Show Me My Opponent, 2020-21: Saint Joseph’s

Another day, another opponent that wasn’t originally on the 2020-21 basketball schedule. Such are the joys of attempting to complete a season in the midst of a 100-year pandemic, and thankfully, we’re about to see game #5 when it had almost began to look like we wouldn’t get to game #1. So, in the spirit of the last couple of these posts, I’ve already written a lot about the opponent’s team below. Let’s talk about the opponent’s program, in five bullet points:

  • The Saint Joseph’s Hawks, for much of your and my lifetime, were coached by Phil Martelli, who was fired in 2019 and later became an assistant for Michigan.
  • Under Martelli, the Hawks reached highs they hadn’t seen in 20+ years, including the ultimate coup: a perfect regular season and an Elite Eight run in 2003-04.
  • They never quite reached that high, but the Hawks made the NCAA Tournament seven times under Martelli and produced a slew of great memories.
  • Now they are coached by Billy Lange, a former 76ers assistant who designed the offense Philly ran under Brett Brown.
  • Lange is…6-30 so far.

To alleviate pressure from various media members’ mentions, here is a list of important game information.

  • THE OPPONENT: Saint Joseph’s of Pennsylvania (0-4).
  • THE TIME: 6:00 PM ET.
  • THE CHANNEL: SEC Network.
  • THE SPREAD: Tennessee -22.

If you’d like to skip ahead to a certain section, click below:

NEXT PAGE: Saints and/or Josephs

Show Me My Opponent, 2020-21: Tennessee Tech

There’s only so much I can say about a team Tennessee has played 25 times and beaten 24, so I’ll leave it relatively short. If you are somehow unfamiliar with them, the Tennessee Tech Golden Eagles play basketball in Cookeville, TN. They haven’t made the NCAA Tournament since 1963, but they’ve won their conference’s regular season title as recently as 2005. When they do make it back to the NCAA Tournament, it’ll be a great day for basketball in this state.

For…reasons, they hired John Pelphrey, who is 9-29 in his first 38 games as head coach. Cookeville is home to a Popeyes just off of exit 287, which is actually the Popeyes where I first experienced the chicken sandwich. Thank you to my friend Nathan for capturing the moment; the photo is available upon request.

The below section is to alleviate pressure from Grant Ramey’s mentions.

  • THE OPPONENT: Tennessee Tech (0-7).
  • THE TIME: 7:00 PM ET.
  • THE CHANNEL: SEC Network Plus, online-only.
  • IF YOU HAVE A CABLE SUBSCRIPTION: You can either go to espn.com/watch and enter in your cable info that way by following the instructions, or if you have a Roku/Amazon Fire thing, go to the ESPN app and do the same thing.
  • IF YOU DON’T: Uh…call someone you know that does? Or listen to Bob and Bert?
  • THE SPREAD: Tennessee -28.5.

If you’d like to skip ahead to a certain section, click below:

NEXT PAGE: Unlike one of my favorite Al Green songs, nothing about this offense is Simply Beautiful

Show Me My Opponent, 2020-21: Appalachian State

Appalachian State, as you may have heard, is a school in Boone, North Carolina. They are best known for dropping the match into the batch of lighter fluid that was Lloyd Carr-era Michigan football and causing my dad to have chest pains for the better part of the last two decades. Other than that…

Just kiddin’. The Mountaineers have made the NCAA Tournament once in the 64/68-team era (2000, lost to Ohio State 87-61). They probably won’t do it this year, but their current coach, Dustin Kerns, is the first head coach to make them respectable and solid in over a decade. Pretty good, if you ask me. Finally, on December 15, Tennessee gets to play an opponent that isn’t in the KenPom top 75.

Game information

This is a short section that will hopefully alleviate pressure from Grant Ramey’s mentions.

  • THE OPPONENT: Appalachian State (4-1).
  • THE TIME: 7:00 PM Eastern.
  • THE CHANNEL: SEC Network.
  • THE SPREAD: Tennessee -18.5.

If you’d like to jump ahead to a different part of the preview, use the provided menu:

NEXT PAGE: BasketBoone

Show Me My Opponent, 2020-21: Cincinnati

Normally you get my long-drawn out intros here, but…uh, don’t really know how else to say this, but I wrote 4,000+ words about the Cincinnati Bearcats even without this intro. I value your eyesight and your attention spans, so I’ll keep it succinct. The Cincinnati Bearcats are a basketball team located in Cincinnati, Ohio. They are most well-known for:

  • Having a genuinely amazing basketball history and being back-to-back national champions in 1961 and 1962
  • Being an NCAA Tournament mainstay for the last 30 years
  • Somehow only making one Sweet Sixteen in the last 19 years despite feeling like they’ve made seven???
  • Remember when they blew it to Nevada despite having a 23-point lead or whatever?
  • They employed Bob Huggins until he got a DUI. Then they did not employ Bob Huggins.
  • Mick Cronin, maybe the least-remarkable objectively excellent basketball coach in human history, made them very good for a long period of time. Now they have John Brannen, who led them to an AAC title in year one.
  • Also they force this slop chili upon you when you enter city limits. Nasty!

The preview follows this very poorly-written intro.

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NEXT PAGE: The Cincinnati chili offense

Show Me My Opponent, 2020-21: Colorado

Three days ago, this game didn’t exist and Tennessee fans were all miserable together, watching the Tennessee football squad (supposedly still a thing?) lose their 15th game in 16 tries to hated rival Florida. Tennessee fans everywhere needed a win.

