Show Me My Opponent, 2021-22: Mississippi State

OPPONENT Mississippi State
14-8, 5-4 SEC, #43 KenPom
(18-15, 8-10 SEC, NIT runner-up 2020-21)
Starkville, MS
TIME Wednesday, February 9
Jimmy Dykes (analyst)
SPREAD Sinners: Tennessee -1.5
KenPom: Tennessee -3

Torvik: Tennessee -0.9

Tennessee was poised to enter this pretty tough road game on a heater – they’ve won five of six since the Kentucky debacle – then Olivier Nkamhoua blew out his ankle on an unfortunate play and now The Fear has returned. Still, they have quite a bit of talent and seem to be learning how to use it. Mississippi State, meanwhile, has solid metrics and a good-looking overall record but is 1-5 against Quadrant 1 opponents and has yet to win a road game. (Seriously!)

Winning at Humphrey Coliseum, which is regrettably nicknamed the Hump, is not an easy task; State is 35-9 at home from 2019-20 onward while 17-25 elsewhere. I think Tennessee is reasonably up for it, but the context of Nkamhoua’s injury is key.

Mississippi State’s offense

By a solid margin, this is the better of the two State units. It’s interesting, though, because you could reasonably consider it a clash of styles with Tennessee. Which SEC team gets the greatest percentage of points scored from threes? Tennessee, at 36.8% of all points (48th). Which team gets the least? State: 22.6% of all points (346th). One team is looking to shoot a lot; the other loves playing inside the perimeter. This may explain why State is 14-3 as a pregame KenPom favorite, yet 0-5 as an underdog: a safe style that beats lesser teams with regularity but doesn’t give you much variance for an upset.

Just like the last few years under Ben Howland, State runs an offense predicated on off-ball motion, ball-dominant guards, quality post play, and a billion mid-range jumpers. State averages about 10.4 true mid-range jumpers a game, but that doesn’t include the variety of runners (4.5 per game), post hooks (1.9), and mysterious ‘other twos’ that the Bulldogs take. You look at that chart and think “that’s a pretty average amount of rim pressure,” but 43.2% of all State shots come within five feet of the rim, per Synergy.

The leader of this team, and the only legitimate All-SEC level guy on the roster, is Iverson Molinar (18.2 PPG). Most of what State does on offense runs through him, both in transition (infrequent, but a thing) and in half-court. Molinar’s first goal offensively will be to attack the paint, and being a 6’3″ guy that’s a 65% finisher at the rim is a legitimately excellent skill. Torvik/PBP data makes Molinar look like a mid-range specialist, and he can score from there, but his main attribute is a devastating floater. Molinar’s are going down at a 51.9% rate on 54 attempts; it’s one of the best floaters out there.

Molinar will also attack the rim off of a ball-screen; he’s the only guard on the roster that can really do that with any regularity. The best-case scenario is to make Molinar shoot; he’s at 38.3% on mid-range jumpers this year and 27.6% on threes. He was a lot better at these in 2020-21 (46.8%/42.6%), but my wild guess is that this comes with the territory of being the co-#1 option on last year’s team with D.J. Stewart, whereas he’s now the runaway #1 in 2021-22.

Molinar’s supporting cast consists of North Carolina transfer Garrison Brooks (11.4 PPG), Shakeel Moore (9.9 PPG), and frequently-injured Tolu Smith (12.9 PPG in nine games). Because of Smith’s injury, Brooks has been the main option at center for Mississippi State this year and deservingly so, as he provides a positive impact defensively. Brooks is unusual for State: normally, they play back-to-the-basket 5s who are never a serious threat to take a jumper, but Brooks has nearly taken as many jumpers as Molinar and is the team’s main mid-range specialist (40.8%, 71 attempts).

Moore is a decent threat at the rim, but his main value is from shooting; he’s 34-for-94 (36.2%) from deep, pacing the team in both makes and attempts by some distance. Moore is significantly less effective off the dribble (33%) than in a catch-and-shoot situation (39%), so a defense should do everything they can to make sure his shot attempts are difficult ones.

Lastly: Smith. I don’t know what to tell you. Smith is supposedly available, but his season has truly been week-to-week with an injury: 4 off, 4 on, 4 off, 1 on, 2 off, 3 on, 3 off, now 1 on. I think he will play, but I genuinely can’t tell you with 100% certainty he will. If he does, he’s a 6’11”, 245 pound bowling ball that takes one mid-range jumper a game and spends the rest of his time bullying his way to buckets down low. Also a terrific offensive rebounder, so watch out for that.

