Show Me My Opponent, 2021-22: Texas

GAME INFORMATION
OPPONENT Texas (15-5, 5-3 Big 12, #15 KenPom)
(19-8, 11-6 Big 12, Round of 64 2020-21)
LOCATION Erwin Center
Austin, TX
TIME Saturday, January 29
8 PM ET
CHANNEL ESPN
ANNOUNCERS Jon Sciambi (PBP)
Fran Fraschilla (analyst)
SPREAD KenPom: Texas -3
Torvik: Texas -4

Well, they had to play this eventually. Rick Barnes and Tennessee return to Texas for the first time since Barnes was fired in 2015. For all the complaints Tennessee fans have about their head coach and his March record, he has three more NCAA Tournament wins since getting canned than Texas does (zero).

Texas fired their previous flashy new toy (Shaka Smart, now at Marquette) to hire a new flashy toy in Chris Beard, former Texas Tech coach. Beard pulled in the highest amount of transfer portal talent in modern basketball history for a high-major team. It has resulted in an amazing amount of success: beating Kansas State and TCU on the road for Texas’ only Quadrant 1 victories, having one win over a likely NCAA Tournament team three months into the season, wait where are you going come back


Texas’ offense

So: I think it’s worth noting the difference between the Four Factors and your eyeballs here. The stats will tell you that this is a pretty good offense. They’re slow, sure, but they’re an above-average shooting group on the whole. They hammer the boards. They’re bringing the mid-range game back. I like watching Timmy Allen, a 6’6″ wing that plays like a center at the 4. Despite a relatively weak schedule so far, the offense is almost precisely as efficient as the 3-seed version of this team last year that I genuinely enjoyed watching.

The eyeballs tell a different story. I wrote about my watchability metric CBBWAR recently; it brings Texas in at 86th nationally. This is because Texas doesn’t hit many threes, has the fewest dunks of any Big 12 team (after nearly leading the country in dunks a year ago), and…just doesn’t do anything that’s interesting? Among the five players on the roster with 20+ three-point attempts, none hit more than 36% of their threes. Four times in their last five games, they’ve hit 50% or worse on twos. They consistently hammer the boards, but the most exciting thing about this offense is that they hit a lot of mid-range twos. The leading scorer doesn’t crack 12 points per game. Hooooo-ray.

Chris Beard runs an offense that aims to generate lots of cuts to the basket via off-ball screens and motion. There’s also a good amount of post-ups, some ball screens, some ISOs, and a genuinely crazy amount of possessions that go down to the final second. Before we get there: the actual players.

Timmy Allen (Utah transfer, 11.9 PPG) is the one player I do genuinely find watchable and interesting. He’s the 6’6″ small-ball 4 that plays like a 5 yet is sized like a 3. Allen takes about two threes every three games, a very low rate for a starting power forward in today’s game. (Of the 234 6’6″ players averaging 16+ MPG in America, Allen ranks 210th in three-point attempt rate, per Torvik.) More than maybe any other player in the sport, Allen is extremely talented in knowing where and when to cut to the basket; only six players in America have more points off of cuts this year, per Synergy.

Marcus Carr (Minnesota transfer, 11 PPG) and Courtney Ramey (9.3 PPG) comprise the starting backcourt; they’re paired together because they have fairly similar skill sets. Shot Quality ranks both as being very good at creating their own shots and I’d say normal play-by-play data backs that up. 38% of Carr’s makes and 61% of Ramey’s are unassisted. Carr is the main ball-handler on the team and can be expected to pull up off the dribble pretty frequently:

While Ramey’s the best shooter Texas has to offer, coming in at 36% on threes and an astounding 48% on all catch-and-shoot attempts. He was at 44% on catch-and-shoots last year, so I feel pretty safe deeming him a legit, scary threat from downtown. If only he took more than four a game from deep.

The fourth and fifth players to highlight are intriguing because both keep bobbing in and out of the starting lineup. Andrew Jones takes more threes than any other Texas player but is a 33% shooter this year and 35% for his career. For reasons I’m not sure how to explain, Jones has consistently been better off-the-dribble than in catch-and-shoot situations over the course of his career, so making him take a dribble or two is actually the worse¬†option.

Lastly: Tre Mitchell (UMass transfer, 9.2 PPG). Mitchell’s gotten more starts at the 5 as of late, displacing Creighton transfer Christian Bishop. (Recall the note up top about all the transfers, please.) He posts up a lot and is a quality passer for a big man; the notable thing he brings right now is extra spacing due to the fact he’s a decent three-point shooter.

You might notice something among these four GIFs: only one was an attempt at the rim. That’s by design. In the to-be-expanded SEC, Texas would rank 13th of 16 in terms of rim attempt rate. They’re decent at finishing when they get there, but they have almost as many attempts from 5-21 feet as they do 0-4. In terms of pure mid-range jumpers, they average 10 a game. On Bart Torvik’s site, you can compare a team’s statistical profile to those from previous seasons. If you boost the importance of eFG% and 3PT attempt rate, you may snicker at the results.

Ask Tennessee fans how those Marches felt.

CHART! The official Chart Guide is now as follows:

Yes: “Be afraid.” ūüė¨
Somewhat: “They can hit this but not very efficiently.” ūü§Ē
No: “Either never attempts this shot or is atrocious at making it.” ūü•≥

Texas’ defense

Interesting! This is the side that keeps Texas watchable: the Texas Tech defense with hand-picked transfer portal kings that forces a bonkers amount of turnovers and is excellent at forcing bad shots. The stats graphic spells it out pretty well: terrific at defending twos and threes, good at defending the rim, generally good all around. I like that. There is a problem, however:

That graphic encapsulates every Top 100 offense on the Texas schedule. Something you’ll immediately notice: just four games against Top 100 competition, two of which were losses. Something else:¬†Tennessee is the second-best offense Texas has played. Please think about this edition of Tennessee basketball and speak that out loud. Tennessee is the second-best offense Texas has played. God almighty.

Unfortunately, all efficiency numbers are adjusted for competition, and those seem like useful proof that Texas is smashing the weak schedule it’s been given. (Texas’ offensive SOS ranks 185th on KenPom, which is like playing Missouri, the 181st-best offense, 20 times.) Texas promotes relatively low-variance games by not giving up many three-point attempts and instead forcing a lot of non-rim twos. The same principles that aided Beard at Texas Tech are still helping him here:

The difficulty with playing this defense is that you’re likely to see a variety of ball-screen coverages depending on personnel. Texas will ice to the sideline whenever possible, but as evidenced above, they’ll switch when it makes sense and hedge a ball screen to push you away from the perimeter. Rarely, if ever, will you see a drop coverage employed; I would think they’d learn a lesson from what Arizona did against Tennessee that proved to be a fatal flaw in the Wildcats’ game plan.

Aside from the tons of turnovers, I do genuinely think Texas makes the shots against them at the rim difficult. As much as you can be moderately unlucky in game-to-game rim FG%, Texas probably deserves better results than the middling number you see in the graphic. No one player blocks tons of shots aside from backup Dylan Disu (Vanderbilt transfer), but the backcourt doesn’t get exploited by faster guards terribly often. When they do, the system itself does a great job of making life difficult.

On a lot of possessions, Texas simply doesn’t allow you many places to go that are statistically reasonable or efficient. They’ve been terrific at guarding the perimeter, both by 3PT% and by them allowing an average of just 12.5 catch-and-shoot attempts per game, the lowest average in the Big 12. They allow nearly as many off-the-dribble jumpers as they do catch-and-shoots, which is quite impressive. They’re still struggling with defensive rebounding at times and they do foul a bit, but for the most part, this is a really tight top-to-bottom unit.

The few teams that have experienced success against Texas since the Gonzaga game have either gotten hot from deep (Oklahoma State 8-for-17, Iowa State 10-for-23), rode the wave of Texas having a bad offensive night (Kansas State), or both. For what it’s worth, the hyper-aggressiveness of this defense has its holes. Synergy rates Texas as being in the 45th-percentile at defending cuts to the basket, which is interesting. While Texas doesn’t give up many threes in general, the ones they do give up are open, both C&S (55/45 Guarded/Unguarded) and off-the-dribble (Shot Quality gives an expected hit rate of about 31% on these threes; Texas currently sits at 25.5% allowed). If Tennessee can get the Regression Devil on their side, it could be a happy reunion for Rick Barnes.

Lastly: opponents are shooting 62.2% from the free throw line against Texas. Considering free throw defense is not a thing, I doubt that’ll last.

How Tennessee matches up

I think the obvious hope here is that Tennessee doesn’t fall back into a wave of mid-range jumpers like this defense wants to force. The good news is that the defense most like this is Texas Tech’s, which was a game where Tennessee got 90% of their shots at the rim or from three. The bad news is that Texas Tech is called the Act of God Game on this site for a reason. If Tennessee’s willing to forget that, they can create pressure in the paint the same way Texas does offensively: lots of penetration by Tennessee’s deceptively quick guards that ends in a cut to the basket.

Having a quality paint penetrator like Kennedy Chandler will help with this. I wouldn’t be shocked if Chandler has his own excellent game, but given his penchant for turnovers, I also would not be shocked to see him struggle. The team will go over the Texas Tech film to prepare for Texas, and a thing in Tennessee’s advantage is that Texas is simply not nearly as switchable or as tall at all five positions. Still: they force a ton of turnovers for a reason.

The other side of this equation is that you’re going to have to generate a lot of catch-and-shoot threes. Texas has done an excellent job of ensuring these simply don’t happen often this year, but Tennessee just got done getting off 21 catch-and-shoot attempts against a Florida team. The only side to toss up more C&S attempts against Florida this year: Alabama. Tennessee is deeply committed to the three, and in a road game where some amount of positive variance is needed to win, you’ve gotta get shots off.

An interesting stat to note: per CBB Analytics, of the 17.5 three-point attempts Texas allows in an average game, just 5.2 (or 29.7%) come from the right corner or right wing. 7.8 (44.6%) are from the left corner or left wing. This is likely by design; Texas wants to keep you out of the middle of the floor, and Tennessee has to be creative with where they place spot-up shooters. If Tennessee can find a way to keep getting Santiago Vescovi (or the other obvious shooters) open on the left side of the floor, they could get the extra juice they need to steal one on the road.

Defensively, Tennessee could have a similar concern in directionality. Texas has guards who are pretty good at driving the right half of the court and a frontcourt that can clean up the mess with an offensive rebound or a well-timed basket cut. Most annoyingly, if you keep them out of the paint, the odds they’ll nail a mid-range jumper are higher than anyone else on Tennessee’s schedule. So: pick your poison.

My first instinct is that Tennessee’s got to scheme a way to make Texas feel indecisive when driving. I’m still of the opinion that making the right players take mid-range jumpers is a perfectly fine strategy, and if Ramey or Carr want to take those ~40% shots instead of ~53% ones at the rim, do your thing. Still, Timmy Allen and crew are going to try to get Tennessee’s frontcourt out of sorts early with a basket cut every third possession. Tennessee has been very good at defending these this year, but Texas will try them more often than anyone else on the schedule. If Tennessee shuts a couple down in the first five minutes, Texas may ease up on how often they go to it.

Beyond that, this is a Texas team that has some quality shooters but no lights-out shooter on it. All of Jones, Ramey, Carr, and Mitchell are threats in the mid-range and from deep, but you’re not drawing the Kellan Gradys of the world here. The best and most proven strategy with Texas has been to make them take a lot of jumpers in half-court offense. They’ll hit a decent amount, but it beats letting them get to the rim or the post. As crazy as this sounds, I think I’m fine with the mid-range jumpers. Here’s why:

  • 2021-22 Texas, mid-range jumpers (per Synergy):¬†86-for-200 (43%), or 0.86 points per shot
  • 2021-22 Texas, threes:¬†133-for-402 (33.1%), or 0.993 points per shot

No matter how you slice it, it’s 13 points worse per 100 shots. The only player I genuinely¬†don’t¬†want to see pulling up from 17 feet is Marcus Carr. Everyone else: have at it. It’s less-damaging on the whole than threes.

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

  • How many extra possessions can Tennessee create?¬†I wouldn’t be surprised if turnovers are a stalemate or are slightly in favor of Texas. The more interesting thing is rebounding. Texas’ DREB% on missed threes: 263rd. Tennessee’s OREB% on missed threes: 44th.
  • Can either team crack 60% at the rim?¬†These are both excellent two-point defenses; if either tops 60% down low I would be mildly surprised.
  • Threes.¬†Obviously. Texas is 11-1 when their opponent shoots 35% or worse from deep; Tennessee is 9-1 when they simply crack 30%.

Key matchups

Timmy Allen vs. Josiah-Jordan James.¬†This will be Allen vs. Nkamhoua to start, but JJJ is a near-identical body match for Allen and Tennessee’s been running with JJJ at the 4 more frequently as of late. Allen’s main source of points are cuts to the basket and rebounds; it would be ideal for JJJ to shut one of those valves off.

Marcus Carr vs. Kennedy Chandler.¬†Carr has dropped 20+ twice in conference play, while Chandler hasn’t dropped 20+ since December 4. The points are only one part of this. Chandler must force Carr into tough, low-expectancy shots while avoiding the turnovers that have become unfortunately common on the other end.

Courtney Ramey vs. Santiago Vescovi.¬†Hope you like threes! Ramey’s goal will be to get up 4-5 threes in this one, but Vescovi taking 9-10 genuinely should happen.

Three predictions

  1. Tennessee blocks more shots than Texas;
  2. Multiple times this game, you will be annoyed by a Texas player hitting a mid-range jumper;
  3. Texas 64, Tennessee 61.

