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

OPPONENT Mississippi State
18-14, 8-10 SEC, #44 KenPom
18-15, 8-10 SEC, NIT runner-up 2020-21
LOCATION Amalie Arena
Tampa, FL
TIME Friday, March 11
Dane Bradshaw (analyst)
SPREAD Sinners: Tennessee -8
KenPom: Tennessee -6

Torvik: Tennessee -6.2

One of the nice things about basketball is that you can just point at a calculator and say 3 > 2 sometimes. This doesn’t always work, because it is better to be good at both than to be good at one or the other. However, if you’re blatantly bad at one or if you’re living out 1984 and telling your team that 2 + 2 = 5, this turns into a problem. As such, I think this explains Mississippi State basketball, a team that is 0-10 as an underdog (18-4 as favorite) in part because they do not understand that threes are a part of modern basketball.

Tennessee enters this game on a heater, having won 12 of 14 despite losing a starter to season-ending injury. Mississippi State did blow out South Carolina last night, but this may be window-dressing on a season that began 13-5, 4-2 SEC and is now 18-14, 8-10. Ben Howland’s job is in serious limbo, with buzz growing on ESPN+ articles that his time is drawing to a close in Starkville. If only he had the TI-83 to add 2 and 3 together.

Mississippi State’s offense

Tennessee played this team barely a month ago, so you can read a full overview of the offense from the first post. These are the updates:

  • After losing a must-win game, Ben Howland panicked his way into trying three new starting lineups before eventually arriving back at the one they started against Tennessee. Nothing has changed, but I figured you might smile at that.
  • As State’s season has turned into desperation mode, the best player hasn’t been the guy everyone would expect, but rather Tolu Smith (13.8 PPG/6.2 RPG season-long, 15.5 PPG/6.1 RPG last 8 games). Smith is attempting nearly 6 FTs a game, has put up a 72.7% FG% on 55 rim attempts, and has become the co-#1 option offensively.
  • The other is the obvious: Iverson Molinar (17.8 PPG). Molinar had a great season, but since the Tennessee game he’s taken a significant hit: 44% on twos and 14% (!) on threes, both of which are 9% and 12% decreases from season-long numbers. A 39.9% eFG% in the month your team needs you most is egregious.
  • Beyond that, no one has averaged more than 8.1 PPG since the Tennessee game. Next up on the scoring list is D.J. Jeffries at 9.4 PPG season-long, but his usage rate is barely above that of Justin Powell’s.
  • The most efficient guy right now is Andersson Garcia (6.5 PPG/5.8 RPG since February 9), but his impact is more felt on defense and his main source of scoring income is an incredible ability to draw fouls.
  • Here’s the stat that I feel sums up why Ben Howland will be either retired or coaching somewhere else in a year: over the last nine games, no Mississippi State player has made more than five three-pointers. The team as a whole since February 9: 17.8% from deep on 112 attempts.

CHART! Small updates from the first time. Rocket Watts was DFA’d picked up a practice injury and seems done for the year.

Mississippi State’s defense

First preview is linked here. Updates:

  • State’s defense has surprisingly strengthened a tad since last time out; Torvik ranks them as 40th-best over the last 10 games.
  • The problem is that this is largely driven by an opponent 28.2% hit rate on threes, which I would be more inclined to believe in if State wasn’t posting a 52/48 Guarded/Unguarded rate. That’s about average, which is fine, but 28.2% is significantly below average. Regression coming.
  • Everything else is more or less the same. Context-free stats would indicate a defensive rebounding flaw, as opponents have rebounded 30% of their misses over the last month-plus (#265 nationally). However, that’s 2.5% below expectation, as the opponents have averaged 32.5% this season. Still good.
  • The scariest guy on defense right now is Garcia, who has posted 12 steals in the last six games. State’s defense is 8.2 points better per 100 possessions when he’s on the court.
  • Nothing else new to report. State still doesn’t press unless it’s desperation time and never runs a zone defense. Something interesting is that of State’s five lowest 3PA% allowed this season, four have come in the last eleven games. State doesn’t have much in the way of rim protection and has consistently sat in the 200s in 2PT% allowed, so opponents don’t see much of a reason to bomb away all that often.

How Tennessee matches up

No GIFs today, sorry. Free time has been very limited this week. Back tomorrow, if applicable.

