Show Me My Opponent, 2022 SEC Tournament: Kentucky (III)

GAME INFORMATION
OPPONENT #5 Kentucky
26-6, 14-4 SEC, #2 KenPom
9-16, 8-9 SEC, lol lol lol lol 2020-21
LOCATION Amalie Arena
Tampa, FL
TIME Saturday, March 12
3:30 PM ET
CHANNEL ESPN
ANNOUNCERS Tom Hart (PBP)
Jimmy Dykes (analyst)
SPREAD Sinners: Kentucky -3
KenPom: Kentucky -2

Torvik: Kentucky -1.1

You again. You again!!!!

Both of these teams took care of business yesterday, which is pretty useful at a time where the #1 seed in the SEC Tournament lost and the #11 seed gave Kentucky quite the 40-minute battle. Tennessee enters this game playing for a potential 2-seed, Kentucky possibly for the final 1 seed. This is also a great narrative battle: John Calipari vs. the only coach that’s beaten him with regularity in the SEC. John Fulkerson vs. the team he’s owned in years past but not so much in 2022. Kennedy Chandler vs. a fellow first-round pick. Shooter vs. shooter in Grady vs. Vescovi.

This is a great basketball game played on a day where you have nothing else to do but look at the snow and smile. What’s better than this? Just guys being dudes.


Kentucky’s offense

Well, I’ve previewed this team twice already, and 18 hours is not a great amount of time to write much in the way of new observations. That being said, here are the major changes.

  • Leading scorer and likely Player of the Year Oscar Tshiebwe (17.1 PPG, 15.2 RPG) has gone to a new level over the last month: 20.6 PPG, 15.6 RPG over a nine-game stretch where six opponents were among KenPom’s top 50 teams. Not bad, that.
  • TyTy Washington (12.6 PPG) and Sahvir Wheeler (10 PPG), the two point guards, both missed a pair of games with injuries, but are back to full health. Washington in particular was terrific against Vanderbilt in the quarterfinals.
  • A player stepping up: Jacob Toppin, who’s averaged 7.6 PPG/4 RPG over the last eight. Toppin still remains less than impactful as a shooter, but he’s unstoppable in the paint when he chooses to go there. His height/agility may be unmatched on UK’s roster.
  • A player stepping down: Keion Brooks, who’s averaged just 8 PPG (#6 on the team) in that same span. Brooks is 13-for-15 at the rim and 12-for-38 everywhere else to go with a team-worst 22% TO% rate.
  • Everything else is the same. Grady hits threes. Mintz does too, just not as much. The rotation is now firmly down to seven players, with Lance Ware being the occasional eighth.

CHART!

Kentucky’s defense

Same as above. Two previews linked here; updates:

  • The offense has lost no steam whatsoever and has only gotten better; I cannot say the same about the defense. It’s been the 84th-best defense in CBB over Kentucky’s last 10 games, per Torvik, and recently fell outside the KenPom top 25 for the first time since Christmas.
  • This is because of a pair of serious issues: no turnovers being forced and mediocre defensive rebounding. Kentucky’s only forced turnovers on 15% of opponent possessions (300th-best) and has allowed OREBs on 30.6% of missed shots (284th) since February 2. The DREB% is more defensible because these are largely very good rebounding teams, but the complete lack of turnovers forced is a problem.
  • Along with this: the interior/two-point defense is…strangely average? Kentucky ranks 74th in season-long 2PT% allowed, which would be very good for many programs but is the third-worst rate of the Calipari era. Over the last 10, opponents are converting 49.2% of twos, which ranks 148th-best.
  • The key is still that they never foul. Among the seven-man rotation, no player has averaged more than 3.4 fouls per 40 over the last month, and Tshiebwe sits at an astounding 2.4. Tennessee got him in foul trouble on home court, but a neutral court feels like tough sledding.
  • None of the individual Kentucky defenders grade out as obviously bad, but Brooks has the worst Synergy metrics and on/off splits via Hoop-Explorer. His main matchup: Josiah-Jordan James.

How Tennessee matches up

Two consistencies have happened in Tennessee’s two battles with Kentucky:

  1. Tennessee has gotten a surprising amount of open catch-and-shoot threes via drive-and-kick actions;
  2. Tennessee has used off-ball screens to create quality ball movement, which has led to a surprising amount of easy points at the rim.