Three days ago, this game didn’t exist and Colorado fans were some of the happiest football fans on the planet. In this bizarre shortened COVID football year, the Buffaloes are 4-0 with wins over UCLA, Stanford, and Arizona. Colorado fans don’t really need a win, considering they live in one of the most beautiful places in America, but I needed a mirror section here so please bear with me.

Fast forward to 7:39 PM Eastern on Saturday night, and all was well again:

The Colorado Buffaloes, at least in the KenPom era, have firmly been a bottom-tier team in both of their conferences. Prior to Tad Boyle’s arrival, the Buffs had made just one NCAA Tournament in 13 seasons, an appearance where they immediately got stomped by Michigan State in the opening round. Boyle, a former Jerry Green assistant at Tennessee, took over Colorado in 2010-11 after four seasons building up the Northern Colorado program from 4-24 in 2006-07 to 25-8 by his final season. He’s legitimately very good at what he does.

From 2012 to 2016, Colorado made four out of five NCAA Tournaments, and seven times in Boyle’s ten seasons, they’ve won 20+ games. They would’ve made the 2020 NCAA Tournament had it happened, so you can reasonably count that. Inarguably, Boyle is the most successful Colorado coach they’ve had since Sox Walseth (260 wins in 20 seasons, a pair of Top 10 rankings before the 64-team NCAA Tournament existed) in the 1960s.

You would have a hard time telling this to someone who doesn’t understand that it’s quite hard to win at Colorado, though. The Rockies are not exactly a recruiting hotbed. Boyle does have a Top 100 recruit on this roster from Colorado Springs (D’Shawn Schwartz), but among Colorado’s top five players, he’s the only squad member from Colorado. Their best player is from Minnesota, and Boyle’s had to go as far as Georgia and Canada to put together this team.

While you probably didn’t know much about Colorado prior to Saturday, thanks to Tennessee not having played them since 1981, hopefully you’ll come out on the other side feeling a good amount of respect for what they do. It ain’t easy, and I’d imagine that Tennessee fans could probably find a lot to like in an underdog program that finds overlooked guys who battle on the boards and play quality defense.

If you’d like to skip ahead to a certain section, click below:

NEXT PAGE: Colorado’s offense

Show Me Future Opponents: Kentucky vs. Richmond/Kansas

Hi! This is, hopefully, the final installment for a little while in this short series titled Show Me Future Opponents. Beginning next week, with any luck, I’ll be back to the traditional schedule of previewing Tennessee basketball games. Until then, please enjoy this piece on Kentucky basketball and its successes/failures.

In the preseason, I felt of two minds about Kentucky’s #10 AP Poll ranking, two spots higher than Tennessee’s. On one hand, every post-2015 Kentucky team has started somewhat poorly, but by March, they’ve rounded into the form of roughly an Elite Eight-level team. Consider the following, as run on Bart Torvik’s fantastic site:

  • 2015-16: #25 overall in games played from Nov. 1 to Dec. 31; #3 in games played from Jan. 1 to end of season
  • 2016-17: #3; #8
  • 2017-18: #29; #21
  • 2018-19: #25; #6
  • 2019-20: #42; #26

In four of the last five seasons, they’ve gotten noticeably better once conference play has started; the only outlier was the 2016-17 squad that was consistently excellent pretty much the whole way through. (Also a reminder that every 2019-20 SEC team was worse than you remember.) It stands to reason that a team that barely returned 7% of its minutes from 2019-20 won’t be very good to start the season, yes?

However, I’d like to posit the other hand of my argument: has Kentucky’s recent second-half play actually been enough to make up for their first-half issues? Look at those numbers over the last five years and you’ll see Kentucky failing to elevate their play in time for March in both 2017-18 and 2019-20. In four of those five years, they were barely, if at all, a top 25-level team entering conference play. Shouldn’t Kentucky automatically be given, like, the 19th spot in the preseason Top 25 until they show they can figure it out for a full season?

When Kentucky had the ball

Anyway, that’s a long way of saying I wasn’t terribly surprised this Kentucky roster lost to Richmond or Kansas, though it was kind of surprising they lost to both. A Richmond team that returned 80% of its minutes from a year ago was going to be much more prepared for a November battle; same goes for Kansas, even if they returned just under half of their minutes. What shouldn’t be excusable about Kentucky’s play thus far, even against two exceptional opponents, is just how bad their shot selection has been.

It’s one thing for Kentucky to be shooting 9-for-47 from three this season, as we’ll cover shortly. (They went 3-for-31 against Richmond and Kansas combined.) However, it would be another thing if Kentucky were simply missing shots you know they can hit while taking good, worthy shots otherwise. They decidedly aren’t doing that. Per Simon Gerszberg’s Shot Quality metric, Kentucky’s offense ranks in the 34th-percentile nationally through three games in terms of offensive shot quality. They’re two spots behind Howard, a team that got demolished by Division II Queens (NC) last week. Things are not good!

Through three games, Kentucky has some truly alarming shooting splits, in terms of where their shots are being taken. An astounding 39.1% of Kentucky’s field goal attempts thus far are non-rim twos, which, as we’ve discussed frequently, offers the lowest return on investment in college basketball. Players do have the capacity to hit these shots, obviously, and Kentucky is making about 41% of their non-rim twos thus far. Brandon Boston, Jr., Olivier Sarr, and Terrence Clarke have all flashed a propensity and a desire to get to 14 feet.