Show Me My Opponent, 2021-22: Florida

GAME INFORMATION
OPPONENT Florida (12-7, 3-4 SEC, #42 KenPom)
(15-10, 9-7 SEC, Round of 32 2020-21)
LOCATION Thompson-Boling Arena
Knoxville, TN
TIME Wednesday, January 26
6 PM ET
CHANNEL ESPN2
ANNOUNCERS Tom Hart (PBP)
Jimmy Dykes (analyst)
SPREAD Sinners: Tennessee -9.5
KenPom: Tennessee -9

Torvik: Tennessee -7.5

I think that one of the nicest things that has ever happened to me is the University of Tennessee switching email addresses from the tidy “@utk.edu” to the monstrous “@vols.utk.edu.” Terrible? Obviously. But what this has done is:

  1. Kept me from accessing an email account I have no use for, aside from a letter of recommendation I forgot to save;
  2. Has erased an email I sent to a sportswriter about why Tennessee should hire Mike White after the 2013-14 basketball season.

Praise be for this disappearance into the digital ether.

Tennessee has not lost at home to Florida since said 2013-14 season and has impressively only done so once since 2011. The Gators have as many wins in Thompson-Boling since 2011 as Chattanooga and Austin Peay. Florida did beat a good (#26 KenPom) Ohio State team this year, but has also lost to Maryland (#82), Mississippi (#116), and most embarrassingly, Texas Southern (#174). If they get football every single year, Tennessee gets basketball. Seems fair to me.


Florida’s offense

Barring something surprising, Tennessee is going to go two consecutive seasons without playing a full-strength Florida side. Colin Castleton is Florida’s best player and most reliable scorer; you can’t tell the story of these Gators without talking about him. The story when he’s off¬†the court is pretty fascinating (‘On’ is Castleton, ‘Off’ without):

Even when adjusting for 3PT% luck, it’s a pretty similar split: Florida is about 10-11 points worse per 100 possessions when Castleton doesn’t touch the court. The shot selection is perhaps the most interesting part of this:

  • Castleton On:¬†43.3% of FGA at rim/17.7% midrange/39.1% 3PA
  • Castleton Off:¬†29.9% rim/17.3% midrange/52.8% 3PA

That is a¬†massive¬†swing. Florida goes from generating what would be the 29th-highest attempt rate in CBB at the rim to 337th sans Castleton. It’s two completely unique and different offenses. If you’re like me and live in frequent fear of three-point variance, this is a little scary, but the people taking these shots for Florida are doing a great job at smoothing over potential fears.

Anyway, onto the show. Mike White made a big deal of changing his offense in the offseason to a more 5-out style where even Castleton was occasionally taking a three. Eric Fawcett is the main guy to go to if you want to learn about Florida. His observations are that Florida started out entirely pursuing this new 5-out style in November (when they started a 72-hour period of Ohio State’s athletic programs eating it on national television):

The problem is that teams began to adjust to Florida’s new style. In December, Florida lost a game that was understandable (Oklahoma), one that was…less understandable (Maryland), and one that was a complete debacle (Texas Southern). Shockingly, Mike White proved slow to adjust to others’ adjustments.

In January, Florida lost three in a row, then got back on the wagon until Castleton’s injury, then got smoked in a COVID makeup game by Mississippi. The good news for Florida: it isn’t really the offense’s fault. Torvik rates it out as a top-40 unit since SEC play started, and to White’s credit, he’s sort of turned his offense into a blend of what they used to run and what he wants to run.

The individual players you’ll see running these sets in the post-Castleton era (however long it lasts) are Phlandrous Fleming Jr. (10.3 PPG), Tyree Appleby (9.7 PPG), and Anthony Duruji (9.6 PPG). All three will take turns scoring and attempting to put up enough shots (also, points) to drag Florida to a road victory.

Fleming is the most versatile of the three. He’s horrifically inefficient on twos (53% at the rim, 33% on non-rim twos), but if you squint, he’s a player that¬†can¬†score at all three levels and does so somewhat well. Aside from having a truly insane and amazing name, Fleming is the co-secondary ball-handler behind Appleby along with Myreon Jones. My guess is that Fleming would like to think he’s at his best going downhill to the rim, but he’s been at his best as a shooter. 33% on threes is…not great, but also useful enough to make sense.

Appleby is the main ball-handler in Florida’s numerous ball-screen sets. You’ll see him run these with Duruji (the 4) or Jason Jitoboh (the 5) as the screener; Tennessee has to be prepared for Duruji in particular to pop out for a three. Without Castleton, Appleby has turned into Just A Shooter; of 27 shot attempts in Florida’s last three games,¬†26¬†were threes. Appleby is a career 35% shooter that is somehow better off the dribble than spotting up.

Last is Duruji, the best non-Castleton player on the roster and seemingly the only non-center who can score at the rim with any regularity at all. With Castleton off, Duruji is the best/most versatile frontcourt option the Gators have. He can score from outside and down low, sometimes coming from outside to the low post:

Beyond those three, you have a smattering of Just A Guys. Brandon McKissic is a Summit League transfer that mostly takes threes, but is nailing them at a 25% rate. Jason Jitoboh is an absolute behemoth (6’11”, 305) that is exclusively a threat at the rim. Myreon Jones takes a lot of shots but can’t hit them (44.1% eFG%, 30.1% 3PT%) well at all. CJ Felder is interesting (41.4% 3PT%) but is a minus defender that didn’t play against Mississippi due to a non-COVID illness.

CHART! The official Chart Guide is now as follows:

Yes: “Be afraid.” ūüė¨
Somewhat: “They can hit this but not very efficiently.” ūü§Ē
No: “Either never attempts this shot or is atrocious at making it.” ūü•≥

Florida’s defense

Very similar to 2020-21 to the point that I could fart out last year’s previews and be done with it. They press after made baskets but don’t force a lot of turnovers with it; they exclusively run man-to-man defense; they almost always hedge or double on ball screens. I don’t know, Florida’s defense has sort of reached this stage of boring competency where they’re never bad and often fairly good but never a serious threat to be great.

There’s a couple of reasons why this is the case:

  1. Florida is excellent at forcing bad shots but really bad at rebounding them;
  2. Florida is excellent at forcing turnovers but their aggressiveness can either lead to foul trouble or easy twos, depending on the opponent.

No team is perfect by any means; even Gonzaga and Arizona and, yes, Auburn have their flaws. Florida’s just seem particularly potent. This year, the Gators have become one of the nation’s most three-averse defenses. Only 29.8% of opponent shots are from deep, which the graphic notes as the 12th-lowest rate in America. That’s a pretty notable jump for a team that did this for the first three years of the White era then backed off for the last three. To White’s credit, Florida surrenders one of the lowest rates of catch-and-shoot threes in America, forcing a ton of off-the-dribble twos and runners instead.

That’s good. Even the fact that Florida allows a ton of attempts at the rim – the 24th-highest rate in America! – is largely fine, because Florida (read: Colin Castleton) has done a great job at blocking attempts down low. The Gators sit 15th in the nation in Block% largely because Castleton has 42 of them.

The problem is that Castleton has 42 blocks, no other Florida roster member has more than 13, and Castleton is likely still unavailable. Even when filtering out garbage time¬†and¬†regressing for 3PT% luck, Florida’s defense is about 5.6 points worse per 100 possessions when Castleton is off the floor. I assume you’ll be shocked to hear what the biggest difference is.

  • Castleton On:¬†48.3% 2PT% allowed, 33.7% FG% midrange, 57.1% FG% rim
  • Castleton Off:¬†52% 2PT% allowed, 40% FG% midrange, 59.7% FG% rim

I think that there should probably be some sort of luck-adjustment function for midrange attempts as a majority of those are jumpers, but you get the point. Sans Castleton, Florida forces fewer turnovers (24.8% TO% versus 21.4%), fouls way more (22.8% FTR vs. 34.3%), and blocks far fewer shots (6.1 BPG when Castleton plays, 4.0 BPG when he doesn’t).

There hasn’t been a huge shift in shot selection in the post-Castleton era, but when your center options are a guy who commits 8.1 fouls per 40 (Jitoboh) or one that commits 7.2 (Tuongthach Gatkek), well, you know what’s coming. Florida’s given up a 62.3% hit rate down low while just demolishing anyone who touches the paint. Florida’s given up 20+ free throw attempts in three straight games and is averaging 20.3 fouls a game or, you know, a double bonus every half.

That’s after giving up 20+ FTAs in just five of their first 16 games. The other thing of note here: the rebounding. Florida still forces turnovers at a good rate, but their defensive rebounding this season is poor. KenPom Plus breaks down how a team ranks by their DREB% on shots at the rim, midrange, and from three. Florida: 255th in DREB% on missed threes. Tennessee: 48th in OREB% on missed threes. Don’t be surprised if/when Tennessee picks up three or four OREBs on deep-ball misses.

Again: still a good defense, still will force Tennessee into their fair share of tough situations. Yet I would be significantly more fearful of this unit if Castleton were on the floor.

How Tennessee matches up

Kind of a fascinating game theory matchup, no? One team that takes more shots from three than it has in program history playing a defense whose main goal is to funnel you inside the three-point line. This is the only team in 2021-22 Tennessee plays that’s remotely this focused on denying threes, but if you like encouraging notes, the next-closest opponent (so far) is Arizona. (Texas is ahead of Arizona, but that game hasn’t been played yet, obviously.)

To Florida’s credit, I think they’ve been really good at forcing turnovers in ball-screen situations. That hard hedge can force younger guards to either pick up their dribble and find themselves in a double team or make a bad pass to a person that’s not open. If you can work your way around a hedge, you should be able to at least get a shot up with the remainder of your possession.

I wouldn’t be surprised to hear that Rick Barnes and staff have looked towards Oklahoma for some portion of their scout. Oklahoma got 14 points off of ten P&R Roll Man possessions in their 74-67 win, easily the most points anyone’s exploited Florida’s P&R coverage for. Shockingly, Tennessee hasn’t really done much of that so far, but of all teams, they found a hole in Alabama’s ball-screen coverage that allowed for several easy points down low. All of them were via Olivier Nkamhoua.

If Tennessee can draw that secondary defender (likely Duruji) out to the perimeter, Nkamhoua can use his body to create space either for two points or a foul.

Along with this, Florida had a shocking amount of trouble slowing down Daeshun Ruffin of Ole Miss on Monday. Ruffin is a miniscule point guard that jitterbugged his way to 21 points, all of which were either at the rim or the free throw line. Ruffin drew six fouls across 33 on-court minutes and it genuinely could’ve been ten if they imported officials from 2012. Florida fans seem terrified of what Kennedy Chandler and Zakai Zeigler could do to them. I say exploit these issues anywhere and everywhere possible.

Defensively…well, you have three guys to stop and only one of them is really potent at all three levels. Appleby has turned into Just A Shooter, and really, the entire team has. When you’re taking 53% of your shots from deep when a certain player is out of the game, that’s genuinely pretty wild. About 79% of Florida threes are of the catch-and-shoot variety, per Synergy.

There’s a couple of ways I think Tennessee could exploit this to great success; forcing Appleby and Myreon Jones into some really¬†ill-advised kickouts when they touch the paint is probably my favorite. But, as usual, this game is going to come down to if you’re doing everything you physically can to make Florida’s deep balls hard, difficult shots. The Gators generate lots of corner threes; per CBB Analytics, they get off 9.2 a game, which is the third-most in America behind Alabama and, uh, Purdue Fort Wayne. Kickouts will happen; Tennessee’s just gotta be there to make them hard shots.

I’m of the opinion that you can do relatively little to control the outcome of an opponent’s three-pointer, but per the study you saw in Saturday’s game via Jimmy Dykes, I would imagine that being within 3-4 feet on as many shots as possible is a great way to maximize your potential for success. Frankly, if Florida is unable to hit 10+ threes in this one, it would take a serious overperformance elsewhere to win this game.

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

  • Which team attempts fewer mid-range twos?¬†Florida has become even more mid-averse than Tennessee, a genuinely surprising turn for a team that loved mid-range twos not long ago.
  • Can Tennessee get one of Duruji/Jitoboh in foul trouble? The Gator backcourt doesn’t commit many, so forcing Mike White to use depth pieces he really doesn’t want to use would be ideal.
  • Who gets the higher-quality threes?¬†Any team can barf up a bunch, but getting lots of open, catch-and-shoot threes isn’t easy. I wouldn’t be surprised if Florida put up 30 deep balls in this one, but if they require multiple dribbles or are well-guarded, you have to live and be comfortable with that defensive process.

Key matchups

Anthony Duruji vs. Olivier Nkamhoua.¬†Nkamhoua could really use a good performance; it feels like the last time he stood out in a positive manner was the Mississippi game three weeks ago. Meanwhile, Duruji’s been struggling with fouls as of late, but is a very legit threat both inside and out.

Tyree Appleby vs. Kennedy Chandler.¬†If Chandler forces Appleby to take a bunch of tough threes, he’s done all he can do; Appleby is gonna toss ’em up from deep no matter what Chandler does. On the other end, Appleby was a defensive liability against Mississippi but is typically better than that. Chandler needs to push the issue in the paint early and often.

Phlandrous Fleming vs. A Cornucopia.¬†All of Justin Powell, Josiah-Jordan James, and Santiago Vescovi are currently averaging 8+ MPG at the 3, so who knows. Fleming is the only three-level scorer I see on the Florida roster, though he’s not that efficient.

Three predictions

  1. Multiple times, I think about Alabama somehow losing to both Georgia and Missouri in a two-week span and start laughing;
  2. Florida goes on a run of 2+ made threes and follows it with 6+ consecutive misses;
  3. Tennessee 72, Florida 62.

