Show Me My Opponent, 2021-22: Arkansas (II)

GAME INFORMATION
OPPONENT #14 Arkansas
24-6, 13-4 SEC, #19 KenPom
25-7, 13-4 SEC, Elite Eight 2020-21
LOCATION Thompson-Boling-Fulkerson Arena
Knoxville, TN
TIME Saturday, March 5
noon
CHANNEL ESPN
ANNOUNCERS Tom Hart (PBP)
Jimmy Dykes (analyst)
SPREAD KenPom: Tennessee -7
Torvik: Tennessee -5.1

On January 15, Tennessee was 2-3 in SEC play and had just gotten smoked by their biggest rival by 28 points. The season felt pretty stupid. I was thinking about how nice it must be to have never created an account on Twitter. On January 15, Arkansas was also 2-3 in SEC play, and while they’d beaten LSU on the road, it was an Arkansas team that had just lost five of six with the only win being over KenPom #244 Elon. They were…not exactly on track to make the NCAA Tournament.

Fast-forward seven weeks. Tennessee and Arkansas are both 13-4. Tennessee’s only loss is to top-20 Arkansas on the road; Arkansas’s only loss is to top-25ish Alabama on the road. Both have beaten Kentucky and Auburn, the conference’s two best (per KenPom) teams, at home. Both have lovable players. Both have grown to adore their flawed, frenetic, defensively-dominant basketball teams. The winner of this game is guaranteed no worse than the 2 seed in the SEC Tournament, and with just one (admittedly very unlikely) Auburn loss, the winner would be the 1 seed.

Look at us. Who would’ve thought? Not me.


Arkansas offense

The nice thing about Tennessee having played this team all of two weeks ago is that, largely, I have already written everything I felt was worth researching on the offense. Plus, the amount of free time I have to work on these at the moment is…very small. If you missed the first game’s preview, here’s the link. Here’s what’s changed about Arkansas in two weeks:

  • Remember when I mentioned they were the 108th-best offense nationally from January 12th onward? They’re better now – Torvik has them as the 55th-best offense over the last ten games – but all of the same shooting concerns still exist. Razorbacks over last 10: 47% on twos, 33% from deep, one spot ahead of A&M in offensive efficiency. When you’re being mentioned alongside A&M in an offensive sentence, that’s a bad thing.
  • Torvik has a sort of Points Above Replacement stat called PORPAGATU! I reference every time in the Starters + Rotations section. #1 on the team over the last month has been Stanley Umude (11.6 PPG/4.7 RPG season-long), who is 24-for-55 on threes since February commenced. Guard him.
  • J.D. Notae (18.8 PPG/4.4 RPG/3.6 APG)’s usage has actually increased to nearly 30% of all Arkansas possessions in February. The same Chaotic Good about him exists – 62.5% at the rim on the season, 37% on threes in February, quality passer – while all of the same Just Plain Chaotic stuff is becoming quite visible (42% on twos in February, fouled out against Tennessee).
  • Jaylin Williams (10.9 PPG/9.7 RPG) has taken more charges than anyone else in America, so, uh, hope you get some good home officiating? Anyway, this is an offensive section, and Williams has become the clear #2 option offensively. Since February 1: 15 PPG on a 48.5% eFG%, which undersells the impact somewhat. Williams draws a bunch of fouls and is crazy good at midrange twos (18-for-32 in February) but crazy bad at threes (19% in February, 26% for his career). I would let him shoot, but strangely, I would not let him shoot the 15-footers.
  • Davonte Davis (7.6 PPG in Feb) and Au’Diese Toney (8.7 PPG in Feb) are the only other 4+ PPG scorers over the last month. Davis remains a curious case: terrific at the rim, below-average at shooting despite a recent hot streak. I’ve noticed he commits frustration fouls when things don’t go well. Toney, meanwhile, is 1-for-15 since February 1 on everything that isn’t a layup or dunk.
  • Only other guys that get real minutes are Chris Lykes and Trey Wade. Lykes is a genuine Disaster Factory (h/t MGoBlog) and posted a 28% FG% last month while committing 4.7 fouls per 40. Wade is almost invisible offensively, but can shoot a little.

CHART!