The only other guy that scores more than five a game is D.J. Jeffries, a Memphis transfer that takes a lot of jumpers (slightly more from three than two) and is a fine-not-great shooter.

CHART! The official Chart Guide is now as follows:

Yes: “Be afraid.” 😬
Somewhat: “They can hit this but not very efficiently.” 🤔
No: “Either never attempts this shot or is atrocious at making it.” 🥳

Mississippi State’s defense

The script has flipped somewhat from last year, when State’s offense was built around Abdul Ado blocking lots of shots down low. Ado left for Cincinnati, State has only infrequently had Smith available, and so it’s only natural State’s defense would take a hit. Still: they’re blocking a lot of shots (70th-most), forcing lots of steals (32nd-most), and cleaning up the defensive boards while not fouling much. What gives?

  • 2020-21 Mississippi State: 63.1% FG% allowed at rim, 30.1% on non-rim twos
  • 2021-22 Mississippi State: 62.2% FG% rim, 39% non-rim twos

How much of this is real and how much of it is simple variance is up for debate. Still, not much else has really changed: this is the same man-to-man defense that will let you take all the jumpers your heart desires and does a good job of blocking shots both at the rim and on shorter mid-range twos. My guess is that this can be explained to some extent by the fact that 2020-21 Mississippi State had a 6’11” shot-blocking center backed up by a 7’0″ shot-blocking center, while 2021-22 is a mix of an out-of-position 4 that’s just okay at shot blocking who splits time with either Smith (a terrible shot-blocker) or Javian Davis (also bad at blocking shots). Translation: it’s easier to score inside the perimeter now.

Two things instantly jump out at me from State’s Synergy page: opponents are running a ton of ball screens against them (32% of all half-court possessions ending in one) and State, who’s played the 68th-toughest schedule, ranking in the 39th-percentile in ball-screen defense. If you separate it out to ball-handler and roll man possessions, State ranks in the 82nd-percentile in the former and the 37th-percentile in the latter.

My take is that this makes sense given where their roster talent lies. Molinar and especially Moore do a pretty good job of forcing turnovers, but none of the frontcourt options are particularly good at either blocking shots or forcing turnovers. If the pass gets through, it’s likely to result in some easy points.

Still: the turnovers are a thing, and State has gotten better at forcing them, particularly from ball-handlers. Tennessee hasn’t been the cleanest in ball security, particularly Kennedy Chandler, so a fan would probably like to see him not be exploited by those guards.

The most common shot against State, though, is a three-pointer. Almost 43% of all shots are from deep, and data from CBB Analytics notes that State is forcing a pretty high rate of threes from 25 feet or further out. State has actually guarded these pretty well (Guarded/Unguarded of 60/40, per Synergy), and they’ve deserved the national-average results they’ve received.

However, State’s got a moderately uncommon problem with their defense: of the 23.6 threes they force per game, 10.4 (a bit over 44% of all attempts) are from three. In particular, opponents get 3.7 left corner threes per game. This wouldn’t be worth noting if State forced just 2.1 right corner threes per game. Perhaps unsurprisingly, teams have been able to exploit this shot in conference play, though the success (28% FG%) is still to come. State isn’t guarding these corner threes particularly well, as they’re listed at a 47/53 Guarded/Unguarded rate. I would look to get the usual suspects – Vescovi, James, Zeigler – some shots from the left corner.

How Tennessee matches up

At first glance, this is an improving offense playing an NIT-level defense that hasn’t changed much up over the years and has taken a significant hit in two-point defense. Still: road SEC game, good-ish opponent, and if it were that easy to score on them Arkansas would’ve dropped more than 63 and Kentucky wouldn’t have had to go to overtime to win.

A pretty obvious thing from that scout is State’s serious struggles to play quality inside-the-perimeter defense this year. They don’t foul and they rebound well, but opponents’ initial shot quality is fairly good. I think State’s backcourt defense is at least fine, but nothing about the frontcourt options feel all that scary. Prior to Arkansas, five of six State opponents had gone for 51% or better on twos, and Texas Tech went 24-for-34. There’s just not much in the way of elite rim protection or bad shot enforcers.

State ranks in the 37th-percentile in Roll Man defense, 21st-percentile in Cuts, 25th-percentile in Spot-Ups (a good percentage of which end at the rim), and 41st-in post-up D. The guards have to be involved early and often, sure, but so does Tennessee’s new-look frontcourt. This will certainly look and feel different without Nkamhoua, but John Fulkerson remains pretty good at knowing when to cut to the rim.