However, you’ve also got to get some amount of good shots to go with your bad ones that you’re currently making. Kentucky…is not doing that. Frequently throughout both of these games, the Wildcats appeared terribly disinterested in moving off the ball, running off-ball screens to get a shooter loose, or performing any relatively basic offensive task in general. Here’s a possession where three of five players don’t move a pixel after the ball crosses half-court:

Here’s a possession where Kentucky clears out with 16 seconds left on the shot clock for Brandon Boston, Jr. to commit a charge (not called) and brick a 14-footer worthy of the Reed’s Ranch Basketball League:

And here’s one where Kentucky’s lineup farts around for 29 seconds with little-to-no-movement, resulting in Terrence Clarke plowing a guy over while tossing the ball into the fourth row.

All of this is awful, and somehow, I’ve barely touched on the fact that Kentucky is shooting 19.1% from three through three games. Of course, that won’t last, and I don’t doubt that John Calipari is telling some version of the truth when he says that guys like Brandon Boston, Jr. (0-for-11) and Terrence Clarke (0-for-8) are clearly better shooters than they appear to be right now. However, I’d also argue that a good chunk of this is on Calipari. Davion Mintz (4-for-10) and Dontaie Allen (2-for-5) are the main shooters mentioned in essentially every Kentucky basketball article. For a team that needs shooting, you’d imagine guys who can hit shots like this would be playing big minutes right now, yes?

Ahhhhhh not really, sorry. Mintz played a combined 32 minutes against Richmond and Kansas despite Kentucky’s net rating being nearly 15 points better per 100 possessions with him in the game. Allen is trickier because he didn’t play a minute against Richmond and only got eight against Kansas, but Kentucky’s offense appeared to have way better spacing with him simply being on the court:

This could be a thing where Allen’s defense is so bad that it doesn’t allow him to play many minutes, but…kinda hard to judge that when he plays eight total minutes across two games, no?

Lastly, I don’t want to be all negative, so we’ll end on Kentucky’s lone positive. The Wildcats are simply dominant on the offensive boards against all competition, which obviously makes sense when four members of the starting lineup are 6’7” or taller. Richmond won by 12 despite giving up 21 offensive boards to these Wildcats, and Kansas allowed 13 of them. In particular, Isaiah Jackson appears to be a fantastic rebounder at 6’10”:

Jackson had seven offensive rebounds against Richmond and already has 12 total in his first four college games. That is, uh, good. It’s about all the positives you can give Kentucky thus far.

Kentucky’s got a ton of offensive problems. Some of them will resolve themselves just fine; obviously, I don’t think Boston and Clarke will go a combined 0-for-19 over every three-game stretch forever. However, when you look at the type of shots the Wildcats are getting, along with how many bad possessions are being used in isolation and fruitless 2006 post-ups, it gets much harder to figure out how this team’s going to perform a miraculous post-New Year turnaround to go from looking like a 10 seed to fulfilling being the preseason #10 team in the country.

When Kentucky’s opponents had the ball

If that section read like 800 words of disgust, this one will read like a polar opposite. Three games in, Kentucky’s defense has looked better than some of even the highest expectations their fans had. None of Morehead State, Richmond, or Kansas cracked a point per possession, and Richmond cracked 50% on two-pointers by just a hair. The only player who has consistently cracked the Kentucky code inside the perimeter was Richmond forward Nathan Cayo, who went 7-for-10 at the rim thanks to some quality designs by the Richmond staff:

Richmond went 18-for-24 at the rim against Kentucky largely because Olivier Sarr couldn’t get any long-term help. Sarr was forced to play 38 minutes, and as the game wore on, he was running out of steam fast:

As upsetting as that Richmond loss probably was, it came with a few positives. Notably, the Spiders shot just 11-for-43 on everything that wasn’t at the rim. When Kentucky was able to keep the Spiders away from the rim – something they weren’t nearly as successful at in the second half – things generally went much better for the Wildcats. Richmond was forced to take a lot of uncomfortable jumpers early in the game, which led to their poor halftime shooting percentage:

While Chris Mooney was right that Richmond wouldn’t shoot as poorly in the second half, most of the gains came at the rim. Against Kansas, Sarr wouldn’t have the same problem of overplay. Instead, he swung hard to the other end of the spectrum, playing just 14 minutes due to constant foul trouble. Without Sarr in the game, Kentucky figured to have rim protection issues…until Isaiah Jackson popped up out of nowhere and started blocking every shot known to man.

Jackson’s presence on the court forced Kansas to endure a 14-for-33 outing at the rim, and unlike the Gonzaga game, they didn’t make up that difference from the mid-range, converting just 1-of-13 non-rim two-pointers. With Jackson’s long arms out there, the odds of getting anything up over him seemed quite tall. I’d be fascinated to see how Kentucky can build this defense around him as the season goes on.

It also appears as if no threes will be made by either team participating in a Kentucky game this year. Through these first three games, Wildcat opponents are 15-for-67 (22.4%) from three, around 10% below the national average so far. Synergy judges Kentucky’s catch-and-shoot defense as needing some work, for what it’s worth – 24 unguarded threes have been allowed, compared to 22 guarded ones. Still, Kentucky has seemed to somewhat master three-point defense, as much as it can be mastered in college basketball. Only one Calipari team (2018-19) has ranked outside of the top 100 in opposing 3PT%, and all but two have ranked 63rd or higher. There’s a real skill to it:

Also, it helps when all you’ve recruited for years now is the same exact 6’6”-6’10” guard/forward archetype that’s all arms and can jump out of a gym. Kentucky basketball: the perfect team for those who hate threes for some reason.