You Merely Adopted the Mud, We Were Born In It

January 18: #24 Tennessee 68, Vanderbilt 60 (12-5, 3-3 SEC)
January 22: #24 Tennessee 64, #13 LSU 50 (13-5, 4-3 SEC)

Sometime during Tennessee’s wire-to-wire beating of top-15 LSU on Saturday – maybe when it was 42-28 and Tennessee had held LSU to three points across the last 10 minutes of play – I had a realization. For all of the complaining, all the whining about how this offense isn’t terribly good and the product on the court is genuinely unwatchable at times, we are discussing a team that ranks in the top 15 nationally in the advanced metric of your choosing. They are very, very good at several things. The thing they are very best at is taking about 90% of their opponents, turning the heat up on defense, watching as the dirt turns to wet, wet mud, and seeing these overmatched opponents flop around, unable to find stable footing in the Knoxville slop.

This is the genesis of good things for Tennessee. Sure, you get the occasional great shooting nights…sure, Tennessee still has the capacity to do a lot of good inside the perimeter…sure, there are other ways to win. But this – dragging other teams into the mud like little pigs, watching them flounder as you laugh at how uncomfortable they are –¬†this¬†is Tennessee’s identity. And at some point, you have to be alright with that.

I’m there. I’m good with it. If Tennessee has to win games 64-50 and 66-46 and 69-54 and 66-60, good. They’re wins. Three of those are butt-kickings. Tennessee is wholly uncharmed by style points. They simply don’t care if you think it’s pretty or watchable or goody-goody two-shoes happy happy joy stuff. They are winning games by stuffing the opponent in a locker for 40 minutes. Only two teams have managed to escape an opponent-adjusted locker-stuffing this season; they are ranked #6 (Villanova) and #7 (Kentucky) on KenPom as I type.

The most fun Tennessee team of all-time is still 2018-19 Tennessee, the only team of the Rick Barnes era to have a truly good offense. I don’t mind speaking that as a truth, because it is a truth. I like watching great offense a lot more than I do great defense, because I like watching the orange ball go in the net and the crowd going bonkers. It is a good thing and it is supposedly why anyone watches this sport in the first place. Then again, attempting to figure out what Tennessee fans want on a weekly basis has proven difficult.

The point of this is that Tennessee basketball has an identity. Tennessee basketball is Mountain Wisconsin. Bo Ryan, outside of about two years where he had a top 10 pick on his roster, was entirely unconcerned with making you happy with lovely offensive play. He did not care about how much you liked watching the ball go in the net. He only cared about winning by any means necessary. (Reportedly, he also cared pretty deeply about quitting midseason because ALLEGEDLY an affair was going on. I do not believe that will ever be a concern with Rick Barnes.)

Bo Ryan-era Wisconsin would drag you into the mud and watch you flail around helplessly as the Badgers cruised to wins of 57-50 and 52-45 and 68-56, all over top 15 opponents. You were not born in the slop. You were not raised in the slop. This Tennessee team seems wholly comfortable pulsing your team in the blender for an uncomfortable amount of time.

Nothing about this is terribly pretty. I also am not sure that ‘pretty’ really matters right now when the team is 13th on both KenPom and Torvik and cruising right along towards being a 3 or 4 seed in the NCAA Tournament. It is exactly what most of us expected preseason. The route to get there has been choppy, but with Tennessee’s most difficult month out of the way, maybe February is where you get the style points and the capital-F Fun back. Look at this:

And tell me you can’t feel at least a little bit of excitement for the local basketball program. Even taking those games in the 50s as coin-flips, you can pretty easily stare at that and see an 8-2 run in SEC play to the finish with at least two added Quadrant 1 wins. That would be 13-5 in the SEC, or merely tying the second-best SEC effort Tennessee basketball has seen in 14 years. That’s pretty good. The team is pretty good. It’s worth acknowledging, even if they don’t play a style most actively desire.


The other thing that has happened is that Tennessee has sort of kiboshed the idea of Smokey as the team’s mascot. This role is now Uros Plavsic’s to lose.

In the span of three weeks, Plavsic has turned from a guy most fans saw as completely unplayable to arguably the team’s best post player. I’m typing that out now and it still feels unbelievable. I promise you it’s real. These are the conference-only numbers via Bart Torvik’s site:

The last thing we saw prior to SEC play was John Fulkerson dropping 24 points on an Arizona team that looks like, at worst, one of the four or five best college basketball has to offer this year. The last time Uros Plavsic had scored double-digit points was February 1, 2020. His career-high for rebounds in a game: four. This is for a 7-footer who entered college as a low four-star recruit that convinced both Arizona State and Tennessee to take a chance on him.

Plavsic drawing a billion fouls against Alabama is one thing. Plavsic putting up 13 & 7 on the road at Vanderbilt is another thing. But hitting this, the longest shot attempt of his season:

And doing this two minutes later:

Is something entirely new. (I don’t care that the block probably should’ve been goaltending. It looked cool and that counts.)

Uros Plavsic will probably never be a dominant basketball player. The agility may never be there. I obviously would prefer to never see him attempt a jumper because I’m sure that would look as weird as it does in my head. Also, all of the previous three sentences are entirely meaningless.¬†Right now, Uros Plavsic is doing everything he can to make Tennessee the best basketball team it can be. He’s earned his right to start and finish games ahead of John Fulkerson and Brandon Huntley-Hatfield. Right now, the team is about 1.5 points better per 100 possessions when he’s on the court versus when he’s off.

For this man at this time, I couldn’t be happier. I think of all the tweets and online comments he’s seen about how he’s an embarrassment to basketball. How he shouldn’t be a scholarship player at an SEC university. How he somehow tricked 1.5 coaches (sorry, Bobby Hurley isn’t a real coach) into giving him a scholarship. How Rick Barnes was dumb for continuing to give him a chance. You read a quote like this:

And you read this, from Plavsic’s own writing about his basketball career before last season began:

And you remember entirely what it is that makes you care about college sports in the first place. Uros Plavsic doesn’t¬†have¬†to do any of this. It is entirely of his own volition. Never once has Plavsic complained to the media about not playing, about being a team cheerleader, about being a guy who didn’t really contribute much to the team during his first 2.5 seasons in orange. Every single game, whether the guy is on or off the floor, you see the energy Plavsic has that he tries to transfer to everyone else. After every dunk last season, the first person you’d see cheering from the bench was Plavsic. After every block, Plavsic was yelling at the opponent and letting them know precisely what he thought of them.

At this moment, for this time, Plavsic is the Master of Ceremonies. If you want to further the analogy of the first section of this post, Uros Plavsic is the Master of Mud. He has learned how to drag opponents, whether in the Twitter sense of dragging someone or simply lulling them to sleep with his array of hooks and quietly-improving defense. At perhaps the least-likely time of his entire career, he has emerged as a genuinely important and lovable piece of the puzzle at Tennessee.

Rooting for Uros Plavsic to succeed is almost as easy as breathing air. I look forward to continuing to do it, no matter how the rest of his season plays out. He’s earned his moment in the sun; I sincerely hope that, for him, it lasts a very long time. In a season laden with various frustrations, he and Zakai Zeigler have been tethers to fandom in a way I haven’t experienced in a while. It’s nice to see them repaid for their work.


Some various notes of the last week:

  • Tennessee posted a 38.4% eFG% against Vanderbilt and won.¬†Unfortunately, that happened, but it feeds into our pig-slop narrative so hang on with me. Tennessee’s now won¬†five¬†games in the last three seasons where they posted a 40% or worse eFG%; only Texas A&M, among SEC teams, is able to say the same. Obligatory!
  • Tennessee’s now held 15 of 18 opponents below 1 PPP.¬†So, without context, you probably don’t care much about this stat, but I promise it’s pretty important. KenPom rates Tennessee’s schedule so far as the 8th-toughest in America, with nine games in the Tier A (his equivalent of Quadrant 1) grouping. Only three teams – Villanova, LSU, Kentucky – have topped 1 PPP. Consider that last year’s awesome defense allowed nine teams to go >1 PPP, the 2017-18 killers gave up 15 >1 PPP games, and as far as I could find, no Tennessee team in a non-COVID season has allowed fewer than 12 of these games (2009-10). This is on track to be a historically good defense, and they’re a week away from finishing the meat of their schedule. The final ten games feature six against Quadrant 2 or lower competition, or one more than all of December/January combined.
  • Even the LSU slop was actually pretty successful on offense.¬†Tennessee managed 64 points on 65 possessions (0.985 PPP), which looks bad on its face…but is also the highest PPP surrendered by LSU this season by a good margin. Torvik translates this to about a 1.23 PPP performance against an average defense, which is insane.
  • The Jimmy Dykes thing.¬†He reached out Tuesday morning with a request and, thanks to some features I have via Synergy, I provided an answer Wednesday night. He is a good guy that I find myself constantly thankful for.
  • One bad thing: the Fulkerson/Plavsic lineup.¬†Without fail, it seems like this gets anywhere from 3-10 minutes of run each game. It’s perhaps the one thing Barnes does that drives me the nuttiest, because it’s objectively a terrible combination. I would stop doing this immediately and just play one or the other, because it’s an offensive disaster.

Lastly: Game Scores.¬†Bart Torvik has this awesome metric called Game Scores that are essentially telling you on a scale of 0-100 (average being 50) how good or bad your performance was. Basically, if you put up a 95, you’re playing like a team with a Pythag rating of .9500 (which would be top 5 right now). All of this to say that these are the current 95+ Game Score rankings:

Half of Tennessee’s performances have been really, really good. The other half have been somewhere between ‘still good’ and ‘oh God.’ Anyway, while I do think LSU’s are aided by some insane 3PT% luck, this feels like a mostly-fair representation of how good the very best of the SEC is. Auburn is a step ahead of everyone else; LSU gets there on their best nights; Tennessee is capable of crushing an opponent on any given night. The real surprise is seeing that Kentucky’s only uncorked a few truly dominant outings, one of which was obviously against Tennessee. Also, this should help you understand why Texas A&M isn’t even a top 60 KenPom team despite being 15-4: they have no results of any significance and are almost never dominating.

Thanks for reading. For more Tennessee basketball content and whatever else, head to @statsbywill on Twitter. If you would like to reach out privately: statsbywill at gmail.

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

GAME INFORMATION
OPPONENT #13 LSU (15-3, 3-3 SEC, #10 KenPom)
19-10, 11-6 SEC, Round of 32 2020-21
LOCATION Thompson-Boling Arena
Knoxville, TN
TIME Saturday, January 22
6 PM ET
CHANNEL ESPN
ANNOUNCERS Karl Ravech (PBP)
Jimmy Dykes (analyst)
SPREAD KenPom: Tennessee -2
Torvik: Tennessee -1.1

Look, Will Wade, it would be nice to like you. For four years, you have had chaotic, hilarious, exciting college basketball teams that score and give up lots of points and made for the most fun SEC championship game in a decade. You have embraced your destiny as a Cancelled Coach. You haven’t backed down to the NCAA. You are, against all odds, the head coach of the LSU Tigers. All of that is cool. But I can’t get down with this.

Corny, corny, corny! Not cool. This is almost the only thing you could’ve done to be in serious contention for the SEC Online Cringe Coach of the Year (defending winner: Eric Musselman, three-time champion). Now, when I look at you, I think of this:

Unfortunate. Anyway, the LSU Tigers are a basketball team with an impressive collection of athletes that have traded offense for defense and have gone from extremely watchable to sort of unwatchable. Has it made them a better team? Undoubtedly, because they’re 10th on KenPom right now. But I’d be lying if I said I didn’t miss the chaos.


LSU’s offense

Well, considering I previewed it two weeks ago and LSU’s offense is still bad, I’m not sure what exactly should change other than a simple copy-paste. I mean they’re still the same offense that

Pardon?????

…okay, that does change the tone a little bit. Because this is how things go sometimes, LSU became the first team in nearly two months to post >1 PPP on Tennessee and then immediately followed that up with three dog-turd performances against Florida (0.972 PPP), Arkansas (0.843), and Alabama (0.903). In some aspect it could be beneficial that LSU got their one good game out of their system against Tennessee at home. Even including that game, you’re talking about an offense that’s gone over 1 PPP once in their last six games and just thrice since November 27.

I wouldn’t say it’s even been bad¬†shooting¬†that’s the pure culprit; LSU went 10-for-22 in the loss to Alabama from deep and hit 44% of threes against Tennessee. The problem is extremely easy to spot: six games in a row with a 21% offensive TO% or worse.

A shocking amount of the turnovers are unforced, which is a huge red flag for a flagging offense. LSU has turned it over 52 times since the Tennessee game across three affairs;¬†28¬†of these turnovers were labeled as unforced, per KenPom. That is hilariously bad and a pretty obvious reason why this should-be-better offense is struggling to get off the ground. A team with LSU’s defense (still #1 by a mile, spoiler) and LSU’s talent should probably be in the top 5 right now; they are not, because this offense blows.

Anyway, the rest of this scout is the same. The best player (and scorer) is Tari Eason (16 PPG), a Cincinnati transfer that’s a poor shooter but is relentless at getting to the paint, whether in transition or in half-court. If it makes sense, Eason is like a co-#1 option in transition but a co-second banana in half-court; the guy just rim-runs and is crazy dangerous when LSU picks up the pace. I still am baffled that he doesn’t start, but he finishes every close game for LSU, so I guess it doesn’t matter much.

The problem with Eason being your leading scorer but your second/third half-court banana is that the role of main scoring option in the half-court falls to Darius Days (13.5 PPG), a stats darling and efficient player that nonetheless isn’t built to be the #1 scoring option. On the last two LSU NCAA Tournament teams, Days posted Usage Percentages of 17.6% and 16.1%, which helped him be super-efficient but also penned him in as a role player. If you look at his measurables – 6’7″, 245 – you may guess that Days is a bully-ball big. Not so; more than half of his shots come from three, and at 34.5% on 113 attempts, he’s LSU’s most dangerous shooter.

