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

OPPONENT Vanderbilt
13-10, 5-6 SEC, #81 KenPom
9-16, 3-13 SEC 2020-21
LOCATION Thompson-Boling Arena
Knoxville, TN
TIME Saturday, February 12
ANNOUNCERS Not listed at the time of publishing. (shrug)
SPREAD KenPom: Tennessee -13
Torvik: Tennessee -11

At home this time! Tennessee has now won six of seven since the Kentucky debacle and pulled off a genuinely impressive road win – their first Quadrant 1 road win, mind you – on Wednesday at Mississippi State. They’re now up to 10th in NET and look to be on pace for somewhere between a 3 and 5 seed. Vanderbilt, meanwhile, is better in Year 3 of Jerry Stackhouse but still has a ways to go to be Tournament-level competitive. If they can squeak out a .500 record (7-11 in SEC play), that’s probably an NIT bid.

I am legally required to mention that they have lost nine in a row to Tennessee, which is pretty funny.

Vanderbilt’s offense

Tennessee played this team all of 25 days ago, so shockingly, not a lot has changed. The main difference right now is Rodney Chatman suddenly being available more often than not. (Minnesota transfer Liam Robbins has finally begun to play as well, but he’s only touched the court for 11 and 13 minutes so far.) Chatman provides more of interest on defense than offense, so we’ll get to him in that section. The rest of this is mostly repurposed from the first preview.

One of the few general positives of the Jerry Stackhouse Era has been Scotty Pippen, Jr. 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 (7.4 fouls drawn per 40, 6th-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-90 unit with Pippen on to a top-320 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 as efficient a scorer at the rim (53.1% vs. 57.4%) or in mid-range (30.9% vs. 38%). 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 0.858 PPP.) Still, Wright is a pretty dangerous catch-and-shoot scorer, and he’s hitting 52% on unguarded threes. (He did go 0-for-2 against Tennessee on these, at least.) 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, 77% of all shots threes) who’s been terrific from deep (42%). Trey Thomas is Pippen’s backup PG and also mostly Just A Shooter (78% of all shots from deep), but less efficient. Chatman is mostly a role guy that takes more threes than twos (42% on 31 attempts), yet has turnover issues. Liam Robbins has barely any data to speak of, but three years of Minnesota data show a below-average jump shooter that’s good on twos. 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 25.3 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! 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.” 🥳

Vanderbilt’s defense

THE GRAPHIC IS WRONG IN ONE SPECIFIC SENSE: Vandy ranks 308th in Rim FG% allowed, not 51st. I obviously mis-sorted that in an Excel sheet, so that’s on me.

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 5-8 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 94th-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 56.4% of Vandy half-court defensive possessions, one of the highest rates among Big Six teams in America. Adding in Liam Robbins to this mix is also of genuine interest. Again: barely any Vandy data at all to speak of, but across three seasons at Minnesota, he blocked 12% of opponent two-point attempts when he was on the court, an absurdly good rate.

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 41/59, worst in the SEC);
  2. The actual rim protection scheme still doesn’t have a true rim protector; the best they have is either the fledgling Millora-Brown, who only plays 24 minutes a game, or possibly Robbins, who has committed 6 fouls in 24 total minutes played.

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 28% 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 (22.1% TO%, 30th-best) and in ending possessions prematurely for the opponent. The new twist here is that, when Chatman is on the court, Vanderbilt has seemed to fix this issue somewhat. Lineups with Chatman on force 8% more non-rim twos than those without him, per Hoop-Explorer. Chatman had a reputation at Dayton as a significantly better defender than offensive player, so that’s not a surprise. 

Unfortunately, even with Chatman, 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. Opponents are scoring 1.248 PPP on cuts, too, which is horrific.

Last time out, Tennessee shot an astounding 8-for-35 on everything that wasn’t a layup, dunk, or tip. Even on those, they shot 11-for-21; it was a minor miracle they hit 25 of 29 free throw attempts. Considering Tennessee shot 23% on actual shot attempts at Hell Arena, I would be pretty surprised if that didn’t rise by playing in TBA.

How Tennessee matches up

Things will obviously be different in the rematch. Olivier Nkamhoua occupied the court for 22 minutes at Memorial and was responsible for 7 points/7 rebounds, which isn’t much but is indeed a deficit of sorts. The nice(?) thing about the first matchup is that Tennessee actually did a great job of getting the shots they wanted; they simply didn’t go down. If Tennessee wanted to run out a pretty similar gameplan for the rematch, I’d be willing to bet they’d see a significant increase in offensive efficiency. The shots they got are that of a team on pace to score 80, not 68 with help from tons of free throws.

