss.

Pippen’s only main help is Jordan Wright, a 6’6″ wing that can drive to the basket but isn’t nearly as efficient a scorer at the rim (52.3% vs. 60%) or in mid-range (26.8% vs. 38.9%). Wright is an alright deep shooter, but he’s reliant on Pippen to help create opportunities. (Lineups with Wright on and Pippen off are scoring just 0.876 PPP.) Still, Wright is a pretty dangerous catch-and-shoot scorer, and he’s hitting 58% on unguarded threes. Don’t let him get loose.

There’s a few other intriguing parts if you squint. Myles Stute is mostly Just A Shooter (8.5 PPG, 78% of all shots threes) who’s been terrific from deep (40%). Trey Thomas is Pippen’s backup PG and also mostly Just A Shooter (75% of all shots from deep), but less efficient. Excellent beat writer Aria Gerson claims that Vanderbilt is a lot better with Quentin Millora-Brown on the court and I completely believe it; even with luck-adjusted numbers, Vanderbilt is an astounding 26.5 points better per 100 with him on the court. (He mostly just hangs out in the post and sets screens.)

Still: when your entire system is built around one guy and you fail to give him much to work with, I guess it’s not a mystery that the offense is a disappointment. If they were as good as projected in preseason (#61 nationally, per KenPom), this team would be ranked in the top 50 nationally and be on the NCAA Tournament bubble. Unlucky.

CHART! “Yes” means “is efficient at doing so”; “somewhat” means “can, but not efficiently”; “no” means “rarely or never.” SPECIAL NOTE: I’ve included free throw percentages here upon request. The numbers used are a player’s career FT%, not 2021-22.

(Special note here: Might be wise to foul QMB instead of letting him go up uncontested.)

Vanderbilt’s defense

So…this is good! Well, “good.” Technically, Vanderbilt has a below-median SEC defense that’s 8th-best out of 14 in the conference, but when you were projected to be 12th or 13th-best in this department entering the season, it’s cause for mild celebration. Plus, surprisingly, it’s the defense that’s keeping Vandy afloat this year.

The most interesting thing here isn’t that Vandy has suddenly started in working in some zone defense (though they do include a zone about 8-10 times per game) or that they’re forcing more jumpers than ever before. We’ll get to that. First, it’s worth noting that Vandy has changed up its ball-screen coverage. This year, the Commodores are doing a little of what Arizona did: different coverages based on different personnel.

If Quentin Millora-Brown is the big involved in the pick-and-roll, you can expect him to drop and force a shot or a floater over the top of the defense:

If it’s…well, just about anyone else, you’ll see more of a hedge/double coverage that runs the ball-handler out of the screen and forces him to give the ball up.

Providing multiple things to watch for on defense rather than just one or the other has led Vandy’s ball-screen defense to improve quite a bit, up to the 85th-percentile this year from the 70th-percentile in 2020-21. It’s not that different from what Stackhouse and company did before, but working in more quirks like this have forced jumpers on 57% of Vandy half-court defensive possessions, one of the highest rates among Big Six teams in America.

Like any defense, though, it has holes. The main ones Vandy has are deep and two-fold:

  1. A defense that forces lots of jumpers doesn’t force many off-the-dribble ones, instead giving up a shocking amount of open threes (Guarded/Unguarded of 42/58, worst in the SEC);
  2. The actual rim protection scheme still doesn’t have a true rim protector beyond the fledgling Millora-Brown, who only plays 23 minutes a game.

The first is easier to decipher. Vandy does a lot of good in forcing opponents to shoot over the top of them, but they’ve had a hard time actually guarding said shots. They’ve been remarkably lucky that opponents are shooting just 29% on those unguarded threes; I would be surprised if that number isn’t worse by March. You can’t give up 10-11 wide-open threes a game and expect to survive it every time out.

In that clip, Vandy simply sinks way too deeply on Jaylin Williams of Arkansas; when he throws the ball to the corner, he’s being triple-teamed. The aggression has helped Vanderbilt immensely in forcing buckets of turnovers (24% TO%, 19th-best) and in ending possessions prematurely for the opponent. (In particular, Pippen has improved on D and Jamaine Mann has been excellent when on the court.)

Unfortunately, the aggression leaves Vanderbilt open to loads of basket cuts. The average Division 1 team gives up a cut to the basket on about 7.4% of possessions; Vandy is almost at 9%, fourth-worst in the SEC and second-worst among teams that aren’t majority-zone on defense.