Considering it’s held true for two, the first should probably work for three. Kentucky’s roster construction lends itself to quality perimeter defense for most opponents, but something about the off-ball motion of Tennessee’s offense has given them a higher shot quality than most. I don’t know that I could fully explain it, but part of this is just that Tennessee’s frontcourt sets a ton of perimeter screens, and Kentucky’s frontcourt (AKA, Tshiebwe) are not often willing to leave the paint. This is how you create sink-and-shoot scenarios as such:

If Kentucky continues to struggle to cover the perimeter against Tennessee specifically, I remain confident that Tennessee can find a points advantage outside of the paint. They’ve outscored Kentucky by nine on threes through two games, which is pretty important for a game projected to be very close.

The other part of this is utilizing some of Tshiebwe’s defensive limitations. As amazing a shot-blocker and rebounder as he is, you can still pull him away from the paint if you pull your frontcourt pairing out of the paint. Tennessee has consistently done this since Nkamhoua went out, which is nice, because I think most people had grown tired of Tennessee’s post-up addiction. They’ll still do it some, but it won’t be that often. This is useful because if you draw Tshiebwe out, that leaves a gap down low that basically no other UK rotation member can replace. Cutting to the basket at this time is how you generate points consistently.

The Kentucky defense is the significantly lesser unit of the two. Can it still choke out an opponent? Of course, because they’re crazy talented. But their struggle in putting away teams with defense as of late is of serious interest. You’ve gotta be able to do that to make the Final Four. I know Tennessee can. What about Kentucky?

Anyway, the defensive side of this is pretty similar to the last two: do whatever you can to wall off the paint and force Kentucky to shoot over the top of it. Kentucky has had games where they’ve shot well, but threes aren’t exactly their forte. Tennessee fixed the ball-screen issue at TBA, but they’re still giving up some good looks from deep to Kentucky. If Tennessee turns these into guarded, tough threes:

They can easily win this game. Then again, the guy shooting that is Kellan Grady, who is absurdly good from anywhere. Tennessee’s gotta hope for positive variance in their favor and a favorable officiating crew that lets some contact go between Tshiebwe and the various centers.

Starters + rotations

Three things to watch for

  • Consider this: hit shots. This is going to be the first bullet of this section until the end of time, or at least until I think of something else. All six of Kentucky’s losses have come when the opponent has posted a 50% eFG%, which Tennessee has managed to do both times out. Likewise, UK is 20-1 when posting 50% or better.
  • How big can you be on the boards? Kentucky’s posted a 40% or better OREB% in five of the last eight games, which is insane considering the competition. Adjusted for competition, Tennessee has been one of the ~25 best defensive rebounding teams this season. If Tennessee can find a way to keep that Kentucky number at 30% or so, it’s a good sign.
  • Is TyTy the guy? Tennessee can reasonably survive a great Tshiebwe game if no one else steps up to help. The TBA win would’ve happened regardless, but it was obviously helped by Washington being hobbled somewhat. Washington was fantastic against Vandy yesterday; a Tennessee win is very reliant on him not following that up.

Key matchups

Oscar Tshiebwe vs. Center Roulette. Typing that out is anxiety-inducing. Tshiebwe is the POY front-runner; Tennessee’s best frontcourt player is entirely up to debate on any given night. If Tennessee holds Tshiebwe to similar numbers as posted in TBA (13 & 15 on 5-15 shooting) it’s a massive win.

TyTy Washington Jr. vs. Santiago Vescovi. Washington will end up being matched with a few different guys, but Vescovi should get the lion’s share of minutes and could potentially go a full 40 if not in foul trouble. Washington is a terrific mid-range shooter but is vulnerable to variance from deep; Vescovi may be the single best deep shooter in the league. Exciting matchup!

Sahvir Wheeler vs. Kennedy Chandler. Wheeler’s best attribute is his speed, which can blind opponents on his best nights. The unfortunate part of it for Wheeler is that his shooting is not often matching his agility. If Chandler can force Wheeler into a lot of pull-ups or runners, I will be with all of the people who say he should be on the All-Defense team. (He probably should’ve been on a 10-man All-Defense team.)

Three predictions

  1. Tshiebwe puts up another double-double (17 & 13 or so) but requires 15 shots to get there;
  2. Josiah-Jordan James leads Tennessee in scoring;
  3. Kentucky 69, Tennessee 68.

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