I’d also use ball-screens or some sort of dribble-drive impact that brings multiple defenders Kennedy Chandler or Zakai Zeigler’s way, therefore freeing up the corner threes mentioned in the defensive section. At most, Tennessee can only expect to get, like, eight of these off in this game…but if Tennessee goes 4-for-8 on those shots, it could be the difference-maker in what’s being treated as a weighted coin-flip. Use this clip as the example of a great corner shot: Chandler draws multiple defenders and has all ten Texas A&M eyes on him as he locates Vescovi for one of the most open threes of the season.

Defensively, Tennessee must first find a way to make Molinar take jumpers. While last year’s numbers do scare me, I think he’s simply taking different types of shots this year. Attention isn’t as easily drawn away from him by his teammates, so he’s having to take on a more difficult scoring load for all 40 minutes. Molinar will find his way to the rim without Nkamhoua on the floor, but Tennessee will have to find a way to build a wall and accept whatever results they get.

Right now, Molinar is shooting just 29% off-the-dribble this year no matter where he’s at on the court. Even if Tennessee forces him to take a dribble or two before pulling up, it beats a true catch-and-shoot attempt. Again: if he hits, he hits, but the actual process of letting him shoot is superior to that of letting him get within eight feet of the rim.

The other thing: you gotta protect the boards and not commit a bunch of fouls in the process. There is a human element to Nkamhoua’s injury, obviously, but a key basketball piece is that Tennessee now has five fewer fouls to use in a game. If Fulkerson gets in foul trouble, that either means more Plavsic minutes or it means Barnes will have to give a much worse defender (Huntley-Hatfield or Aidoo) serious minutes. That’s not a winning strategy.

Tennessee will have to defend the post very well in this game to come out on top. State will take some threes, sure, but they haven’t put up even 20 in a game since before Christmas. They’d much rather bully you from two than increase the variance of the game. If Tennessee can find a way to defend Smith, Brooks, and Javian Davis without fouling an extreme amount, they’ll have a good shot. In particular, Brooks – who posts up more than anyone else – looks to take a jumper first before a hook shot or a layup. Force as many jumpers as you can, and live with the consequences.

This won’t be easy, but with or without Nkamhoua, it’s a winnable basketball game. We’ll see if Tennessee brings it home.

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

  • Well, what’s your post-Nkamhoua lineup of choice? Tennessee has barely played Fulkerson and Plavsic together at all over the last few weeks, which is a good thing, because it’s the worst frontcourt pairing Tennessee may have. Hopefully, this injury doesn’t give them a reason to go double-big. Tennessee’s most common non-Nkamhoua lineup has been Chandler/Zeigler/Vescovi/James/Fulkerson, and barring either a Plavsic over-performance or a great Justin Powell game, I imagine that will be the closing five.
  • What’s Tennessee’s rim protection strategy? Lineups with Nkamhoua on the court were holding opponents to a 51.2% conversion rate at the rim, which would be the 18th-best rate in the country. It’s hard to replicate that, but it’s worth noting that the James/Fulkerson combo has been the best from a 2PT% defense perspective.
  • Threes. Also, twos. State when opponents shoot 32% or better from deep: 5-6, including 1-4 against Top 100 teams. State when shooting worse than 50% on twos: 0-5.

Key matchups

Iverson Molinar vs. Kennedy Chandler. Iverson is going to take the equivalent of 16-18 shots in this one (counting every two FTs as one shooting possession); if Chandler holds him to 18 or fewer points on all those possessions it’s a success. Meanwhile, Chandler simply must avoid turnovers. Two or fewer is the goal.

Tolu Smith (if playing) vs. Uros Plavsic or John Fulkerson. Smith seems likely to play, but I’m leaving the qualifier in just in case. Either way, this is an instant test for how well Tennessee protects the rim post-Nkamhoua.

Garrison Brooks vs. Josiah-Jordan James. Consider this the X-factor matchup. Brooks takes an insane amount of jumpers for a guy who plays all his minutes at the 4 & 5, but he’s willing to post up all the same. This is a good test of how well James can hold up when playing most of his on-court time at the 4.

Three predictions

  1. Justin Powell starts the game but isn’t in the closing lineup;
  2. Tennessee wins the turnover battle by 4 or more;
  3. Tennessee 69, Mississippi State 68.

One thought on “Show Me My Opponent, 2021-22: Mississippi State

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 )

Facebook photo

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

Connecting to %s