The problem is that a guy who sits at 34.5% is LSU’s best shooter. Even after a couple of quality team-wide shooting games over the last two weeks, LSU still only sits 198th in 3PT%. Five players have 30+ three-point attempts this season. The three-point percentages of those five players, in order of most attempts to least: 34.5%, 33.3%, 33.3%, 23.4%, 31.6%. Xavier Pinson, the Missouri transfer and final double-digit scorer (10.9 PPG), takes about five per game…and is barely cracking 33%. To be fair to Pinson, he’s been exceptional at pushing LSU’s offense to the rim off of the aforementioned ball screens. (Worth noting:¬†Pinson missed the last three games and is a game-time decision for tomorrow.)

Other players of interest: Brandon Murray (9.4 PPG) has emerged lately as a go-to guy offensively, but he’s a very streaky shooter and is mostly good for applying pressure at the rim. Efton Reid (7.7 PPG) is the center and actually appears to be a promising 2.5-level scorer, but fouls like crazy. Eric Gaines (9.2 PPG) is extraordinarily inefficient (88.3 ORtg, 40.4% eFG%).

CHART!¬†“Yes” means “is efficient at doing so”; “somewhat” means “can, but not efficiently”; “no” means “rarely or never.” SPECIAL NOTE: I’ve included free throw percentages here upon request. The numbers used are a player’s career FT%, not 2021-22.

LSU’s defense

Still pretty darn good. Last time out, I missed on a key part of the scout that’s why they’re so hard to beat: they’ve basically adopted what Texas Tech does by switching 1-5 (when Eason’s on the court instead of Reid, obviously) and making smaller guards score over the top of long, athletic wings/forwards. Good on Will Wade for learning in Year 5 that you have to have a good defense to win meaningful games.

And this defense¬†has¬†to be as good as it is because its offense is so thoroughly stuck in the mud. I still retain my original thought that LSU is not going to hold opponents to a 26% 3PT% for the entire season; it’s hard to sustain that even for two months, let alone four or five. Simon at Shot Quality believes similarly, and I trust in his numbers:

I am the Regression Devil and I have come to reap your soul. Or something. I just wanted to type that out.

Anyway, again, LSU is running the same stuff they ran two weeks ago.

We’ll start with the main difference-maker: a full-court man-to-man press that accomplishes taking several seconds off the clock¬†and¬†forcing a solid amount of turnovers. LSU currently presses on 28.7% of all possessions, per Synergy; that rate was barely 9% a year ago. Against higher-end competition, I haven’t seen them force a ton of turnovers prior to the half-court line, but the corner trap they enforce with Pinson and Eason here is obviously hard to get around.

Once you actually do get into your half-court offense, I would strongly advise against posting up with much frequency. LSU’s frontcourt is demolishing post-ups right now; they sit in the 96th-percentile nationally in part because they’re completely closing down driving lanes with their length and forcing a lot of bad decisions.

So: you¬†do¬†get up actual shots against this team. It is hard to find good ones, though. LSU is different from a lot of heavy rim-protection teams (8th in Block%) in that they really don’t force many runners; they just make you take a¬†ton¬†of jump shots, particularly from deep. About a third of opponent attempts have come at the rim against this team, and 18% of those attempts have been swiftly smashed into the dirt. You¬†can¬†score down low against LSU, but you either have to play fast or be really smart and decisive with cuts to the basket. Their ball-screen defense ranks in the 99th-percentile, and with Eason/Efton Reid both blocking shots at a high rate, well, I guess that was your accomplice in the wood chipper.

The most interesting part of this, though, are the threes. I look at that stat from Simon…I look at what my own eyeballs see…I look at the fact¬†nobody¬†sustains 26% for a full season. I think that eventually, someone’s gonna get LSU. The fact that no team has managed to shoot better than 33% against them is absolutely insane. If you doubt the un-sustainability of this, check out the last five defenses to rank #1 on KenPom:

  • 2020-21 Memphis:¬†7 games where opponent shot 35% or better from three, three games 40% or better
  • 2019-20 Virginia:¬†12 games 35%+; 4 games 40%+
  • 2018-19 Texas Tech: 12 games 35%; 6 games 40%+
  • 2017-18 Virginia:¬†12 games 35%; 10 games 40%+
  • 2016-17 Gonzaga:¬†13 games 35%+; 6 games 40%+

The only team to stay below 12 for a full season was Memphis, who played only 28 games. That still means you’d expect one out of every four games to see the opponent hit 35%. The Regression Devil is waiting.

Whether Tennessee is the team that finally does this, I have no clue. And I’d like to make it clear that I think LSU is, at worst, one of the five best defenses in America and very well could be the best. But specifically from three, what they’re doing will not last. It’s a matter of time until someone hits a lot of threes against a team with a 55/45 Guarded/Unguarded ratio.

How Tennessee matches up

The good side of this matchup is two-fold:

  1. Tennessee has 40 minutes of experience against this defense and did a decent job of garnering open looks from three and the rim;
  2. The game is at home.

Any time you can get the back-half of a home-and-home at your house is generally a positive thing. Home-court advantage is a real thing, whether it’s fan-driven or whistle-driven. The goal this time for Tennessee will be to work harder on the boards, not turn it over as frequently, and…uh…hope the threes go down?

Last time out, Tennessee did a good job in avoiding post-ups and used basket cuts to their advantage instead to get post players involved. It helped that LSU committed approximately one billion fouls, of course, but the strategy made sense on paper. LSU fouls more than average, so why not use the switching philosophy to make them over-aggressive with the ball-handler, who can dump it to a cutter for two points or a foul? Makes sense to me. I imagine LSU will have a counter to this, but until they show it, Tennessee should continue to exploit it.

Also, Tennessee had a variety of ways to create open looks from deep last time out. As with most teams, the more open you are, the more likely you are to hit a shot, but it’s become especially noticeable with Tennessee. Synergy says Tennessee’s getting an excellent amount of open looks; their offensive Guarded/Unguarded is about 6% better than the national average at 50/50.¬†Some variety of ball-screens and ball reversals can very well get the job done.

Tennessee simply has to hit these. They’re at 33% on open threes on the season; the national average right now is 37.1%. If Tennessee managed to become 4% better at hitting threes somehow by season’s end, I guarantee that literally everyone reading this would feel¬†much¬†differently about the Tennessee offense. Fingers crossed.

Defensively, I recommend letting LSU commit a bunch of stupid mistakes and reaping the benefits. Tennessee forced plenty of turnovers last time out and should be able to do the same at home; the key this time is hoping that three-point regression lands in your favor and a mediocre 3PT% team doesn’t hit 44% of their deep balls.

More interestingly, Tennessee has to find a way to control the rim in a fashion they didn’t the first time out. LSU went 16-for-25 (64%) at the rim in the first game; more so than any amount of threes or missed free throws,¬†that¬†felt like the true tell of the game. Tari Eason destroyed Tennessee at the rim, going 6-for-8, with almost all of his work either coming in transition or on the offensive boards. I’m not going to GIF a defensive rebound because it doesn’t come across as terribly sexy on video, but you can GIF proper transition defense. This is not it:

Tennessee is a fantastic defense, but every single college basketball defense has flaws. I just spent part of the LSU defensive section exploring how a team that’s smoking the field in defensive efficiency has its own problems to deal with. If Tennessee forces LSU to play slowly and gets back in transition off of misses + turnovers, this will be a much different game than the first time out.

My general theory here is this: more LSU half-court offense = a greater chance of Tennessee winning. You’re playing a team that ranks 11th in the SEC in half-court offensive efficiency and only ranks¬†that¬†high because of the existence of Missouri, Ole Miss, and South Carolina, three extremely wretched offenses. If you can hold Ole Miss to 51 in regulation and South Carolina to 46, holding LSU to, like, 60 is not that far-fetched at all.

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.

Notes: Xavier Pinson hasn’t played since the Tennessee game and is doubtful for this one, but isn’t ruled out entirely. Josiah-Jordan James received a “cut above the eye” (Rick Barnes, not me), not a concussion, and is a game-time decision…but I would be mildly surprised if he cannot play.

Three things to watch for

  • Can Tennessee hit some threes?¬†It is literally this simple: either you do and you win, or you don’t and you maybe still win but the path to a win is much narrower. My personal desire is an over/under of 9.5 made threes; go over that and it would require a serious LSU overperformance elsewhere to beat you.
  • How much offense can Tari Eason generate at the rim?¬†Last four games: 18-for-27 at the rim; no other player on LSU has more than 10 makes. If Tennessee can keep him to four or fewer made twos, that’s huge.
  • Which team gets the better whistle?¬†Obligatory. Neither team really generates much offense at the line, but LSU fouls more than Tennessee and it’s a home game. I’m simply preparing you for the potential online anger from those in purple.

Key matchups

Tari Eason vs. Olivier Nkamhoua.¬†This became literal in the last game, when Eason pummeled a pall through Olivier’s soul and Olivier responded by blocking Eason on the next possession. Eason is the only LSU player I deem truly fearful on the offensive end; if Tennessee forces him to take four or more jumpers, that’s a huge win. (Synergy labels Eason as 12-for-44 on jumpers this year, almost all from three.)

Darius Days vs. Somebody. The status of Josiah-Jordan James is apparently up in the air, but if he plays this is his matchup. Regardless, I think JJJ, Justin Powell, John Fulkerson, and even Nkamhoua will all split time in defending him. Days is the best shooter on the roster, but is oddly inefficient at the rim for someone with his body size.

If Xavier Pinson plays: Xavier Pinson vs. Kennedy Chandler.

If Xavier Pinson doesn’t play: Eric Gaines vs. Kennedy Chandler.¬†Pinson picked up a nasty-looking injury in the first meeting between these two and still hasn’t touched the court. LSU writers seem a little doubtful he plays but it wouldn’t be a total surprise. Either way, Chandler has to eventually realize that the best version of himself is the super-aggressive ball-driving that attacks the paint on most possessions, not the one who hangs out on the perimeter with or without the ball.

Three predictions

  1. One or both teams picks up a technical foul;
  2. Tennessee beats LSU in eFG% and TO%;
  3. Tennessee 66, LSU 62.

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

GAME INFORMATION
OPPONENT Vanderbilt (10-6, 2-2 SEC, #77 KenPom)
(9-16, 3-13 SEC 2020-21)
LOCATION Memorial Omnidirectional Gym
Nashville, TN
TIME Tuesday, January 18
9 PM ET
CHANNEL SEC Network
ANNOUNCERS Tom Hart (PBP)
Dane Bradshaw (analyst)
SPREAD Sinners: Tennessee -6.5 (!)
KenPom: Tennessee -5

Torvik: Tennessee -4.2

Tennessee returns to the court after a game you may have heard about on Saturday to play Epic Reddit University. Aside from all of the other horrors these people have birthed upon the dying embers of this country, they also have a basketball team that is both the most recent SEC program to go 0-18 and also is the only SEC program to play in a gym where the benches are under the basket rather than along the baseline.

The nicest thing I can say about Tennessee’s opponent is that I rewrote this section four times to be less personally vindictive and harsh.


Vanderbilt’s offense

One of the few general positives of the Jerry Stackhouse Era has been Scotty Pippen, Jr. Pippen has allowed Vanderbilt to build a heliocentric offense (not¬†that¬†much unlike what the Mavs did with Luka pre-Jason Kidd) where he’s free to create shots, whether they’re his own or someone else’s. 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 (6.8 fouls drawn per 40, 17th-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-80 unit with Pippen on to a top-290¬†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 nearly as efficient a scorer at the rim (52.3% vs. 60%) or in mid-range (26.8% vs. 38.9%). 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 0.876 PPP.) Still, Wright is a pretty dangerous catch-and-shoot scorer, and he’s hitting 58% on unguarded threes. 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, 78% of all shots threes) who’s been terrific from deep (40%). Trey Thomas is Pippen’s backup PG and also mostly Just A Shooter (75% of all shots from deep), but less efficient. 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¬†26.5 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! “Yes” means “is efficient at doing so”; “somewhat” means “can, but not efficiently”; “no” means “rarely or never.” SPECIAL NOTE: I’ve included free throw percentages here upon request. The numbers used are a player’s career FT%, not 2021-22.

(Special note here: Might be wise to foul QMB instead of letting him go up uncontested.)

Vanderbilt’s defense

So…this is good! Well, “good.” Technically, Vanderbilt has a below-median SEC defense that’s 8th-best out of 14 in the conference, but when you were projected to be 12th or 13th-best in this department entering the season, it’s cause for mild celebration. Plus, surprisingly, it’s the defense that’s keeping Vandy afloat this year.

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 8-10 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 85th-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 57% of Vandy half-court defensive possessions, one of the highest rates among Big Six teams in America.

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 42/58, worst in the SEC);
  2. The actual rim protection scheme still doesn’t have a true rim protector beyond the fledgling Millora-Brown, who only plays 23 minutes a game.

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 29% 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 (24% TO%, 19th-best) and in ending possessions prematurely for the opponent. (In particular, Pippen has improved on D and Jamaine Mann has been excellent when on the court.)

Unfortunately, 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.

This is a good, improved defense that can be beaten by forcing them to collapse inside and making them make a lot of snap decisions. SMU did it to the tune of 1.263 PPP, Kentucky 1.215, Loyola Chicago 1.161. Only one of those teams (Loyola) made more than nine threes. Basically, I like it, but I don’t love it, and as long as you avoid turning it over on 25% or more of your possessions, you’ve got a great chance to win.

How Tennessee matches up

I mean, this is an opponent that forces a butt-ton of jumpers. You’re going to have to take and make some threes in this one. I consider it a good sign that Tennessee just got done posting its first 40% or better performance from three since December 14. Even if Tennessee settles down for some boring games in the 33-37% range, that still easily beats going 6-for-24 or whatever every time out.