2020 Tennessee high school football championship predictions

Hello all! Thanks for checking out these championship week projections. Last week’s semifinals projections went 9-3 (75%), a bit better than what I’d anticipated. That brings the playoff record to 151-29 (83.9%), meaning as long as these picks go 2-7 or better, it’ll set a new record for this projection system. I think that’s pretty remarkable, considering this was a pandemic season with fewer games played than any other year in modern history and a less-stable base to work with.

Up top, while I haven’t written nearly as much about high school athletics in Tennessee this year, a hearty congratulations to the athletes participating in this week’s BlueCross Bowls. This has been the strangest year of my lifetime, and you’ve held it together both in the classroom and on the football field. Well done!

Below are the game projections. As I’ve said in the past, I don’t do game-by-game analysis anymore; smarter, better people than I get paid to do that, and they are called names like Tom Kreager and Khari Thompson and Jesse Smithey.

II-A

Game Time: 12 PM Eastern, Thursday, December 3, 2020

Championship odds: Davidson Academy 74.3%, University School of Jackson 25.7%

Have they played this season? Yes; Davidson Academy won, 31-9.

Projection: (W #2) University School of Jackson 17 vs. (W #1) Davidson Academy 28

II-AA

Game Time: 4 PM Eastern, Thursday, December 3, 2020

Championship odds: Christ Presbyterian Academy 52.6%, Lipscomb Academy 47.4%

Have they played this season? Yes; Lipscomb Academy won, 20-14.

Projection: (M #2) Christ Presbyterian Academy 24 vs. (M #1) Lipscomb Academy 23

II-AAA

Game Time: 8 PM Eastern, Thursday, December 3, 2020

Championship odds: McCallie 56.1%, Memphis University 43.9%

Have they played this season? No.

Projection: (W #3) Memphis University 24 vs. (E #3) McCallie 27

1A

Game Time: 12 PM Eastern, Friday, December 4, 2020

Championship odds: South Pittsburg 82.3%, Fayetteville 17.7%

Have they played this season? No.

Projection: (R3 #1) South Pittsburg 35 vs. (R5 #1) Fayetteville 19

3A

Game Time: 4 PM Eastern, Friday, December 4, 2020

Championship odds: Alcoa 72.9%, Milan 27.1%

Have they played this season? No.

Projection: (R2 #1) Alcoa 29 vs. (R7 #1) Milan 18

5A

Game Time: 8 PM Eastern, Friday, December 4, 2020

Championship odds: Summit 52.6%, Oak Ridge 47.4%

Have they played this season? No.

Projection: (R3 #2) Oak Ridge 24 vs. (R5 #1) Summit 25

2A

Game Time: 12 PM Eastern, Saturday, December 5, 2020

Championship odds: Peabody 69.5%, Meigs Co. 30.5%

Have they played this season? No.

Projection: (R2 #1) Meigs Co. 21 vs. (R7 #1) Peabody 30

4A

Game Time: 4 PM Eastern, Saturday, December 5, 2020

Championship odds: Elizabethton 75.1%, Haywood 24.9%

Have they played this season? No.

Projection: (R1 #1) Elizabethton 34 vs. (R7 #1) Haywood 22

6A

Game Time: 8 PM Eastern, Saturday, December 5, 2020

Championship odds: Oakland 74.3%, Brentwood 25.7%

Have they played this season? Yes; Oakland won, 37-0.

Projection: (R3 #1) Oakland 32 vs. (R6 #1) Brentwood 21

Best of luck to all teams and fans involved this weekend, and congrats on making it through this season.

Show Me Future Opponents: LSU/Saint Louis

Saturday, while most of you were watching the vile sport known as College Football, which has definitely not hurt me in thousands of horrifying ways, I was partaking in a little ESPN Plus action. Nothing is better than watching the ESPN Plus broadcasts most barely notice on the ESPN app itself. A good chunk of them are team-specific broadcasts, as it was in this case. The Saint Louis broadcasters were quite enthusiastic both ways, as they should’ve been; this was a close, fun game throughout. But I couldn’t get over a very specific issue the game’s cameras had.

Give it a zoom via your phone. At some point during the game, every player looked like they’d stuck a knife in a wall socket, as if they’re clipping in real life. When I sat on my couch around nine feet away, this was a little bit easier to ignore, but I also was working on the family Christmas tree at this time and got a good close-up of this bizarre camera bug. Remember during the NBA’s restart when they had to super-impose team-specific ads and players would clip into them, like Nikola Jokic becoming Mountain Dew?

This was as if players were clipping in and out of Videodrome, which is a much less enjoyable bug to see unfold.

Anyway, they did play a game despite these camera issues. Saint Louis, who is a legitimate top 25 team in America, defeated LSU 85-81. There’s more specific analysis below, but in an attempt to highlight What This Means in an SEC context, I figure I’d do it like this: even without a crowd, this would be roughly equivalent to losing at Florida. Nothing to really be ashamed of, obviously, but certainly a missed opportunity for a key win.

