Show Me My Opponent, 2021-22: LSU, Part Two

OPPONENT #13 LSU (15-3, 3-3 SEC, #10 KenPom)
19-10, 11-6 SEC, Round of 32 2020-21
LOCATION Thompson-Boling Arena
Knoxville, TN
TIME Saturday, January 22
Jimmy Dykes (analyst)
SPREAD KenPom: Tennessee -2
Torvik: Tennessee -1.1

Look, Will Wade, it would be nice to like you. For four years, you have had chaotic, hilarious, exciting college basketball teams that score and give up lots of points and made for the most fun SEC championship game in a decade. You have embraced your destiny as a Cancelled Coach. You haven’t backed down to the NCAA. You are, against all odds, the head coach of the LSU Tigers. All of that is cool. But I can’t get down with this.

Corny, corny, corny! Not cool. This is almost the only thing you could’ve done to be in serious contention for the SEC Online Cringe Coach of the Year (defending winner: Eric Musselman, three-time champion). Now, when I look at you, I think of this:

Unfortunate. Anyway, the LSU Tigers are a basketball team with an impressive collection of athletes that have traded offense for defense and have gone from extremely watchable to sort of unwatchable. Has it made them a better team? Undoubtedly, because they’re 10th on KenPom right now. But I’d be lying if I said I didn’t miss the chaos.

LSU’s offense

Well, considering I previewed it two weeks ago and LSU’s offense is still bad, I’m not sure what exactly should change other than a simple copy-paste. I mean they’re still the same offense that


…okay, that does change the tone a little bit. Because this is how things go sometimes, LSU became the first team in nearly two months to post >1 PPP on Tennessee and then immediately followed that up with three dog-turd performances against Florida (0.972 PPP), Arkansas (0.843), and Alabama (0.903). In some aspect it could be beneficial that LSU got their one good game out of their system against Tennessee at home. Even including that game, you’re talking about an offense that’s gone over 1 PPP once in their last six games and just thrice since November 27.

I wouldn’t say it’s even been bad shooting that’s the pure culprit; LSU went 10-for-22 in the loss to Alabama from deep and hit 44% of threes against Tennessee. The problem is extremely easy to spot: six games in a row with a 21% offensive TO% or worse.

A shocking amount of the turnovers are unforced, which is a huge red flag for a flagging offense. LSU has turned it over 52 times since the Tennessee game across three affairs; 28 of these turnovers were labeled as unforced, per KenPom. That is hilariously bad and a pretty obvious reason why this should-be-better offense is struggling to get off the ground. A team with LSU’s defense (still #1 by a mile, spoiler) and LSU’s talent should probably be in the top 5 right now; they are not, because this offense blows.

Anyway, the rest of this scout is the same. The best player (and scorer) is Tari Eason (16 PPG), a Cincinnati transfer that’s a poor shooter but is relentless at getting to the paint, whether in transition or in half-court. If it makes sense, Eason is like a co-#1 option in transition but a co-second banana in half-court; the guy just rim-runs and is crazy dangerous when LSU picks up the pace. I still am baffled that he doesn’t start, but he finishes every close game for LSU, so I guess it doesn’t matter much.

The problem with Eason being your leading scorer but your second/third half-court banana is that the role of main scoring option in the half-court falls to Darius Days (13.5 PPG), a stats darling and efficient player that nonetheless isn’t built to be the #1 scoring option. On the last two LSU NCAA Tournament teams, Days posted Usage Percentages of 17.6% and 16.1%, which helped him be super-efficient but also penned him in as a role player. If you look at his measurables – 6’7″, 245 – you may guess that Days is a bully-ball big. Not so; more than half of his shots come from three, and at 34.5% on 113 attempts, he’s LSU’s most dangerous shooter.

The problem is that a guy who sits at 34.5% is LSU’s best shooter. Even after a couple of quality team-wide shooting games over the last two weeks, LSU still only sits 198th in 3PT%. Five players have 30+ three-point attempts this season. The three-point percentages of those five players, in order of most attempts to least: 34.5%, 33.3%, 33.3%, 23.4%, 31.6%. Xavier Pinson, the Missouri transfer and final double-digit scorer (10.9 PPG), takes about five per game…and is barely cracking 33%. To be fair to Pinson, he’s been exceptional at pushing LSU’s offense to the rim off of the aforementioned ball screens. (Worth noting: Pinson missed the last three games and is a game-time decision for tomorrow.)