Vanderbilt gives up an above-average amount of left corner and left wing threes, which would normally be called a blip if it weren’t pretty consistent throughout the season. The only spot on the court they allow¬†fewer¬†threes than average is the top of the key, which makes sense. Tennessee will be asked to drive to the right pretty frequently, so they better be ready for a lot of ball reversals. The good news is reversing the ball against this extremely-aggressive defense should result in plenty of open looks on the aforementioned left third of the court.

The other thing is that this is a just-fine rim defense – nothing great, nothing terrible, just agreeable. They were able to mostly slow down Loyola Chicago and BYU inside the arc, but SMU/Arkansas/Kentucky/even South Carolina had qualifiable success against the Commodore interior. What I’d like to see is what you saw in that BYU clip: quick, decisive passes that force Vanderbilt to get aggressive. When they push their aggression too far, that’s when one of your various frontcourt options should head to the basket.

Defensively: well…it’s pretty much Pippen, isn’t it? Vanderbilt obviously has other players, but when one guy essentially accounts for 40% of an offense, you build your scouting report around that guy and live with it if a Trey Thomas or Jamaine Mann scores 16 as long as Pippen has to take 18 shots to get 20 points.

The least-good version of Pippen is the one that settles for jumpers and doesn’t allow himself to get to the rim. If Tennessee is able to force Pippen to take seven threes off the dribble and doesn’t let him shake loose in catch-and-shoot or cutting scenarios, they’ll be on track to win this somewhat handily. Tennessee has been terrific in forcing ball-handlers to take ill-advised threes late in the clock in particular; CBB Analytics notes that on possessions lasting 24+ seconds, opponents are shooting 17-for-61 (27.9%) from deep. I’ll take a 0.837 expected PPP every time, even if Pippen hits a couple.

You could easily talk yourself into this game being an embarrassing five-point road loss where Tennessee can’t produce enough points¬†or¬†you could just as easily see Tennessee winning by 14 and you suddenly feel a bit better about Saturday’s game against LSU. I am no oracle; I just write. For the sake of season-long interest, this would be a nice win to pocket against a not-bad opponent.

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

  • Can Tennessee get Quentin Millora-Brown into foul trouble?¬†This is reductive, but think of it this way: Vanderbilt is 2-4 when QMB commits 3+ fouls. They’re 8-2 when he commits 2 or fewer. He only played 22 minutes against South Carolina in a two-point loss, and those On/Off stats suggest his absence might have been the entire difference.
  • How frequently does Scotty Pippen, Jr. get to the foul line?¬†He draws more fouls than any other SEC player. It’s honestly a huge victory if you can keep him to six or fewer attempts at the line, especially given the career 76.4% hit rate.
  • Can the Predators defeat the Canucks?¬†Vancouver’s 6-3-1 in their last 10 and isn’t outright terrible, but their surge seems a little smoke-and-mirrors. This is the type of game the Preds need to win to keep pace with the Avs/Wild for the Central.

Key matchups

Scotty Pippen, Jr. vs. Kennedy Chandler.¬†Chandler performed well offensively on Saturday, but could use a defensive bounce-back game. Pippen has the capacity to go for 30 on any night; if he goes for 30 here, it’s pretty obviously a loss.

Quentin Millora-Brown vs. John Fulkerson. QMB is a weird one: one of the lowest-usage starters Tennessee will face, yet hugely important to Vandy on both ends of the court. Fulkerson, meanwhile, either needs to show up or sit out.

Jordan Wright vs. Justin Powell or Josiah-Jordan James.¬†Doesn’t really matter which one starts. Wright is the secondary scorer and the main goal is to restrict him to tough jumpers. It would be ideal if the Powell/JJJ combo hit 3+ threes.

Three predictions

  1. Tennessee wins three of the Four Factors;
  2. Vanderbilt picks off at least one Tier 1 victory (Alabama on February 22?) before the end of the season, but not this one;
  3. Tennessee 69, Vanderbilt 64.

Local Basketball Team Plays Game, Does Thing

January 11: #22 Tennessee 66, South Carolina 46 (11-4, 2-2 SEC)
January 15: #18 Kentucky 107, #22 Tennessee 79 (11-5, 2-3 SEC)

EDITOR’S NOTE: Normally these come out on Mondays, but my weekend became a lot more free because a family member has COVID (with mild symptoms) and I am quarantining in a bedroom watching my cat stare at birds. So, here’s the recap.

Well, here you go.


The great thing about somehow managing to produce the program’s best-ever defensive performance against an SEC opponent in the KenPom era (2001-pres.) followed hilariously by the literal¬†worst¬†defensive performance against any opponent is that it pretty much blows up whatever narrative you want to run with. Tennessee’s only hope to go far in March is defense? Defense just got Hamburger Hilled by a team that had zero wins over top 25 teams. Tennessee puts up 11 threes on a Kentucky defense that only gave up 10+ once prior to that game? Doesn’t matter because you lost by 28. Kentucky hit a billion jumpers after years of not doing so? Feeds into the narrative of one head coach being willing to make changes.

When everything is nice and tidy and narrative-friendly, you get something easy to write about, like…I don’t know, last weekend. Or most weekends. Tennessee has gotten pretty good at running out the same narratives, the same supposed “issues,” the same public criticism of basketball players. The only fun twist on this one is that they did at least cover the KenPom spread against South Carolina, so that was nice. I guess. They also had some bench players have good offensive moments against Kentucky, and that’s always cool. I like when guys who don’t get much shine get an opportunity to do so and take advantage. Maybe this leads to a Brandon Huntley-Hatfield renaissance, which would be really exciting. I mean, I doubt it, but it would be exciting.

I don’t know. People seem to like my writing on Tennessee basketball, so consider this a post about Tennessee basketball. Might as well keep doing it.


The positive side of this is that Tennessee’s February still looks relatively tidy. Sure, they just got carpet-bombed by a ruthless man who saw that he was tired of losing last year and did something to fix it, but that doesn’t change the fact they’re currently going to be favored in nine, and possibly ten, of their final 10 games. The prospect for a great run to the finish to rescue what’s been kind of a sad start to SEC play is certainly there.

And, along with that, Tennessee does have some upside to play out the back half of this month with. They’ll get LSU and Florida at home and should be favored in both, while a road win at Vanderbilt suddenly will count as a Quadrant 1 victory if they make it happen. The road Texas game is more a luxury than a necessity (though Chris Beard seems to be struggling in a similar fashion to Tennessee), but if they finish this month going 3-1 over the next two weeks with any three wins of the possible four, they’ll add no less than two Quadrant 1 victories to their resume.

And as annoying as I’m sure it is to hear this, Tennessee’s most likely outcome is indeed 3-1. 2-2 is slightly behind that, but 3-1 is the expectation. Tennessee, as of the time of writing, still sits inside the KenPom top 15. They’re still a pretty good team. Even pretty good teams receive a destruction or two from time to time for the simple reason that they’re closer to the 40th-best team than they are the 5th. That’s kind of the nature of college basketball: on your best nights, everyone loves you; on the worst, you look like road kill that keeps getting hit by various distracted dads driving home from the CVS.

So, sure, lots of season to go. That’s nice. Tennessee will probably still finish this season as either the 4 or 5 seed in the SEC Tournament. I would personally prefer to be the 4 because playing either Missouri or South Carolina to make the quarterfinals is pretty much completely pointless, but I guess it’s not a huge deal. You beat one or the other by 18 and you move on to the next round.

And then you can get to March, where Tennessee is probably a 4 or 5 seed (yes, I’m being serious). You’re probably favored to win one game, then the second is a coin-flip. Maybe you make the Sweet Sixteen and maybe you don’t. We’ll see. That’s a couple of months away. All you can control is the present.

The present is this: Tennessee is 11-5, below .500 in the SEC, and just got ran off the court by their only real basketball rival. They are objectively a good basketball team, but when you lose by 28 to Kentucky and couldn’t pull off a single great road win when you had three huge road opportunities, fans are gonna skip right past the first seven words of this sentence and revisit “11-5, below .500 in the SEC.” I am writing this on Saturday; Tennessee probably won’t be ranked on Monday. Whatever, who cares, it’s the AP Poll. Tennessee can do the thing they usually do where they leave Vandy devastated after a close win on Tuesday and attempt to make things right on Saturday.

There’s still two months left of basketball to fix how this feels. The problem is that a healthy amount of people who follow me online see “there’s still two months left of basketball” and are feeling their eyeballs roll back in their heads, because it means you still have to watch this very-flawed team play basketball. I guess I’m still in the “wait until March” camp, but when the head coach has literally the third-most underwhelming NCAA Tournament resume of any active HC, I’m not sure what there is to wait for.


In October, my imagination was that this Tennessee men’s basketball team was one of the 15 or so best in college basketball and would probably make the Sweet Sixteen. At the same time, I imagined the Nashville Predators were no more than either the worst playoff team or the best non-playoff team in the NHL.

The Predators spent this offseason tearing up a good bit of the fabric that made up the 2017 Stanley Cup Final participant, easily the most successful team in franchise history. Ryan Ellis, very good defenseman they’d invested millions of dollars in, was shipped to Philadelphia for scraps. Viktor Arvidsson, Energizer Bunny, went to LA for a couple of picks. Franchise cornerstone Pekka Rinne retired. Calle Jarnkrok was extracted via an expansion draft. Nashville’s big offseason investments were a new backup goaltender and a couple of depth pieces.

On paper, the team they assembled was marginally worse than the one that just barely squeaked into the playoffs in a 56-game season. I personally expected very little; even a playoff bid was likely to result in a whooping at the hands of Colorado or whoever. I have watched this team for 20 years now and feel like I’ve got a decent bead on which way the wind is blowing. Nashville was firmly committed to making sure there was no wind of¬†any¬†kind. They were simply hoping to keep being a fringe playoff team when a lot of people (me included) simply wanted a rebuild.

Three months later, I am quite pleased that their ultimate decision was “let’s keep going.”

The Predators are on pace for 107 points. Whether that holds remains to be seen – I’m personally expecting 100-102 – but even a 101-point season would be enough to be a top-three divisional finish in every year and a top-two divisional finish in many. The NHL’s shift to the first two rounds being almost entirely inter-divisional (with wild card series being the variable in this mix) means that Nashville, as long as they finish in the top three, receive the pleasure of facing someone they’ve already faced a bunch in the regular season.

Juuse Saros is an every-night watch, stopping approximately 87 shots every time he takes the ice. Tanner Jeannot leads all rookies in goals¬†and¬†fights won. Filip Forsberg is at a crossroads in his career with regards to his time with Nashville, but he’s scoring like crazy. Matt Duchene appears to care. Roman Josi remains amazing. Alexandre Carrier is a delight. Mikael Granlund is enjoying his second wind. Most players on this team are players I feel positively about; even Luke Kunin, who hasn’t played up to expectations, had a couple of goals against Colorado. I look forward to watching every Predators game like a teacher looks forward to summer. It’s 2.5 hours of comfort, win or lose, and the wins feel better and better every time.

This is a long way of saying that I checked my sports calendar for the week ahead and saw this on Tuesday:

And my first thought was “alright, Bally Sports it is.”

Both of these seasons are very long. Right now, Nashville is overperforming wildly according to my own expectations. Technically, Tennessee is essentially right in line with what I expected in October, but the path they’ve taken to get there has caused more frustration than relaxation. These two narratives could completely flip come April, and considering Tennessee basketball has led to more monetary income than the Nashville Predators have, I guess I would be fine with that.

But maybe, just maybe, Tennessee uses that 9 PM tip on a Tuesday in a nightmarish arena to make things right. Maybe the Predators beat a mediocre Canucks side, too. That would be nice, because I would like to keep pace with the Avalanche and Wild. They’ve got a bunch of COVID games to make up, while Nashville doesn’t. Plus, Bridgestone Arena has normal dimensions that don’t rile me up every time I look at it.


The good news about that list of the most underperforming NCAA Tournament coaches in college basketball is that Tony Bennett is on it. Bennett’s appearance is aided by a few different early exits, but everyone knows the most famous one to a 16 seed. The cool thing about Bennett and Virginia is that they saw what happened, fixed several things about their offense, then turned into a machine that utilized all of their built-up good luck to bring home a national championship for the first time in 35 years.

Jamie Dixon is the other. Undoubtedly, Dixon underachieved at Pittsburgh given what he could’ve done in March, but he made an Elite Eight and was one layup away from Pittsburgh’s first and only Final Four since 1941. He had a long, sustained run of excellence at Pittsburgh, and the best argument for his continued employment as their coach¬†despite¬†the March issues is that Pittsburgh’s been utterly horrid since he left.

March is a very strange month where a lot can happen. To get to March, you have to complete January and February first. What’s happened so far can both be in line with expectations¬†and¬†a little disappointing because you know this roster could’ve beaten either Alabama or LSU. (No one was beating Kentucky if Kentucky is shooting that well on mid-range twos and threes. Tennessee had a bad defensive day, but it wasn’t¬†that¬†horrible; Kentucky really did get lucky on several shots.)

Tennessee has a huge week ahead. Vanderbilt is one thing; LSU is another. If the next recap is about a team that went 2-0, I imagine it will be happier and you might have fewer deviations from the topic at hand. If it isn’t, get ready for a 2,000-word article where 1,400 are about the 50+1 ownership model in German football, because writing about¬†that¬†is pretty interesting and fun. The Seagulls Moment has passed; Tennessee now has to put up or shut up. For the sake of this blog, it would be nice if they did the former, not the latter.