The fundamental yes/no question in every Mississippi State game this year has been if the opponent hit enough shots or not. I guess that holds for literally every team ever constructed, but it feels especially pertinent for State. The Bulldogs are a perfect 15-0 when winning the eFG% battle this season; they are 3-14 otherwise. It’s pretty stark, but it helps making preview a game on short notice very easy: hit your shots, win the game.

Tennessee’s largest and most consistent source of points this season has been simple: a guard drives the ball to the paint, then kicks out to an open shooter. Generally, this has been Santiago Vescovi or Josiah-Jordan James, but it could be anybody on the right night. If Tennessee gets quality paint penetration in this game, it’s going to open up a lot of looks from deep against one of the least-positive perimeter defenses the league has to offer. Tennessee’s main issue in this game, to me, is avoiding settling for mid-range jumpers like they did in the first battle. You’ve got to look for threes first; threes will be what drives the separation factor.

Along with this, State has done a poor job of defending ball screens this year. Synergy places them as 30th-percentile in P&R defense over the course of the season. Tennessee doesn’t usually run many ball screens, but in the first game, they posted more P&R possessions (21) than they had in all but two other SEC regular season games. Clearly, Barnes and company see this as an area of opportunity.

The key is to utilize the passing ability of the ball-handler. Chandler and Zeigler can pressure the rim very well, but it’s their passing ability that could really open this game up for Tennessee. A well-timed pass to the roll man can both provide two points and help sink State inward to open more looks from deep.

The defensive side of this is a curious and weird case. For once, you don’t really have much fear of the opponent out-shooting you from deep. No high-major basketball team gets a lower percentage of its points from three than Mississippi State; just once since the Tennessee game have they hit more than three threes. Instead, this is all about protecting the rim. State will take a bunch of mid-range twos and you’ve got to live with that, but making sure the shots at the rim are well-contested and hard to convert is of utmost importance.

State’s biggest drivers of points down low have unsurprisingly been Molinar and Smith, but in half-court play, it’s Smith’s basket cuts that have shredded opponents. Tennessee has to toe the delicate line between committing too much to a driving Molinar and overplaying to allow Smith open while also not undercommitting to Molinar. The good news I can share is that Tennessee remains an excellent basket cut defense. In the first game, State only scored four points on seven cuts. It took a significant shooting overperformance for them to stay in the game. Absent that, Tennessee needs to control this game within five feet of the rim.

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

  • Make shots. Again, the stat: State is 15-0 when they win eFG%, 3-14 when they lose. If Tennessee hits 8-9 threes in this one I’m not really sure how State would overcome that beyond either turnovers or a foul parade.
  • Frontcourt production. Mississippi State obviously has the best player of either frontcourt in Smith, but can Tennessee find someone that’s better than Garrison Brooks at the 4? This is a game I’d expect Josiah-Jordan James to show out.
  • Protect the boards. Mississippi State is 2-6 this year when held to a 30% OREB% or lower; Tennessee, in their first post-Nkamhoua game, held State to 28% the first time out. I guess people are allowed to live in fear after the Arkansas rebounding issues, but that’s the only time Tennessee’s gotten got on the boards in a surprising manner since the injury.

Key matchups

Iverson Molinar vs. Kennedy Chandler. And also Zakai Zeigler. Molinar may play all 40 in this one and has regularly taken on 35-36 minutes a night as of late. His shooting post-Vols (38.8% eFG%) has been atrocious, but I would prefer to not let this be the game he reheats.

Tolu Smith vs. Center Roulette. So, as of now, Center Roulette’s main minutes-getter is Jonas Aidoo…which would be fine if he wasn’t almost tied with Uros Plavsic for center minutes. Roulette it remains. Anyway, Smith has been State’s best player over the last month and can change the game with how frequently he draws fouls.

Garrison Brooks vs. Josiah-Jordan James. This will be BHH to start, but James will most commonly draw the matchup. Brooks is 14-for-50 on everything that’s not a layup/dunk over the last month and frankly may be State’s worst defender; this is why I think James could have a big game.

Three predictions

  1. This is the final game Ben Howland coaches at Mississippi State, but NOT because he is fired;
  2. Chandler and Vescovi combine for 10 assists;
  3. Tennessee 69, Mississippi State 61.

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