Other players of interest: Brandon Murray (9.4 PPG) has emerged lately as a go-to guy offensively, but he’s a very streaky shooter and is mostly good for applying pressure at the rim. Efton Reid (7.7 PPG) is the center and actually appears to be a promising 2.5-level scorer, but fouls like crazy. Eric Gaines (9.2 PPG) is extraordinarily inefficient (88.3 ORtg, 40.4% eFG%).

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.

LSU’s defense

Still pretty darn good. Last time out, I missed on a key part of the scout that’s why they’re so hard to beat: they’ve basically adopted what Texas Tech does by switching 1-5 (when Eason’s on the court instead of Reid, obviously) and making smaller guards score over the top of long, athletic wings/forwards. Good on Will Wade for learning in Year 5 that you have to have a good defense to win meaningful games.

And this defense has to be as good as it is because its offense is so thoroughly stuck in the mud. I still retain my original thought that LSU is not going to hold opponents to a 26% 3PT% for the entire season; it’s hard to sustain that even for two months, let alone four or five. Simon at Shot Quality believes similarly, and I trust in his numbers:

I am the Regression Devil and I have come to reap your soul. Or something. I just wanted to type that out.

Anyway, again, LSU is running the same stuff they ran two weeks ago.

We’ll start with the main difference-maker: a full-court man-to-man press that accomplishes taking several seconds off the clock and forcing a solid amount of turnovers. LSU currently presses on 28.7% of all possessions, per Synergy; that rate was barely 9% a year ago. Against higher-end competition, I haven’t seen them force a ton of turnovers prior to the half-court line, but the corner trap they enforce with Pinson and Eason here is obviously hard to get around.

Once you actually do get into your half-court offense, I would strongly advise against posting up with much frequency. LSU’s frontcourt is demolishing post-ups right now; they sit in the 96th-percentile nationally in part because they’re completely closing down driving lanes with their length and forcing a lot of bad decisions.

So: you do get up actual shots against this team. It is hard to find good ones, though. LSU is different from a lot of heavy rim-protection teams (8th in Block%) in that they really don’t force many runners; they just make you take a ton of jump shots, particularly from deep. About a third of opponent attempts have come at the rim against this team, and 18% of those attempts have been swiftly smashed into the dirt. You can score down low against LSU, but you either have to play fast or be really smart and decisive with cuts to the basket. Their ball-screen defense ranks in the 99th-percentile, and with Eason/Efton Reid both blocking shots at a high rate, well, I guess that was your accomplice in the wood chipper.

The most interesting part of this, though, are the threes. I look at that stat from Simon…I look at what my own eyeballs see…I look at the fact nobody sustains 26% for a full season. I think that eventually, someone’s gonna get LSU. The fact that no team has managed to shoot better than 33% against them is absolutely insane. If you doubt the un-sustainability of this, check out the last five defenses to rank #1 on KenPom:

  • 2020-21 Memphis: 7 games where opponent shot 35% or better from three, three games 40% or better
  • 2019-20 Virginia: 12 games 35%+; 4 games 40%+
  • 2018-19 Texas Tech: 12 games 35%; 6 games 40%+
  • 2017-18 Virginia: 12 games 35%; 10 games 40%+
  • 2016-17 Gonzaga: 13 games 35%+; 6 games 40%+

The only team to stay below 12 for a full season was Memphis, who played only 28 games. That still means you’d expect one out of every four games to see the opponent hit 35%. The Regression Devil is waiting.

Whether Tennessee is the team that finally does this, I have no clue. And I’d like to make it clear that I think LSU is, at worst, one of the five best defenses in America and very well could be the best. But specifically from three, what they’re doing will not last. It’s a matter of time until someone hits a lot of threes against a team with a 55/45 Guarded/Unguarded ratio.

How Tennessee matches up

The good side of this matchup is two-fold:

  1. Tennessee has 40 minutes of experience against this defense and did a decent job of garnering open looks from three and the rim;
  2. The game is at home.

Any time you can get the back-half of a home-and-home at your house is generally a positive thing. Home-court advantage is a real thing, whether it’s fan-driven or whistle-driven. The goal this time for Tennessee will be to work harder on the boards, not turn it over as frequently, and…uh…hope the threes go down?

Last time out, Tennessee did a good job in avoiding post-ups and used basket cuts to their advantage instead to get post players involved. It helped that LSU committed approximately one billion fouls, of course, but the strategy made sense on paper. LSU fouls more than average, so why not use the switching philosophy to make them over-aggressive with the ball-handler, who can dump it to a cutter for two points or a foul? Makes sense to me. I imagine LSU will have a counter to this, but until they show it, Tennessee should continue to exploit it.