When LSU had the ball

Similar to how I reviewed the Gonzaga/Kansas game, I’m doing offense vs. defense splits to make this the easiest possible read. Over the Tigers’ first two games, you could find it incredibly easy to buy into this team’s optimism on this side of the ball. Bart Torvik’s individual opponent-adjusted efficiency numbers have LSU as the best offense in America through all of two games played, which does seem like a silly stat to bring up but it’s a stat. It’s not really based on unbelievable three-point shooting, though it has been excellent so far (21-for-50). LSU simply appears to have a collection of great one-sided talent that doesn’t turn the ball over, gets the shots that work for them, and, so far, scores a ton of points in a fun system.

As a stats guy, I have to break my brain a tad to be able to fully enjoy the LSU high-octane attack. For instance, a full 20% of LSU’s possessions were in isolation, which is generally one of the two least-efficient play types…but LSU scored 18 points on these 14 possessions.

That three above was courtesy of Cameron Thomas, who looked every bit the part of a player Will Wade suggested may lead the SEC in scoring. Thomas, a freshman, merely dumped 25 points on the first high-quality opponent of his college career. He appears to be a magnificent shot-maker.

Thomas was electric everywhere in this one, going 6-for-8 on twos and 4-for-10 on threes. If he’d had even a good game – like, say, 16 points – LSU gets blown out. Thomas single-handedly kept LSU alive in the second half during an atrocious defensive performance; 21 of his 25 points came after halftime. Saint Louis, who would be one of the 3-4 best teams in the SEC, had no answer for him at all.

It was a tad surprising that it was he and not slightly older players Javonte Smart/Trendon Watford driving the offense down the stretch, but hey, pandemic basketball is going to be strange. Speaking of those two, they also were pretty solid, combining for 42 points on 25 shots. Smart didn’t shoot very much but he was terrific from three.

Watford had two very distinct halves in this one – in the first, most of his work came in isolation, which seems to be his preferred status:

But in the second, Will Wade found a few ways to get him the ball in the post and let him go to work.

Generally, LSU’s attack seems to be solidly four-pronged, with Darius Days usually having better games than he had in this one. Through two games, LSU appears to have three seriously good deep shooters in their starting lineup, along with a fledging deep shooter in Watford. The key difference between them and several other potentially great offenses is a sort of reverse-psychology approach to analytical shot selection. While LSU took 17 non-rim twos in this game to just 11 shots at the rim (10 of which they made), only two were of the dreaded “long two” variety. (They missed both.) LSU hit nine of their other 15 non-rim twos, with a lot of them being just a couple steps from the rim.

(Quick section on small sample sizes before more about small sample sizes: two games in, LSU appears to have somewhat reduced their ball-screen reliance, with just 16.1% of possessions coming via a pick-and-roll. Last year, this number was 27.2%. They’re also taking way more threes and are less reliant on Javonte Smart/Skylar Mays bulldozing their way to the paint. I need more evidence on this front, but they’re showing signs of taking a serious turn towards being Louisiana Davidson versus being a traditional Will Wade offense.)

Again, we’re only two games in, and plenty of these takes could age poorly. However, it seems clear that LSU has sky-high offensive potential. I think it would be one thing if LSU were simply having a hot streak from downtown, and certainly, I don’t think they’ll shoot 42% from three the entire season or 81% from the free throw line. Still: a formula of low turnovers, high-percentage shot attempts, and various scorers that can take and make difficult shots seems like a formula for consistent success in the high-variance world of college basketball.

When Saint Louis had the ball

On the other hand, this appears to be very stinky garbage. LSU has played an SIU Edwardsville team that ranks 337th on KenPom and a Saint Louis team that didn’t crack the top 100 of Ken’s offensive rankings last year. They gave up 81 and 85 points in a pair of consistently terrible outings. Against Edwardsville, they did happen to run into an unusually good shooting performance from three from basically the entire rotation (13-for-27):

But at the same time, it was pretty alarming that SIU Edwardsville got all of the open threes to begin with. In that one, SIUE had 26 catch-and-shoot jumpers, per Synergy; exactly half (13) were judged as “unguarded”, which I generally take to mean there being no defender within four feet of the shooter. That’s…not great. But at least in that game, you can figure LSU is running at 60% speed against a totally overwhelmed opponent, even though that opponent made them sweat more than they’d expected to.

Against Saint Louis, LSU allowed 25 catch-and-shoot jumpers to the Billikens, per Synergy. The ratio in this one was far worse: 16 of 25 were unguarded. Early on, this was due to LSU just making simple mistakes on the perimeter, like failing to hustle back on defense:

In the second half, once Saint Louis figured out LSU could not stop them inside the perimeter, either, Will Wade began to throw out a half-court trap-heavy zone defense that aggressively went for steals. This occasionally worked, in the sense that it did force one turnover around midway through the second half…but it also led to 17 points on 10 second-half possessions against the zone, including a pair of crucial wide-open threes due to LSU playing the ball too aggressively:

Last year, the only player on the LSU roster who had a prayer of stopping an opponent one-on-one on the perimeter was Skylar Mays, who posted a near-3% Steal Percentage and was a genuine defensive difference maker in several SEC games. This year, I really am not sure who that person is supposed to be, because no one on the LSU defense appeared terribly interested in slowing down Javonte Perkins (32 points) and his variety of drives inside the perimeter.