Show Me My Opponent, 2021-22: Kentucky, Part One

GAME INFORMATION
OPPONENT #18 Kentucky (13-3, 3-1 SEC, #9 KenPom)
(9-16, 8-9 SEC 2020-21)
LOCATION I-75 Exit 108 Meijer
Lexington, KY
TIME Saturday, January 15
1 PM ET
CHANNEL ESPN
ANNOUNCERS Dan Shulman (PBP)
Jay Bilas (analyst)
SPREAD KenPom: Kentucky -5
Torvik: Kentucky -3.6

In a just world, this game would come on, like, February 5. Some sort of scenario where Tennessee is given an extra three weeks to learn how to play collegiate offense; some sort of thing where Kentucky loses to Auburn and Kansas and enters a game against Tennessee with quality numbers but relatively underwhelming results. Even as of the time of this game, Kentucky will only be a 4-5 point favorite once the odds are released, so you could pretty much call this a weighted coin-flip that lands in Tennessee’s favor 3-4 times out of 10. If this game were on February 5, or February 12, or February Whatever, you could talk yourself into those odds being 4-5 times out of 10.

That is not the case, because the games are played when the games are played. Tennessee has to find enough offense to win at Rupp Arena for the fourth time in five years while simultaneously sustaining excellent defense against a top-10 offensive unit. God help ’em.

Kentucky’s offense

I’m of two minds about this unit. On one hand, watching Kentucky upsets me irrationally because their on-paper shot selection is horrific. They take more non-rim twos than all but seven teams in America; only 61.7% of their shots are at the rim or from three. I hate it very much, especially when you’re converting an insane 76.1% of your attempts at the rim. On the other hand: they are converting 76.1% of their attempts at the rim, and even LSU and Duke (the two best rim-protection units they’ve played, both losses) only managed to hold UK to a 57% conversion rate down low.

Kentucky’s solution to what’s plagued them offensively in years past – a poor half-court offense driven by stagnant shot selection – has been to simply play much faster than you remember. 35.7% of Kentucky’s initial shot attempts are in the first 10 seconds of the shot clock, per Hoop-Math, which is faster than any other year on record under Calipari. (2016-17 technically has a faster average possession, but they avoided late-clock possessions more frequently.) Kentucky’s revamped backcourt is driving this Daytona method, led by star guard TyTy Washington (13.7 PPG, 4.8 APG).

Washington is on pace to be a low-end lottery pick in the next Draft, and I’d call it fairly deserved. He doesn’t lift up a ton of threes (52 in 16 games), but he makes enough to make you respect him (40.5%). The real Washington killer, though, is his mid-range game; he’s currently hitting over 50% of his mid-range attempts. This is the rare player where¬†any¬†sort of shot he puts up is probably a reasonable one.

The other guy who you’ll see lead a ton of offense, if he’s able to play, is Sahvir Wheeler (9.6 PPG, 7.3 APG). Wheeler suffered an injury early in the LSU game last week and he’s missed Kentucky’s last two outings. Calipari is non-committal on his ability to play in this one, and as of publication, I haven’t seen anything one way or the other. (EDIT: He’s playing.)¬†If he plays: the basic scout here is that Wheeler is absurdly fast and a far better player overall than he showed at Georgia. He has a bunch of wonderful passes…and some poor turnovers to go with it. Wheeler is not a serious threat from three or the mid-range, but is a terror at the rim for a 5’9″ guard.

The best shooter this roster has to offer by miles is Davidson transfer Kellan Grady (11.6 PPG), a guy who doesn’t actually shoot often (8.5 times per game) but is knocking down an insane 45.4% of his three-point attempts.

Grady is the one hyper-reliable deep shooter on the Kentucky roster. Washington is good but doesn’t take a ton of them; Davion Mintz (last year’s only quality shooter on the roster) is good but very streaky; no other player on the roster outside of those three has made more than six deep attempts this season. If Grady gets the ball, clasp your hands together and pray, because he’s shooting 50% on both guarded¬†and¬†unguarded catch-and-shoot attempts. Hopefully, for Tennessee’s sake, he doesn’t get more than 5-6 attempts total in this one.

The elephant in the room – literally – is Oscar Tshiebwe. This is the behemoth who is averaging 17 & 15 and is the best rebounder college basketball has seen since Kenneth Faried.

It would be one thing if a 6’9″ college basketball player averaged 9.8 rebounds per game. That would be very good. That would be Tshiebwe’s number if you removed¬†all offensive rebounds¬†he’s getting, AKA 5.2 per game. That’s quite obviously the best rate by any player in America.

While the guards are what runs Kentucky’s transition/primary break offense, the plurality of half-court and secondary actions flow through Tshiebwe in the post. Washington, Grady, and Keion Brooks, Jr. all get theirs in the half-court, but it’s Tshiebwe who’s the main focus. He’s heavily involved in Kentucky’s ball-screen sets and is quite agile for someone his size. The real killer, beyond everything else, is his work down low.

Tennessee has to find a way to both contain Kentucky in transition¬†and¬†keep Tshiebwe from murdering them either down low or on the boards. That’s a tough task, and while Kentucky only has one Quadrant 1 win to date (North Carolina), it explains why they’ve gone undefeated against the weaker beings of the schedule.

CHART!¬†“Yes” means “is efficient at doing so”; “somewhat” means “can, but not efficiently”; “no” means “rarely or never.” SPECIAL NOTE: I’ve included free throw percentages here upon request. The numbers used are a player’s career FT%, not 2021-22.

Kentucky’s defense

Most seasons, John Calipari has had to scheme his way around his personnel to find the best-fitting defense Kentucky can have. The 2017-18 team Tennessee swept had to go with a 2-3 zone for significant stretches of the season to help mask their deficiencies in rebounding and isolation defense; the 2018-19 and 2019-20 sides went all in on half-court defense and blitzed pick-and-rolls; 2021-22 has been forced (?) into running a full-court press 10-12 times a game. It’s a basic full-court man-to-man press that Tennessee runs a similar version of. You’ll see some traps from time to time, but to be honest, it’s not terribly effective.

The real concern here is that, while it’s still very good, this is the least block-heavy (51st in Block%, lowest ranking of Calipari’s tenure) and leakiest overall rim defense the ‘Kats have shown in a really long time. In some aspects, it’s like¬†should you consider a zone?, but in others, I think I understand what’s going on here. This is the first year in forever Kentucky doesn’t employ some sort of mammoth 6’11” center with arms longer than God and the vertical of a rocket. What they have at center is Tshiebwe (elite rebounder, average shot-blocker for his size), Lance Ware (7.5 fouls per 40), and occasionally Daimion Collins (6’9″ freshman, 6.5 fouls per 40). Unlike most Kentucky teams, the path to scoring at the rim enough to make you happy really does exist.

The problem is that, well, it’s still a¬†great overall unit. The key of each Calipari team is its ability to force and block non-rim twos, and this one is no different. Kentucky forces more non-rim twos than all but 11 teams in the nation and blocks more of these shots than all but eight, so that part is legitimate once again. The structure of Kentucky’s defense sinks inward to prevent you from getting all the way to the rim on a typical possession. I imagine it’ll come as no surprise that Kentucky forces more runners and floaters than any other SEC defense.

Add that to Kentucky’s usual ability to run shooters off of the three-point line and into nasty long twos and you have what would be a nightmare matchup for…well, a lot of schools. Again, though: the path to points exists, and it’s more realistic than you’d imagine. Synergy ranks Kentucky’s around-the-basket defense in the 83rd-percentile nationally, which is excellent but not elite; whoever’s tracking their games in StatBroadcast is also heavily¬†underestimating the actual amount of attempts at the rim (35.3% of all shots per Synergy, 29.7% per Hoop-Math). You can score down low against them.

More important for Tennessee fans, of course, is that while Kentucky is above-average at forcing Guarded threes (57/43; nat’l average 55/45), they’re not perfect. Kentucky has played four games against Top 100 opponents so far; outside of two total outliers from Duke and North Carolina (both 1-for-13), the other three teams (Notre Dame, LSU, Vanderbilt) have all taken 22 or more threes and made between 32-40% of their attempts. In particular, I’ve noticed that Kentucky’s had some issues guarding the left corner; out of 29 catch-and-shoot threes, 16 have been left wide open.

They’ve been very lucky that of those 16, opponents have hit two.

Lastly, we’ll discuss ball-screen defense. Kentucky’s had to defend a bunch of these this year, so we have a good base to measure. Unsurprisingly, on the majority of possessions he’s been asked to defend, Tshiebwe sticks in drop coverage to force the guard to finish over the top of his huge frame. However, it’s not an all-or-nothing situation; Vanderbilt caught the ‘Kats in a sort of hedge coverage several times, and Tshiebwe often wasn’t able to recover in time. Here’s an example:

The problem here is that you’ve gotta have a guard worth respecting who handles the ball. If Kennedy Chandler can be that, Tennessee can win this game. If he disappears for long stretches as he has over the last month, well, 2-3 in the SEC is on the horizon.

How Tennessee matches up

I’m guilty of attempting to make basketball sound like the most complicated game on the planet sometimes. To be fair, it kind of is if you’re looking at it on a play-to-play basis. However, a hefty amount of games hinge on two questions:

  1. Did you hit enough threes?
  2. If not, did you make up for it by either converting at a high rate on twos or getting to the free throw line?

If you fail to answer these questions correctly, you’re gonna lose more often than not. The same questions apply defensively, obviously, but these sections always start with offense. If Tennessee wants to win this game, the strategy is very clear: you have to hit enough threes or¬†you need to be really, really good on twos. It all comes together to needing at least an eFG% of 50% or better to win; Kentucky is just 16-16 in the last four non-COVID seasons (last year seems like an obvious fluke) when opponents crack that 50% mark.

Let’s talk threes. I talked on Monday about Tennessee’s Seagulls Moment of figuring out if they were to be a serious offense or not, and the first data point of a 66-46 win over South Carolina was…not optimal. However, there was some amount of improvement in a particularly noteworthy area: corner threes. Not only did Tennessee go 3-for-6, they changed who¬†got¬†those shots.

Corner three-point attempts, first 14 games (makes in parentheses):

  1. Victor Bailey, Jr.: 24 (3)
  2. Josiah-Jordan James: 20 (4)
  3. Justin Powell: 12 (5)
  4. Santiago Vescovi: 11 (1)
  5. Zakai Zeigler: 9 (4)

Corner three-point attempts, South Carolina:

  1. Santiago Vescovi: 3 (2)
  2. Victor Bailey, Jr.: 2 (0)
  3. Zakai Zeigler: 1 (1)

See how much better that looks? Unsurprisingly, when you give your actual best shooters¬†the best shots, it works out pretty well. As covered in the defensive section, I think Kentucky has a very good defense that isn’t great because it’s not quite as scary inside as it typically is¬†and¬†the backcourt doesn’t have a singular, shutdown defender that covers up the gaps. You can get open in the corner on this team with fair regularity. Please put the right shooters there when it happens.

The other part of this is that Tennessee’s going to have to get creative to score points in the paint. I mean, you and I both can sit around hoping that the Ram Everything Through the Post strategy works to the tune of Fulkerson or Nkamhoua dropping 20+, but I think we all know that’s not the most logical of scenarios. I would get Tshiebwe involved in ball screens early and often to drag him out of the paint. If he hedges, Kennedy Chandler (or Zakai Zeigler) have to be ready to hit cutters to the rim.

Defensively…well, the best-case scenario really is that Tshiebwe somehow gets in foul trouble and you can remove that albatross from the floor. If he manages 30+ minutes, this is going to be a hard game to win. If he’s out there, Tennessee has to be strong in half-court post defense. Tshiebwe will move around and set screens, but at the end of the day, he’s more willing to post up than to do anything else. Single coverage on Tshiebwe is something Tennessee¬†could¬†do, but considering Tshiebwe is the most efficient single-coverage post player the SEC offers, I would consider doubling him early and often.

Tshiebwe isn’t a terrible passer, but he’s not much of a passer, period. He’s posted more than one assist in just three of Kentucky’s 16 games. Double him in the post, because the alternative is likely worse. Tennessee rarely doubles in the post, but Tshiebwe is a rare beast.

The secondary thing here, and one that’s unusual, is that Kentucky both attempts more non-rim twos than threes¬†and¬†gets to the free throw line even less than Tennessee. (How about that for a sea change?) You can probably expect 30 jumpers from various depths from Kentucky in this game, along with six or seven floaters/runners. The guys who I wouldn’t allow to get off clean looks in the mid-range are Washington and Brooks (and Grady, I guess); everyone else is free to go. If they make it, whatever, beats Tshiebwe killing you.

This is going to be a battle for 40 minutes. Your best shot is that you make enough threes, hold Kentucky to a good-not-great hit rate on twos, and stay out of foul trouble. Let’s see if that unfolds.

Starters + rotations

Metric explanations: 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

  • Can Tennessee utilize a turnover advantage to overcome other deficiencies?¬†Tennessee and Kentucky are similar turnover-avoidant offenses, but Tennessee’s defense is much, much better at forcing TOs. Tennessee really should finish with 3-4 fewer turnovers, even considering the home/away dynamic.
  • Can Kentucky make up for the TOs with OREBs?¬†Kentucky ranks as the #2 offensive rebounding team in America; I’d say it’s deserved. That being said, Tennessee has quietly had its best season by far under Rick Barnes in terms of defensive rebounding against a pretty tough schedule.
  • Threes? Threes.¬†Threes. Tennessee probably needs at least eight or nine to win this game, barring a Kentucky over/underperformance from deep.

Key matchups

Oscar Tshiebwe vs. Every Available Option at Center.¬†Well, when you’re playing a Boards Behemoth who’s KenPom’s Player of the Year at this moment in time, you need everyone on board. Here’s various contributions I could see as useful: Olivier Nkamhoua features in ball-screens and various sets that draw Tshiebwe away from the boards. John Fulkerson does the Wacky Tube Man thing and draws a few fouls. Uros Plavsic…gets a tip-in? Maybe?

TyTy Washington vs. Kennedy Chandler.¬†I’m very interested in this one because it seems like a matchup that should draw the best attributes of both players. Washington is a more skilled shooter, but Chandler’s much better at driving to the basket and grades out as the better defender.