Arkansas defense

Similar to the offensive section, here’s the first game’s preview on the defense. Here’s what’s changed since then:

  • This is the #4 defense nationally over the last month, but I would caution this because of one specific thing: teams are shooting 26.7% from three against them in that span. That is…unsustainable. Tennessee got a lot of good looks from deep in the first game and just didn’t hit them. Considering Missouri (a true Disaster Factory of a program) made more threes than Tennessee, I am withholding judgment.
  • Still not blocking a ton of shots, but the general gist of “this defense forces a very bad shot quality from the average opponent” still holds. Opponents are taking about 29% of their shots from non-rim two-point territory and hitting just 30.8% of them.
  • An alarming thing right now, however, is that they’ve become very leaky on the defensive boards. Kentucky/LSU/Auburn are all really good on the boards, but to surrender 40% or worse DREB% to each of them is a bad sign. Jaylin Williams is playing 33-34 minutes a night right now because he’s very good, but also because Arkansas goes from an okay DREB team to a disaster (28.8% vs. 37.5%) when he leaves the court, per Hoop-Explorer.
  • The turnovers. Arkansas has forced almost a 20% TO% rate over their last ten, which is very good when you consider the competition. Notae obviously is a hound on defense, but Chris Lykes, all of 5’7″, is creating a ton of havoc. Only Tari Eason has a better per-minute steal rate in February among SEC players.
  • Catch-and-shoots from the first time out: still a potential flaw. Arkansas sits at an Actually Bad 49/51 Guarded/Unguarded rate.

How Tennessee matches up

I’m still fairly concerned about Tennessee’s inability to hit twos now that Olivier Nkamhoua is out of the lineup, and this may or may not be the game that gets you back on the right track. Still: you have to hit some twos eventually. 43% 2PT% over the last ten games is…brutal. The competition is what it is, but if you shoot 43% from two against a good opponent in March, you better have the threes to bail yourself out.

Tennessee is playing an opponent who is good at most things but very bad at two specific play types: basket cuts (14th-percentile) and hand-offs (15th-percentile). Tennessee is much more well-versed in the first of these, but in the first game, they got zero points from five cuts, per Synergy. That’s inexcusable; considering Arkansas got 12 on 13 cuts, that pretty much explains the scoring differential and the loss. If Tennessee wants to turn things around on Senior Day, Uros Plavsic and John Fulkerson have to finish at the rim. Alternately, the back-cut with Chandler has worked very well as of late. My thought is that if a team over-commits to stop Chandler, Fulkerson or someone’s going to be open inside. Be prepared for a variety of scenarios.

Hand-offs are a hair trickier, because Tennessee doesn’t run these as often; it’s roughly 3-4 times in the average game. The first time out, they ran five and went 0-4 FG on them. (Again, a potential reason for the poor offensive performance.) The general idea of all four shots were fine, and two of the threes were pretty open, but they didn’t go down. Santiago Vescovi has been the main recipient of hand-offs, but if you want a similar feature from a different set, just keep running the same off-ball sets you’ve ran for Vescovi (and others) all season.

Defensively: make Notae take jumpers, make…everyone take jumpers? That’s obviously a little reductive but this is a team that’s shooting well at the rim and shooting poorly everywhere else. When you’re 301st in 3PT% I’m probably gonna recommend you let them shoot the ball. The only guys you truly have to run off the line are Umude (who’s white-hot right now) and Notae if he gets a catch-and-shoot. Everyone else, whatever, beats Jaylin Williams running roughshod on you down low. I know Tennessee got hit on this a little by two random Davonte Davis (career 27% 3PT%) makes but still.

Some of this is also just intangible stuff: stay focused, don’t give up backdoor cuts, hope you win referee roulette. I’ve reached a minor point of season-long tranquility where I’m very pleased with how this season has unfolded no matter what, but, uh…just win, baby.

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

  • Please make the threes. I mean flip literally two threes from the first game and it feels entirely different in that final minute. And that would’ve meant a 6-for-24 performance. If Tennessee can manage even 32-33% or better I think they’re in business.
  • Can Tennessee find a path to the rim? Arkansas forced 19 non-rim twos against 16 rim attempts in the first game. Part of this was influenced by insane officiating, sure, but Jaylin Williams is just that good. Gotta find some backdoor cuts and screens to open things up and keep the ball moving.
  • Senior Day John. Fulkerson put together one of his best performances of the 2020-21 season on his initial Senior Day last year. Does he do it again in his final TBA game? Even at 14 & 7 or so it’s a massive difference-maker.

Key matchups

J.D. Notae vs. Kennedy Chandler. Despite the insane foul calls I thought Chandler won this battle the first time out. (Notae obviously picked up 2-3 terrible calls, too.) The key this time is continuing to push the ball to the rim and, well, making open threes. Holding Notae to 15 or less again would be a win.

Jaylin Williams vs. Center Roulette. Again, Tennessee plays four different guys so whatever. Williams cannot be allowed to go for 13 & 16 again and draw six charges. Can you get a guy who’s at 3.8 fouls/40 for his career in foul trouble? If so: profit.

Stanley Umude vs. Josiah-Jordan James. These are two guys who are hot at the perfect time. James just got done having the best scoring performance of his career, while Umude is the one Arkansas player I’d be worried about for all 40 minutes from deep.

Three predictions

  1. Tennessee wins the foul battle (yes, seriously);
  2. Santiago Vescovi hits four threes;
  3. Tennessee 72, Arkansas 65.

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