Also, Tennessee had a variety of ways to create open looks from deep last time out. As with most teams, the more open you are, the more likely you are to hit a shot, but it’s become especially noticeable with Tennessee. Synergy says Tennessee’s getting an excellent amount of open looks; their offensive Guarded/Unguarded is about 6% better than the national average at 50/50. Some variety of ball-screens and ball reversals can very well get the job done.

Tennessee simply has to hit these. They’re at 33% on open threes on the season; the national average right now is 37.1%. If Tennessee managed to become 4% better at hitting threes somehow by season’s end, I guarantee that literally everyone reading this would feel much differently about the Tennessee offense. Fingers crossed.

Defensively, I recommend letting LSU commit a bunch of stupid mistakes and reaping the benefits. Tennessee forced plenty of turnovers last time out and should be able to do the same at home; the key this time is hoping that three-point regression lands in your favor and a mediocre 3PT% team doesn’t hit 44% of their deep balls.

More interestingly, Tennessee has to find a way to control the rim in a fashion they didn’t the first time out. LSU went 16-for-25 (64%) at the rim in the first game; more so than any amount of threes or missed free throws, that felt like the true tell of the game. Tari Eason destroyed Tennessee at the rim, going 6-for-8, with almost all of his work either coming in transition or on the offensive boards. I’m not going to GIF a defensive rebound because it doesn’t come across as terribly sexy on video, but you can GIF proper transition defense. This is not it:

Tennessee is a fantastic defense, but every single college basketball defense has flaws. I just spent part of the LSU defensive section exploring how a team that’s smoking the field in defensive efficiency has its own problems to deal with. If Tennessee forces LSU to play slowly and gets back in transition off of misses + turnovers, this will be a much different game than the first time out.

My general theory here is this: more LSU half-court offense = a greater chance of Tennessee winning. You’re playing a team that ranks 11th in the SEC in half-court offensive efficiency and only ranks that high because of the existence of Missouri, Ole Miss, and South Carolina, three extremely wretched offenses. If you can hold Ole Miss to 51 in regulation and South Carolina to 46, holding LSU to, like, 60 is not that far-fetched at all.

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.

Notes: Xavier Pinson hasn’t played since the Tennessee game and is doubtful for this one, but isn’t ruled out entirely. Josiah-Jordan James received a “cut above the eye” (Rick Barnes, not me), not a concussion, and is a game-time decision…but I would be mildly surprised if he cannot play.

Three things to watch for

  • Can Tennessee hit some threes? It is literally this simple: either you do and you win, or you don’t and you maybe still win but the path to a win is much narrower. My personal desire is an over/under of 9.5 made threes; go over that and it would require a serious LSU overperformance elsewhere to beat you.
  • How much offense can Tari Eason generate at the rim? Last four games: 18-for-27 at the rim; no other player on LSU has more than 10 makes. If Tennessee can keep him to four or fewer made twos, that’s huge.
  • Which team gets the better whistle? Obligatory. Neither team really generates much offense at the line, but LSU fouls more than Tennessee and it’s a home game. I’m simply preparing you for the potential online anger from those in purple.

Key matchups

Tari Eason vs. Olivier Nkamhoua. This became literal in the last game, when Eason pummeled a pall through Olivier’s soul and Olivier responded by blocking Eason on the next possession. Eason is the only LSU player I deem truly fearful on the offensive end; if Tennessee forces him to take four or more jumpers, that’s a huge win. (Synergy labels Eason as 12-for-44 on jumpers this year, almost all from three.)

Darius Days vs. Somebody. The status of Josiah-Jordan James is apparently up in the air, but if he plays this is his matchup. Regardless, I think JJJ, Justin Powell, John Fulkerson, and even Nkamhoua will all split time in defending him. Days is the best shooter on the roster, but is oddly inefficient at the rim for someone with his body size.

If Xavier Pinson plays: Xavier Pinson vs. Kennedy Chandler.

If Xavier Pinson doesn’t play: Eric Gaines vs. Kennedy Chandler. Pinson picked up a nasty-looking injury in the first meeting between these two and still hasn’t touched the court. LSU writers seem a little doubtful he plays but it wouldn’t be a total surprise. Either way, Chandler has to eventually realize that the best version of himself is the super-aggressive ball-driving that attacks the paint on most possessions, not the one who hangs out on the perimeter with or without the ball.

Three predictions

  1. One or both teams picks up a technical foul;
  2. Tennessee beats LSU in eFG% and TO%;
  3. Tennessee 66, LSU 62.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s