Kellan Grady vs. Justin Powell.¬†Technically, this is Josiah-Jordan James’ starting spot, but over the last five games (per KenPom), Powell’s gotten the plurality of minutes at the 3. I agree with the general staff consensus that Powell’s not¬†great¬†defensively which is why I’d totally understand the JJJ matchup here, but…I mean, Grady has similar defensive issues, too. Just shoot a basketball, dude.

Three predictions

  1. We find out how Justin Powell handles public criticism as he either takes 8 shots or 1 in 17 minutes of play;
  2. At some point late in the first half I regret not picking Tennessee even though the metrics favor Kentucky;
  3. Kentucky 72, Tennessee 68.

Show Me My Opponent, 2021-22: South Carolina, Part One

GAME INFORMATION
OPPONENT South Carolina (10-4, 1-1 SEC, #101 KenPom)
(6-15, 4-12 SEC 2020-21)
LOCATION Thompson-Boling Arena
Knoxville, TN
TIME Tuesday, January 11
6:30 PM ET
CHANNEL SEC Network
ANNOUNCERS Tom Hart (PBP)
Dane Bradshaw (analyst)
SPREAD Sinners: Tennessee -15
KenPom: Tennessee -14

Torvik: Tennessee -13.9

Well, at least this one is an early-ish tip at home. South Carolina has done the thing they always do every single year: produce fragrant garbage in non-conference play (losses to Coastal Carolina, Princeton, blown out by Clemson) to go with one decent win (UAB) before rounding into form in SEC play to somehow scrape to .500 while you attempt to figure out if they’re good or just playing a trick on you. Or at least I’m assuming that’s the case.

In non-COVID times, South Carolina has gone 10-8, 11-7, 7-11, 12-6, and 11-7 in their last five SEC seasons. That’s pretty good! Exactly one of those teams ranked inside the KenPom Top 50 at season’s end: the one that somehow became a good offense for four games in March. This is the exact type of program that you¬†know¬†isn’t a serious threat but you¬†also¬†know will provide you 35 minutes of frustration regardless of how good you are. Hopefully, that isn’t the case this year.

South Carolina’s offense

The nicest thing you can say about the South Carolina offense under Frank Martin is that they’re trying. What it is they’re trying for is completely lost on me, but the effort is certainly there. South Carolina Basketball: We Are Trying, I Think.

I just don’t have much new to say about an offense that’s the exact same slop it’s been for all 9.5 of Frank Martin’s seasons in Columbia. It’s the least-watchable offense in the SEC by miles, which is a remarkable achievement when you share a conference with Texas A&M, Georgia, and Mississippi. Every year, South Carolina finishes somewhere in the 200s in eFG%, somewhere among the bottom 100 in 3PT%, and never above-average in 2PT%. Martin started to push the pace offensively a few years ago, which has led to more points because there’s more possessions, which is not efficient offense. The new plot twist this year is that they’re turning it over on 22.3% of all possessions, which is a hilariously bad matchup for a Tennessee defense that forces turnovers in bunches.

This year’s leading scorer, by way of being the oldest guy on the team, is Erik Stevenson (11.8 PPG). Stevenson is one of three players on the roster with more than seven made threes this season, which is nice. I wouldn’t call Stevenson good at creating his own shot – he’s currently posting a cool 28.1% eFG% on off-the-dribble jumpers and only has 17 rim makes this year – but he can at least shoot, which is something. Most off-ball screens the Gamecocks run are for Stevenson.

Other guys of interest: Jermaine Couisnard is somehow still here. Couisnard comes off the bench, but is second on the team in scoring at 10.8 PPG and is the most efficient three-point shooter at about 38%. That’s useful on a team that doesn’t take or make many threes. The problem is that Couisnard remains a turnover machine, almost touching a 29% TO% as an individual this season. The guy can shoot, but if you ask him to dribble at all, it’s a huge win for your defense.

There are three other players worth noting. Wildens Leveque (10.5 PPG) would be my main reason to watch this team on a nightly basis if I had one. Leveque is very much not a jump shooter and isn’t good at creating his own shot, but he’s been hyper-efficient at the rim (83.7% on 43 attempts) and is really good at knowing when to cut to the basket. James Reese V (9.8 PPG) should probably be Just a Shooter because he’s sitting at 38% from three, and the danger with him is that he’s equally solid in catch-and-shoot and pull-up situations. Devin Carter (8.6 PPG) uses more possessions than anyone not named Stevenson, but is posting a 41.4% eFG% and is 11-for-46 on everything that’s not a layup or dunk.

Allowing anything more than 0.9 points per possession/65 total points to this offense would be genuinely disappointing. They take more midrange twos than any SEC team that isn’t Kentucky, do not shoot particularly well on anything that’s not a layup…get them out of there. Enough. No more.

CHART!¬†“Yes” means “is efficient at doing so”; “somewhat” means “can, but not efficiently”; “no” means you can be mad. SPECIAL NOTE: I’ve included free throw percentages here upon request. The numbers used are a player’s career FT%, not 2021-22.

South Carolina’s defense

Unfortunately, this unit appears to be very good. South Carolina kind of took a year off of playing their usual hard-nosed defense a year ago due to COVID, but this year, it’s back in full force. Like the offense, the patterns are pretty much always the same: a healthy amount of blocked shots, lots of forced turnovers, but little in the way of defensive rebounding and an insane amount of fouling.

Starting down low and working our way out: the rim. Synergy ranks the South Carolina defense in the 98th-percentile in around-the-basket defense, and play-by-play stats have them 32nd-best nationally, precisely one spot behind Tennessee. Carolina has a somewhat-swap-heavy defense that spends most of its time in man but can bust its way to a 2-3 zone look at times:

I wouldn’t be shocked to see this simply because we already saw it for about 10-15 possessions last year when the two played. Anyway, the rim protection is pretty legitimate. Carolina’s best shot-blocker is Keyshawn Bryant, who comes off the bench, but they play a wide variety of guys at the 4 and 5 (literally nine different guys have logged significant time in the last five games in the frontcourt), all of whom seem fairly capable at making life difficult. The most fearful, by my standards, is Leveque.

The problem is that Leveque, Bryant, and nearly everyone in the frontcourt foul like crazy. The Gamecocks commit more fouls than all but nine teams in college basketball. The odds of you getting to the free throw line increase immensely if you get an offensive rebound, post up any of their bigs, or produce a well-timed basket cut.

So yeah, no wonder they play a billion guys down low. South Carolina’s been excellent at stuffing twos, but when you foul as often as they do, the risk/reward of this gets a little fuzzy. Frank Martin’s defense is hyper-aggressive for 40 minutes every single night. This produces a ton of turnovers, particularly in ball-screens and in isolation, but it leads to a lot of reaching, jumping, overexcitement, etc.

This is why they should build a Mike Schwartz statue at Thompson-Boling Arena. Tennessee is¬†also¬†hyper-aggressive, but they foul half as often. South Carolina is a whirling dervish of feast-or-famine. When it works, great; when it doesn’t, well, you’ll be pleased to know they have a poor Guarded/Unguarded rate (51/49) and have gotten torched from three by a few teams.

This is a defense that¬†wants¬†to produce variance. Whether or not this is upsetting to you probably depends on whether you’ve watched the last three Tennessee basketball games.

How Tennessee matches up

Well, it’s an offense predicated on generating open threes that does seem to generate them well but is doing a poor job of hitting them. Tennessee is shooting just 33.1% on Unguarded catch-and-shoot threes, per Synergy; the national average is generally anywhere from 36% to 38% depending on the season. Tennessee is going to get a lot of chances to take them in this game. Here is my proposal: start giving the right players the right shots.

As of now, here’s how Tennessee’s players rank in catch-and-shoot attempts this season, per Synergy:

  • Santiago Vescovi: 89 attempts
  • Josiah-Jordan James: 61
  • Zakai Zeigler & Victor Bailey, Jr.: 48
  • Justin Powell: 39
  • Kennedy Chandler: 33

So: 109 of Tennessee’s catch-and-shoot attempts have gone to three guys. Those three guys have combined to convert all of 23 of those, or 21.1%. Stop giving Bailey and James chances to take these shots. Instead, why not feed Powell, Chandler, or even Olivier Nkamhoua? Heck, I’d hear out Zeigler, who’s at least 15-for-48. This, more than anything else, would seem to keep the games from being¬†quite¬†as frustrating.

Tennessee will also have to score at the rim this game, and while I’m fine with post-ups against¬†this¬†team, it would be useful to just keep accumulating drives and cuts. Get the experience now, worry about other stuff later. This should theoretically serve as a get-right game. Maybe I’m being too hopeful, but hey, it’s all I can do at this point. In particular, I would get Chandler rolling downhill as frequently as possible in this game. It worked to open up the offense against Ole Miss, and I think it could do similar work here. Plus, with how foul-happy Carolina is, it could serve as a chance for Chandler to rack up easy points.

Defensively…I mean, let South Carolina take any and all of the mid-range jumpers they want to take. That should just be it: run them off the three-point line, ice them before they get to the paint. They’ll take shots at the rim and from three because literally everyone does, but as long as you limit the easy attempts, this really shouldn’t be a difficult job.

The more exciting part of this: the turnovers. No one left on Tennessee’s schedule is anywhere close to South Carolina in terms of how many turnovers they commit on a per-possession basis. Tennessee forces a ton of turnovers in isolation and in ball-screens; South Carolina turns it over a lot in those same situations. I’ve already mentioned Chandler on offense, but this seems like a great chance for him to show out defensively. I’d personally be quite disappointed if Chandler couldn’t find his way to at least two steals in this one. Really, three or four could be on the table.

Get right, get back on track, get out alive.

Starters + rotations

Metric explanations: 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

  • Can Tennessee own this game in the first ten minutes?¬†Tennessee, per Synergy, is shooting a disgusting 27% from three in the first ten minutes of games this season. They’ve lost the theoretical first quarter seven times in 14 games. They’ve outscored opponents by just 2.2 PPG in the first 10 minutes of games while beating them by 12 PPG in the final three quarters. Enough. Show up and play like you want to be there.
  • Can South Carolina win a Four Factor?¬†Tennessee is superior in all four: eFG%, TO%, OREB%, and even FT Rate. If Tennessee doesn’t win TOs + OREBs by 7 or more, I’ll be surprised.
  • Who are Leeds signing in the January transfer market?¬†I would like Nico Dominguez from Bologna or similar. Whatever it takes to stay up and keep the PL money coming.

Key matchups

Wildens Leveque vs. either Olivier Nkamhoua or John Fulkerson. I would not be shocked to see Fulkerson on the bench to start this one, frankly. Nkamhoua is a better strength matchup, but Fulkerson will be better at forcing Leveque to the bench with foul trouble. Either way, this is a guy that won’t take up many possessions but will post a few dunks. You can’t let him scare you at the rim on the other end, either.

Erik Stevenson vs. … uhhh…someone at the 3? Tennessee’s starting spot also seems unsettled here, and again, I would rather see Justin Powell get minutes than Josiah-Jordan James right now. Regardless of who gets the nod, Stevenson is SoCar’s main driver of possessions and Tennessee cannot let the guy get loose from three.

Three predictions

  1. Tennessee adds to The Discourse‚ĄĘ by attempting 25+ three-pointers;
  2. Tennessee and South Carolina combine for 35+ free throw attempts;
  3. Tennessee 76, South Carolina 60.

When the Seagulls Follow the Trawler, It Is Because They Think Sardines Will Be Thrown Into the Sea

This is the eighth in a series of weekly recaps surrounding the 2021-22 Tennessee men’s basketball season.

January 5: #18 Tennessee 66, Mississippi 60 (OT) (10-3, 1-1 SEC)
January 9: #21 LSU 79, #18 Tennessee 67 (10-4, 1-2 SEC)

I. Cantona/LaBeouf

In 1995, Eric Cantona, Manchester United striker, entered possibly the most consequential press conference of his career to-date. Two months earlier, Cantona was sent off for a harsh foul on a Crystal Palace player. On his way to the tunnel, a Palace supporter flew down the stairs to yell all sorts of obscenities and, by some interpretations, racial slurs against Cantona. The striker reacted how those of us who were¬†not¬†popular in middle school dreamed of reacting: driving his boot through the guy’s chest.

Cantona would be taken to court by the fan, and for a brief moment, it appeared that Cantona would have to go to jail for the crime of doing what I’d imagine 99.9% of people who’ve played higher-level sports dream of doing to certain fans. Alas, Cantona got out of it mostly scot-free. In his first press conference after the ordeal was finished, Cantona settled in to give his thoughts on the last two months of his life. In 15 seconds, he achieved something beyond anyone’s wildest dreams.

When the seagulls follow the trawler, it is because they think sardines will be thrown into the sea. 18 words, 15 seconds, one infamous sentence. Cantona left, because he had nothing left to say. Why would he?

18 years later, in a completely different setting, American actor Shia LaBeouf settled in for a press conference in Germany surrounding the film he was in,¬†Nymphomaniac.¬†(It is not a good movie.) Everyone my age or slightly older knows LaBeouf as a former child actor that starred in Holes, Even Stevens,¬†or even¬†Disturbia, a variety of teen-friendly things that made sense at the time. No one really knew much of LaBeouf’s backstory; they just knew him as the guy from¬†Holes and whatnot.

LaBeouf’s appearance in this movie, and at this festival, was during a strange time. LaBeouf was too old to be in the teen-friendly movies he’d grown up in, but perhaps too young in some aspect to tackle lead roles in the Academy Awards bait we collectively pretend is superior. He’d been forced into taking some weirder roles to keep his career going. LaBeouf fidgets in his seat, but has the glass of water nearby. 18 years apart, in a different country, LaBeouf offers the same 18-word statement.