Perkins roasted every LSU defender that tried him in this game, going 6-for-10 on twos and 4-for-8 on threes. When it wasn’t Perkins, it was Gibson Jimerson – a truly bewildering name of a real person – that hit 4 of his 9 threes. Or it was Jordan Goodwin, who went 3-for-4 at the rim and picked up 11 rebounds. Or it was Demarius Jacobs, who went a perfect 4-for-4 at the rim. The point I’m getting at here is that Perkins will deservedly get the headlines, but if it was just Perkins having a great day, you could reasonably write this off as an unfortunate loss. That isn’t the case here.

Let’s go back to the SIU Edwardsville fixture. The Cougars (yes, I checked) did have that great day from downtown, but they also went 11-for-13 on attempts at the rim and got nine offensive rebounds. As is seemingly tradition now for LSU, they have oodles of length and talent but simply fall asleep for large stretches of any given game:

Check out how LSU, uh, “defends” this elevator screen run for Saint Louis’s Demarius Jacobs. For a full second, Jacobs is so wide-open that Jordan Goodwin is either too shocked to throw the pass or legitimately can’t believe it:

Multiple times, LSU’s defenders simply completely lost track of where their man was supposed to be. Yes, it helps that SLU hit 9 of their 16 non-rim twos, 2-3 shots above expectation. Then again, LSU had an unusually good day from the same range. Giving up a 12-for-16 hit rate at the rim to a team whose tallest starter is 6’6” is extremely alarming, especially when it’s Saint Louis’s offense that’s supposedly their weaker side.

I guess I’d be less alarmed if I were an LSU fan if SIU Edwardsville had a similar-ish day against this Saint Louis team, who they played on Wednesday…but SIU Edwardsville lost to Saint Louis by 37 points and committed 25 turnovers in a game they probably would’ve lost by 50 had the Billikens not pulled most of their starters with ten minutes to play. They only turned it over 15 times against LSU, who, again, hired a defense-first head coach that now oversees one of the best offenses in college basketball.

Obviously, that seems like a mild joke, but I think it’s legitimately worth discussing. When LSU hired Wade, he’d just come off of two seasons at VCU where his defenses ranked 24th and 41st in adjusted efficiency. For a non-Big Six team, those are really good numbers. VCU generally always has great defenses, of course, but Wade’s forced a ton of turnovers and made opponents take tough shots. At no point during his first four years as a head coach did his offenses look anything other than fine. Through three-plus years at LSU, his defenses have ranked 136th, 59th, and 179th, with this year’s contingent starting to look like it might set a new low. When your goal is ostensibly to take LSU basketball to new heights, having defenses this bad puts a hard cap on your hopes. Then again, maybe you just win every game 94-92.

If you want a defensive positive or two, LSU did start to force some key turnovers from the Billikens when they needed them; in particular, the second half was better for Watford. Also, after giving up five true (i.e., not out-of-bounds accidents) offensive rebounds in the first half, they only gave up two in the second. Other than that, well, they should probably start rooting for Skylar Mays 2.0 to somehow find his way to the basketball team. Or for Shareef O’Neal to live up to the hype, I guess.

2020 Tennessee high school football playoff projections, Semifinals edition

Happy Thanksgiving! Hope you’ve all had a great one. Last week’s picks went 22-8 (73.3%), with a couple of serious shockers happening. (Oak Ridge beating Knoxville West and Tullahoma losing to Nolensville were the main two.) The playoff picks are now 142-26 (84.5%) overall. Here’s this week’s games, with championship games to come next week.

1A

Remaining championship odds: South Pittsburg 77.6%, Fayetteville 12.2%, Lake Co. 6.9%, Coalfield 3.3%

Most likely title game: South Pittsburg vs. Fayetteville (50.7% odds of happening)

  • (R2 #1) Coalfield 15 at (R3 #1) South Pittsburg 39
  • (R5 #1) Fayetteville 30 at (R7 #2) Lake Co. 27

2A

Remaining championship odds: Peabody 70.8%, Meigs Co. 15.6%, Trousdale Co. 12.6%, Waverly Central 0.9%

Most likely title game: Peabody vs. Meigs Co. (48.3% odds of happening)

  • (R2 #1) Meigs Co. 23.2 at (R4 #2) Trousdale Co. 22.9
  • (R6 #1) Waverly Central 11 at (R7 #1) Peabody 40

3A

Remaining championship odds: Alcoa 52.2%, Pearl-Cohn 24%, Milan 14.7%, Red Bank 9.1%

Most likely title game: Alcoa vs. Pearl-Cohn (42% odds of happening)

  • (R2 #1) Alcoa 29 at (R3 #1) Red Bank 17
  • (R5 #1) Pearl-Cohn 25 at (R7 #1) Milan 22

4A

Remaining championship odds: Elizabethton 45.5%, Nolensville 19.2%, Lexington 19.1%, Haywood 16.2%

Most likely title game: Elizabethton vs. Lexington (32% odds of happening)

  • (R1 #1) Elizabethton 27 at (R4 #2) Nolensville 21
  • (R6 #1) Lexington 27.0 at (R7 #1) Haywood 26.9

5A

Remaining championship odds: Oak Ridge 36.3%, Summit 25.5%, Henry Co. 24%, South-Doyle 14.2%

Most likely title game: Oak Ridge vs. Henry Co. (34% odds of happening)

  • (R2 #2) South-Doyle 22 at (R3 #2) Oak Ridge 29
  • (R5 #1) Summit 24 at (R7 #1) Henry Co. 25