This is a good, improved defense that can be beaten by forcing them to collapse inside and making them make a lot of snap decisions. SMU did it to the tune of 1.263 PPP, Kentucky 1.215, Loyola Chicago 1.161. Only one of those teams (Loyola) made more than nine threes. Basically, I like it, but I don’t love it, and as long as you avoid turning it over on 25% or more of your possessions, you’ve got a great chance to win.

How Tennessee matches up

I mean, this is an opponent that forces a butt-ton of jumpers. You’re going to have to take and make some threes in this one. I consider it a good sign that Tennessee just got done posting its first 40% or better performance from three since December 14. Even if Tennessee settles down for some boring games in the 33-37% range, that still easily beats going 6-for-24 or whatever every time out.

Vanderbilt gives up an above-average amount of left corner and left wing threes, which would normally be called a blip if it weren’t pretty consistent throughout the season. The only spot on the court they allow fewer threes than average is the top of the key, which makes sense. Tennessee will be asked to drive to the right pretty frequently, so they better be ready for a lot of ball reversals. The good news is reversing the ball against this extremely-aggressive defense should result in plenty of open looks on the aforementioned left third of the court.

The other thing is that this is a just-fine rim defense – nothing great, nothing terrible, just agreeable. They were able to mostly slow down Loyola Chicago and BYU inside the arc, but SMU/Arkansas/Kentucky/even South Carolina had qualifiable success against the Commodore interior. What I’d like to see is what you saw in that BYU clip: quick, decisive passes that force Vanderbilt to get aggressive. When they push their aggression too far, that’s when one of your various frontcourt options should head to the basket.

Defensively: well…it’s pretty much Pippen, isn’t it? Vanderbilt obviously has other players, but when one guy essentially accounts for 40% of an offense, you build your scouting report around that guy and live with it if a Trey Thomas or Jamaine Mann scores 16 as long as Pippen has to take 18 shots to get 20 points.

The least-good version of Pippen is the one that settles for jumpers and doesn’t allow himself to get to the rim. If Tennessee is able to force Pippen to take seven threes off the dribble and doesn’t let him shake loose in catch-and-shoot or cutting scenarios, they’ll be on track to win this somewhat handily. Tennessee has been terrific in forcing ball-handlers to take ill-advised threes late in the clock in particular; CBB Analytics notes that on possessions lasting 24+ seconds, opponents are shooting 17-for-61 (27.9%) from deep. I’ll take a 0.837 expected PPP every time, even if Pippen hits a couple.

You could easily talk yourself into this game being an embarrassing five-point road loss where Tennessee can’t produce enough points or you could just as easily see Tennessee winning by 14 and you suddenly feel a bit better about Saturday’s game against LSU. I am no oracle; I just write. For the sake of season-long interest, this would be a nice win to pocket against a not-bad opponent.

Starters + rotations

Metric explanations: Role is algorithmically-determined by Bart Torvik. 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 get Quentin Millora-Brown into foul trouble? This is reductive, but think of it this way: Vanderbilt is 2-4 when QMB commits 3+ fouls. They’re 8-2 when he commits 2 or fewer. He only played 22 minutes against South Carolina in a two-point loss, and those On/Off stats suggest his absence might have been the entire difference.
  • How frequently does Scotty Pippen, Jr. get to the foul line? He draws more fouls than any other SEC player. It’s honestly a huge victory if you can keep him to six or fewer attempts at the line, especially given the career 76.4% hit rate.
  • Can the Predators defeat the Canucks? Vancouver’s 6-3-1 in their last 10 and isn’t outright terrible, but their surge seems a little smoke-and-mirrors. This is the type of game the Preds need to win to keep pace with the Avs/Wild for the Central.

Key matchups

Scotty Pippen, Jr. vs. Kennedy Chandler. Chandler performed well offensively on Saturday, but could use a defensive bounce-back game. Pippen has the capacity to go for 30 on any night; if he goes for 30 here, it’s pretty obviously a loss.

Quentin Millora-Brown vs. John Fulkerson. QMB is a weird one: one of the lowest-usage starters Tennessee will face, yet hugely important to Vandy on both ends of the court. Fulkerson, meanwhile, either needs to show up or sit out.

Jordan Wright vs. Justin Powell or Josiah-Jordan James. Doesn’t really matter which one starts. Wright is the secondary scorer and the main goal is to restrict him to tough jumpers. It would be ideal if the Powell/JJJ combo hit 3+ threes.

Three predictions

  1. Tennessee wins three of the Four Factors;
  2. Vanderbilt picks off at least one Tier 1 victory (Alabama on February 22?) before the end of the season, but not this one;
  3. Tennessee 69, Vanderbilt 64.

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