So: keep doing your thing. In the first matchup, Tennessee got off 22 catch-and-shoot threes. 15 were unguarded (i.e., no defender within four feet of the shooter), per Synergy. Would you like to guess Tennessee’s hit rate on those? A nice 3-for-15. The national average on unguarded threes is 37%, and as a team this season, Tennessee’s just a hair under that rate at 36.3%. Even an average day from deep adds ~7 points of expected value to those 15 shots; if Tennessee just had a normal day from downtown at Memorial (admittedly a tall task) we’d be talking about, like, a 15-point beatdown. Kennedy Chandler and Zakai Zeigler did a great job of getting the ball to the right guys in the first game. Verdict: just make shots, bro.

The other thing is that Tennessee was credited with eight basket cuts in the first game, per Synergy. Again: as a season-long average, Tennessee gets 1.153 PPP off of these, which is right at the national average. I wish that were better, but even so, this is a fine cut offense who’s played a lot of great defenses going against a defense that’s had a terrible time defending cuts. Tennessee only got eight points off of their cuts in the first one; again, if they ran it back, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see them score more.

Here’s where I think Tennessee should use a four-guard lineup to create havoc. I have more coming on this in a story in a couple of weeks, but here’s the gist of what you need to know. All numbers adjusted for schedule and 3PT% variance:

  • Lineups with one big on the court: +41.2 Net Rating; 121.6 Offensive Rating, 80.4 Defensive Rating
  • Lineups with two or more bigs: +19.6 Net Rating; 108.6 Offensive Rating, 89.0 Defensive Rating

So: I think the defensive rating for the single-big lineups is a little noisy, because those lineups are giving up a 3% worse hit rate on twos and are nearly entirely dependent on forcing tons of turnovers. But the offensive boost is very real, promise. 83% of Tennessee’s shots in those single-big lineups are either at the rim or from three. It’s the closest thing Tennessee has to a cheat code. Use it early, especially with your speed at guard, to create some havoc on cuts to the rim.

Defensively: stop Pippen. Well, stop Pippen without fouling. In the first game, Pippen only got off 10 shot attempts and ranked third on the team in FGA, but this was because he got to the line 13 times. Considering only one other player on Tennessee’s schedule got more than eight FTAs in a game (Arizona’s Bennedict Mathurin), I think Tennessee probably gets a more beneficial whistle in this one. If that’s the case, the path is sort of easy to chart: just make Pippen take a bunch of jumpers.

In half-court offense this year, only 27% of his shots have come at the basket; the rest are jumpers (59%), runners (8%), or post-ups (6%). He’s done well in the post, but he only posts up about once a game, so no real need to fret on it. Instead, focus on the jumpers:

  • Off-the-dribble: 17-for-50 on twos (34%), 18-for-54 on threes (33%)
  • Guarded catch-and-shoot: 8-for-42 on threes (19%)
  • Unguarded catch-and-shoot: 13-for-29 on threes (45%)

Pippen is a good shooter, but a lot of it is context-dependent. If you’re forcing him to take tough shots, he hasn’t shown a consistent ability to hit those this year. Basically: avoid anything that isn’t an open three (this goes team-wide, really) and things will likely feel pretty good come 8:10 PM ET or so.

Onward and upward.

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

  • Rim points. Tennessee’s in-theory largest advantage in this game is that they’re an above-average efficient offense at scoring at the rim and they’re playing the 308th-best rim defense. Score score score.
  • Foul trouble, both ways. Vanderbilt’s one of the 15 best teams in America at getting to the line; unsurprisingly, most of that is Pippen. If Pippen draws eight fouls or whatever in this one, it’s a bigger issue than last time because you’re down a key body in Nkamhoua.
  • Open threes. Hit them. Tennessee has actually been terrific at this since the Vanderbilt game, but it would be nice to include Vanderbilt in such a sample.

Key matchups

Scotty Pippen Jr. vs. Kennedy Chandler. Same goals as last time: eight or fewer FTAs, ten or more jumpers. If you take away Pippen’s easiest points, Vandy’s path to a victory becomes a lot slimmer. Noting here that I have seen Chandler’s That Dog Rating (TDR) increase the last couple of weeks.

Jordan Wright vs. Santiago Vescovi/Josiah-Jordan James. These two essentially split time at the 3 along with Justin Powell now. Wright can score at all three levels, but I want him taking mid-range jumpers or heavily guarded threes. No need to let him get loose with any frequency.

Three predictions

  1. Tennessee trails at the under-12 timeout in the first half and there is much weeping and gnashing of teeth in online chat spaces;
  2. Tennessee wins all Four Factors;
  3. Tennessee 73, Vanderbilt 61.

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