6A

Remaining championship odds: Oakland 38.8%, Maryville 32.9%, Brentwood 16%, Bartlett 12.3%

Most likely title game: Oakland vs. Brentwood (27.9% odds of happening)

  • (R2 #1) Maryville 29 at (R3 #1) Oakland 31
  • (R6 #1) Brentwood 22.2 at (R7 #3) Bartlett 21.6

 

Show Me Future Opponents: Gonzaga/Kansas

On Earth-2, instead of this post, you are reading the preview of Tennessee’s fixture against VCU, which would have happened at 6:30 PM Eastern this evening. (Also, on Earth-2, COVID just doesn’t exist, so we are several games deep.) Unfortunately, we do not live on Earth-2, and Tennessee basketball is paused due to COVID concerns for at least a few days more. Until then, we’ll be taking a look at some other teams on Tennessee’s future schedule, along with a team Tennessee was going to play but won’t until, if ever, March/April.

In the midst of my Thanksgiving lunch, while I was on serving #3 of stuffing, the best game of college basketball’s opening week was being played: #6 Kansas vs. #1 Gonzaga at a neutral site. Both teams lost three of their five starters from a year ago, when they were the two best teams in basketball, but one team happened to reload a little better than the other. As astounding as it might be to imagine this, it was Gonzaga who brought in more blue-chip recruits – three to Kansas’s one. Both teams returned about the same amount of minutes and production, but Gonzaga had the higher potential, most thought. Also, this was before Gonzaga added Andrew Nembhard, Florida’s starting point guard the last two seasons, for this season on Tuesday.

On Thanksgiving day, two of the three-ish best programs of the last half-decade went at it on FOX. If you told Kansas fans before the game that they’d do the following:

  • Score 90 points
  • Tied the turnover battle
  • Made two more threes than Gonzaga
  • Hold Gonzaga to 6-for-18 from three

They would be well within their right to guess Kansas won this game fairly easily, because all of those stats should bode really well for the team involved. Instead, Kansas is leaving Thanksgiving Day with a 102-90 loss and their most points allowed to an opponent in regulation in 30 years. Gonzaga, one of the best three-point shooting teams of the last decade, didn’t need a great day from downtown, because they were absurdly dominant in the paint. We’re going to explore why, with an offense vs. defense exploration on both ends.

When Gonzaga had the ball

Mark Few had a mission and pursued it start-to-finish: attack the paint in a wide variety of ways with their taller, more versatile lineups. Kansas’s best player last year was Devon Dotson, but their most important piece was Udoka Azubuike, a giant center who simply could not stop blocking shots. Last year, Kansas allowed the third-lowest 2PT% in the nation, a figure made even more impressive by the fact they played KenPom’s second-hardest schedule.

This year, Kansas has David McCormack, a perfectly fine 6’10” center who can’t move nearly as well as Azubuike and was rendered unplayable for significant portions of this game.

McCormack only got to 20 minutes in this game because Drew Timme, a Gonzaga sophomore, was destroying him all over the court. Timme went for 25 points on 15 shots (9-for-11 at the rim), a career-high in points, along with six rebounds and a couple of steals. Timme was used in a variety of Gonzaga sets – most of them of the ball-screen variety – and he explored a few different ways of getting the ball in positive situations. Timme slips the pick in the GIF above, but here’s one where he comes off a roll action unguarded with as easy a dunk as he’ll have this year:

Of course, it wasn’t just Timme. The headliner coming out of this game will be star freshman Jalen Suggs, an almost-certain lottery pick who lived up to and exceeded his own hype. Against a top-10 team in his first college game, Suggs scored 24 points in 24 minutes and looked unstoppable everywhere. For years, Few has loved to push the pace in transition offensively, believing (correctly) that with the right talent, it can produce his most efficient offense possible. Suggs looks to be the perfect piece to ignite the Gonzaga engine:

Let me reiterate: in his first-ever college game against a top-10 team, Jalen Suggs got 24 points on 15 shots along with eight assists in 24 minutes. This is a very special player, even before you get to his scoring skillset. Suggs was able to get to the rim at will, scoring seven times on 11 attempts from a variety of looks, but he looked especially threatening off of picks:

In a way, it does make me the mildest bit relieved Tennessee does not have to defend this offense yet. Bill Self is one of the greatest coaches of the 21st century, and over the last five seasons, Kansas has consistently had one of the 5-10 best defenses each season. After the dust settles in 2020-21, despite the pandemic, I don’t expect this to change. There’s several good individual defenders on the Kansas roster. And it did not matter one bit, because this Gonzaga offense has a historic amount of fantastic shooters, great drivers, excellent big men, and all-around good scorers. Rarely, if ever, do these pieces come together on the same team. This particular offense has the potential to be as good, if not better, than 2017-18 Villanova.

The offense is so good that I feel rude for excluding a few other fun performances in this one, namely Nembhard (11 points on six shots) and Joel Ajayi (15 points and nine rebounds). But it wouldn’t feel right to end this somewhere other than Corey Kispert (23 points on 13 shots). Kispert realistically could’ve made an NBA roster after last season, and not many expected him to return for 2020-21. When he did, it cemented Gonzaga as a serious championship contender. There’s still improvements to be made defensively, but he remains Gonzaga’s very best three-point shooter regardless of game situation:

You cannot give him even an inch of space to get these off. Kispert shot 3-for-8 from three in this one (everyone else on Gonzaga combined for 3-for-10), which may look just okay, but 37.5% is a solid rate for any one game. Kispert’s status as the lone senior starter on this team (and a career 39.3% three-point shooter) helps cement him as probably the important piece for a Gonzaga run; as fun as the one-and-dones are, it is valuable to have these more experienced pieces come March.

Lastly: Gonzaga’s main five are going to be incredibly difficult for anyone to defend, much less their overwhelmed WCC opponents. Kispert, the best deep shooter, actually functions as the nominal 4 in the Zags’ lineup, and center Timme appears to have added at least some type of a three-point shot. (He attempted one and missed it.) All five starters were very efficient against a high-end opponent. While you can’t take too much from one game, I really don’t know how many defenses in basketball – maybe only Virginia and Texas Tech – will be equipped to keep Gonzaga somewhat contained for most of a 40-minute game.

When at least four of Gonzaga’s main five were on the court together, the Bulldogs outscored Kansas by 22 points across roughly a 29-minute span of the game. When all five were out there together – which only happened in the second half – Gonzaga outscored Kansas 37-19 in a 12-minute span of game time. Again, this is against the #6 team on KenPom, #16 on Bart Torvik. It’s not as if they’re a pushover; they just had nothing for this offense.

When Kansas had the ball

Again, go back to those stats from the intro. Kansas did a lot of good in this game offensively, and a 1.098 points-per-possession rate adjusts out to a very good offensive performance against a top-20 defense. Like I mentioned, the Jayhawks hit eight of their 18 three-point attempts, with three different players spreading the wealth and hitting two each. Gonzaga had a tough time guarding both Marcus Garrett and Ochai Agbaji, as both got open from downtown frequently.

Still, it isn’t enough to overcome a masterful offensive outing by Gonzaga and, in return, a disastrous defensive performance by the Jayhawks. Gonzaga’s shooting numbers would make any competition look feeble in comparison, and it unfortunately did so to this Kansas outing. Kansas posted an eFG% of 59.7%, which would’ve been their seventh-best performance last season and the third-worst eFG% given up by 2019-20 Gonzaga. They had a great day on the offensive end. Unfortunately, they needed to have a historically great day to win.

Kansas has a lot of good to take away from this game on offense, though. Before the season started, I wasn’t really sure who would drive the Kansas offense forward like Devon Dotson did last year. There wasn’t an obvious answer, and as many as four different players seemed like reasonable responses. Both Garrett and Agbaji stepped up yesterday to give Kansas fans some serious hope. In the first half, Self ran several high ball-screen sets to get Garrett space to drive to the rim:

In the first half, Gonzaga mostly allowed these to not become hard-hedges or “ice” calls, largely staying in single coverage. At halftime, though, Few made a clear adjustment by hedging hard and forcing a double team on the ball-handler for at least a second or two, which took the ball out of Garrett’s hands more often. Bill Self actually countered this fairly well by getting the ball out of his guards’ hands very quickly, but Kansas simply made mistake after mistake and failed to take advantage.

Let’s counter this with an area of joy for the Jayhawks: the amount of open looks they got all over the court. Per Synergy, 15 of the 20 catch-and-shoot jumpers in half-court for Kansas were unguarded, and they took advantage, scoring 19 points and particularly getting a lot of open looks in the first half. Christian Braun got looks this open on two consecutive possessions late in the first half, and you could tell it was giving Mark Few a headache.

Again, at halftime, Few made an adjustment: Gonzaga was to close out hard on these three-point attempts and either force tougher looks or make Kansas head inside the arc to try their luck. It doesn’t often work this way, but it’s exactly what ended up happening. Kansas made 6-of-11 threes in the first half, but just 2-of-7 in the second while taking a ton of mid-range jumpers. Luckily for the Jayhawks, they had one of their best days ever from the mid-range, converting 12-of-21 non-rim two-pointers. Bryce Thompson (not the cornerback) in particular kept Kansas in this for a while:

Here’s a more accurate example of what I’m talking about:

All in all, both teams probably have things to be excited about here and serious questions to address. For this side of the ball specifically – Kansas’ offense, Gonzaga’s defense – let’s address a positive and negative for each.

Kansas can be excited about the fact they found four double-digit scorers against the best team in the nation and weren’t entirely reliant on one player to drive the offense. They found a ton of open shots, particularly in the first half, and made Gonzaga present several adjustments they clearly weren’t hoping to have to use at the start of the game. Kansas countered some of these adjustments pretty well. However, they should be worried about the fact Gonzaga erased their traditional ball-screen sets almost entirely in the second half, and to be honest, they should probably be more than a little alarmed at how easily they settled for 17-20 foot two-pointers instead of shooting more threes.

Gonzaga won the game, successfully countered several of Bill Self’s main actions, and took control in the second half when the game was up for grabs. Of particular note should be the Bulldogs forcing nine Kansas turnovers, rendering a 57.7% half from two useless. That said, Gonzaga gave up a ton of open threes in the first half, and the blueprint seems to be there to get open shots against this defense. Plus, uh, not exactly over the moon on the rim protection here – Kansas went just 13-for-23 at the rim, but Gonzaga didn’t block a single shot and a few of the Kansas misses were self-inflicted.

If you like these, let me know by emailing statsbywill@gmail.com or Tweeting @statsbywill on said website.