I bring this up because the moments for Cantona and LaBeouf were different before and¬†very¬†different after. Cantona received a ban for the rest of the 1994-95 season, but he finished his career out with United by winning Premier League titles in 1995-96 and 1996-97, scoring a combined 34 goals along the way. He received the Footballer of the Year Award in 1995-96, the same year United won the FA Cup. Cantona used his Seagulls Moment, which could’ve ended his career entirely, to¬†instead¬†turn his twilight years into a grace note.

LaBeouf didn’t get banned from Berlin’s film festival. What happened after was, at best, a lot of uncomfortable gawking. The next day, LaBeouf showed up with this outfit to the premiere of¬†Nymphomaniac.

What followed that was one of the most public patterns of bizarre behavior a famous person has uncorked. LaBeouf turned the paper bag into an art exhibition titled #IAMSORRY, where you could visit him in a room for the right to watch him cry silently behind the bag. LaBeouf would go to a Broadway play and get kicked out. LaBeouf leaves jail and heads to an audition for the movie¬†War Dogs, alongside war criminal James Corden. He watched all of the movies he’d been in and streamed it for all to see. LaBeouf protests the inauguration of Donald Trump by setting up a livestream of a wall that says HE WILL NOT DIVIDE US. Finally, that livestream ended in LaBeouf taking the flag on the road to, of all places, Greeneville, Tennessee.

That was merely three years¬†of LaBeouf’s life, and it’s a lifetime of bizarre stuff. He’s recovered somewhat in the public eye now, but, well, he’s always finding ways to screw it up.

I am not insane enough to draw a 1:1 comparison to Tennessee men’s basketball and Shia LaBeouf. It is merely a somewhat-interesting metaphor to keep myself going as things never change and I wonder what the point of this is. What I would offer is this: the 2021-22 Tennessee basketball team sits at a Seagulls Moment. They have offered it up to fans out of pure frustration and the idea that things will somehow change by doing the exact same thing, over and over. Whether this season goes the way of Heroic Cantona or Villainous LaBeouf, well, we’ll see.

II. Variance

I feel that we’re at this Seagulls Moment because I, personally, have turned into one of the crypto people that keeps spamming “Buy the Dip.” I do not spend my money on cryptocurrency because I think Matt Damon should be jailed for his same-commercial-airs-14-times-every-day crimes, but whatever. I keep wanting to Buy the Dip on Tennessee basketball because, as we’ll cover later, the team appears to be more or less precisely what we thought it would be two months ago. They opened the season 13th in KenPom; today, they sit 14th in KenPom. They’ve yet to lose a game they were not favored to lose and have yet to win a game they were not favored to win.

It is all going according to plan, but I’d argue we all have a very real reason to be frustrated. Here’s how Tennessee’s three-point shooting breaks down this season:

  • 50% or better:¬†1 game (7.1%)
  • 40-49%:¬†4 games (28.6%)
  • 30-39%:¬†1 game (7.1%)
  • 20-29%: 6 games (42.9%)
  • 19% or worse:¬†2 games (14.3%)

If Tennessee basketball were following a natural bell curve, you would see this break down as something more like 1/3/5/4/2 or whatever. They’ve probably been unlucky to have as many poor shooting exhibitions as they’ve had, but in general, they’ve been unlucky to not have more average performances. I mentioned the goal recently of even being the 40th-best offense in college basketball; here’s what the 40th-best offense (Ohio) did in 2020-21.

  • 50% or better:¬†3 games (12%)
  • 40-49%: 5 games (20%)
  • 30-39%: 11 games (44%)
  • 20-29%:¬†5 games (20%)
  • 19% or worse: 1 game (4%)

Look how normal that is. That’s a¬†perfectly normal bell curve! Ah, how nice it must be to achieve such things. I guess this is me entering the Black Pit of Negative Expectations somewhat, but, well, could you blame anyone? It’s season 7 of Rick Barnes, who I genuinely like and would recommend as a head coach, and Tennessee is staring down their¬†sixth season¬†of failing to finish in the top 100 of effective field goal percentage (eFG%). Only twice have they finished in the top 200 in 3PT%. So, yeah, the variance we’re feeling is unusual and it’ll probably fix itself in due time…but I cannot blame the person who says “so what?”

III. Fear

That nothing will change and everything will remain the same. It’s rational, no?

I voiced my desire for Tennessee to finally shorten their rotation against LSU on Saturday because teams simply do not play 10 guys in March; Tennessee responded by giving 10 players (none of them Brandon Huntley-Hatfield) at least six minutes of on-court action. Maybe that’s unfair, because against Ole Miss only eight players got 6+ minutes, but it lends its hand quite nicely to the continued frustration I’ve felt. Why is Justin Powell, an objectively superior player to Victor Bailey, not taking¬†all¬†of Victor Bailey’s minutes? Why doesn’t Powell have the same mental green light from three as Bailey despite being a superior shooter? If it’s not Powell, why not Jahmai Mashack, whose per-minute stats are far above Bailey’s? Why is Josiah-Jordan James still starting when his offensive numbers are the worst on the entire team? Why can’t John Fulkerson string two good games together? Why does Brandon Huntley-Hatfield appear to give about 13% effort on defense? Where is Quentin Diboundje, who cannot possibly be worse than a couple of the guys getting playing time?

We’re 14 games in and many of the questions I’d had preseason are either still unanswered or the answers haven’t left me very satisfied. That’s where the fear comes in: what if this is it? What if this, a basketball team that oscillates wildly between Actually Good and Completely Unwatchable, is what we’re left with? What if the answers they’re giving us are the best they really can provide? And that¬†is a scary thing to consider.

IV. Expectations

Two months ago to the day, Tennessee sat 13th on KenPom to open the season. They were projected to have the sixth-best defense and the 25th-best offense. Right now, they’re 14th, with the defense being a bit better than anticipated and the offense being worse. So why does this feel as unusually bad as it does? Is it because Saturday’s loss to LSU wasn’t nearly as competitive (prior to the final couple of minutes) as everyone had hoped? Is it because Tennessee is failing to hit threes yet again? I mean, I don’t know, I guess everyone has a different answer…but everyone¬†wants¬†an answer.

The first question is this: do we adjust our expectations for March downward? As usual on the NCAA Tournament, I’d prefer to punt here. Barely nine months ago, a UCLA team that had lost four games in a row and entered the field of 68 outside the top 40 in KenPom proceeded to get red-hot from mid-range and make the Final Four. In 2019, an Auburn team that ranked 14th in KenPom entering the Tournament nearly lost to a 12 seed, then proceeded to get hot from three and make the Final Four. In 2018, well, you already know.

So I’d prefer to not make some sort of overarching statement on March odds yet without seeing who’s in Tennessee’s bracket. All you can control in terms of strength of schedule is your Round of 64 opponent; everything after that is whether you get a lucky break or not. The Loyola team that made the Final Four in 2017-18 had the 68th-best offense in America, while the Kansas State team they beat in the Elite Eight to get there was 60th-best. It really, genuinely doesn’t matter right now.

The second question: do we adjust our expectations for the season downward? Well, I’d argue this one could be more fair. Before the season began, Tennessee ranked as the #1 team in the SEC by KenPom because they were simply the least-questionable, sitting at 13th overall. Today, there are three SEC teams in the top 10 while Tennessee is basically what everyone imagined they’d be. Tennessee can’t control that, but you’re certainly staring down a scenario where 12-6 is a good-enough regular season that nonetheless gives you a 4 seed in the SEC Tournament. The February schedule is far more favorable (Tennessee will be favored in all of their final 10 SEC games), but the odds of a regular season title are dwindling with each frustrating road loss.

If you like regular season championships, Kentucky on Saturday is a must-win game. That’s as nicely as I can put it.

V. Obligation

Before, during, and after Saturday’s game, I felt a mixture of dread and obligation to keep going. This is my fourth full season doing these previews. When I started doing these previews full-time for the 2018-19 season, it was not something I anticipated doing in perpetuity. Tennessee had an excellent basketball team that year; it seemed natural to provide the local market with previews of every game. That team turned out to be the most fun Tennessee basketball team of my lifetime. I didn‚Äôt necessarily see that coming entering the season, but it made me want to keep going.

You can deal with weak or underwhelming seasons, I guess. But it’s becoming harder to deal with what feels like the exact same storylines and game flows every time out. You could design a decent-enough Mad Libs replica with it. Tennessee is [UNDERWHELMING] because they need to [MAKE MORE SHOTS] and stop [LOSING FOCUS OFFENSIVELY]. That joke sentence could have been shared in 2016-17, 2019-20, 2020-21, and now 2021-22.

To be frank, I feel like the people who were hoping Trump would press the Iraqi Dinar revaluation button. It’s me and Donna295728194, both hoping for something to happen, both probably knowing it won’t, and both eventually being asked by media members to understand why we think this way.

The point here is that I’m going to be completely honest with you all: I’m getting a little tired of writing about the local basketball program. When you write the same article a hundred times over, it gets old. At the same time, though, I feel extremely lucky that I have a following that cares about this stuff, enjoys the breakdowns, and (mostly) seems interested in learning more about how to view basketball through a statistical lens. Plus, at the end of the day, it’s just a game. It’s just college sports. In theory, it should be the least-serious thing I could possibly write about, and it probably is.

So: that’s where I’m at. I’m going to keep going. To quote Courtney Barnett, I’m writing; it’s the only thing that I know how to do. Let’s collectively hope it gets better.

Show Me My Opponent, 2021-22: LSU, Part One

GAME INFORMATION
OPPONENT #21 LSU (13-1, 1-1 SEC, #11 KenPom)
(19-10, Round of 32 2020-21)
LOCATION Maravich Assembly Center
Baton Rouge, LA
TIME Saturday, January 8
6 PM ET
CHANNEL ESPN2
ANNOUNCERS Tom Hart (PBP)
Daymeon Fishback (analyst)
SPREAD KenPom: LSU -4
Torvik: LSU -4.6

Right, right. Weird weather this week…extremely frustrating mid-week performance against what should’ve been an overmatched SEC opponent at home…this follows an annoying road loss at a hated opponent…heading to Baton Rouge on a Saturday…you aren’t fooling me this¬†time, script writers. I already saw it in February 2019.

“What did we learn, Palmer?”

I don’t know, sir.”

“I don’t [REDACTED] know, either.”


LSU’s offense

I did not¬†expect to be writing about how dire LSU’s offense seems. Will Wade has overseen four full seasons of work at LSU; three of those ended with an offense ranked among the 12 best nationally. Wade runs a free-flowing motion offense with a good amount of ball-screens and even more ISOs. They represented a big chunk of the offense in 2018-19 and 2020-21; I figured that would be the case again this year. Not so.

LSU’s running fewer ISOs and more ball screens than ever because there is no Javonte Smart or Tremont Waters-level guard on the roster. The best player (and scorer) is Tari Eason (15.6 PPG), a Cincinnati transfer that’s a poor shooter but is relentless at getting to the paint, whether in transition or in half-court. If it makes sense, Eason is like a co-#1 option in transition but a co-second banana in half-court; the guy just rim-runs and is crazy dangerous when LSU picks up the pace.

The problem with Eason being your leading scorer but your second/third half-court banana is that the role of main scoring option in the half-court falls to Darius Days (14.3 PPG), a stats darling and efficient player that nonetheless isn’t built to be the #1 scoring option. On the last two LSU NCAA Tournament teams, Days posted Usage Percentages of 17.6% and 16.1%, which helped him be super-efficient but also penned him in as a role player. If you look at his measurables – 6’7″, 245 – you may guess that Days is a bully-ball big. Not so; more than half of his shots come from three, and at 35.4% on 99 attempts/also 35.4% for his career, he’s LSU’s most dangerous shooter.

The problem is that a guy who sits at 35.4% is LSU’s best shooter. Even in an SEC seemingly dire of great shooting options (the median rank: 225th), LSU’s 3PT% rank of 250th is right in line with that of Tennessee-Martin. Only three players have 40+ attempts from deep, and none are shooting better than Days. Xavier Pinson, the Missouri transfer and final double-digit scorer (11 PPG), takes about five per game…and is barely cracking 32%. To be fair to Pinson, he’s been exceptional at pushing LSU’s offense to the rim off of the aforementioned ball screens.

In general, I do like LSU’s actual shot selection. Over 43% of their shots come at the rim; they don’t take many objectively bad shots; they’ve been unlucky on unguarded threes. Even so, you can see where this is leading to. Consider it a cascading effect: LSU doesn’t have a Javonte Smart-level guard that can pressure the rim, so teams are packing the paint and forcing LSU to finish through contact, which is leading to a lower FG% at the rim than they’re accustomed to (121st-best this year, 25th last).

Couple this with LSU being unable to generate many open threes (offensive Guarded/Unguarded of 67/33, the second-worst in the SEC) and you can see where this is going to be difficult to fix without Pinson or Eric Gaines suddenly turning into Smart or Skylar Mays.

CHART! “Yes” means “is efficient at doing so”; “somewhat” means “can, but not efficiently”; “no” means you can be mad. SPECIAL NOTE: I’ve included free throw percentages here upon request. The numbers used are a player’s career FT%, not 2021-22.


LSU’s defense

LSU’s defensive efficiency rankings the first four years of Will Wade: 136th, 59th, 179th, 124th. Pretty bad! LSU right now: Number Freaking One. It’s an exciting time where we get to play Is This Real or Are You Being Tricked by Sample Size?

We’ll start with the main difference-maker: a full-court man-to-man press that accomplishes taking several seconds off the clock¬†and¬†forcing a solid amount of turnovers. LSU currently presses on 28.7% of all possessions, per Synergy; that rate was barely 9% a year ago. Against higher-end competition, I haven’t seen them force a ton of turnovers prior to the half-court line, but the corner trap they enforce with Pinson and Eason here is obviously hard to get around.

Once you actually do get into your half-court offense, I would strongly advise against posting up with much frequency. LSU’s frontcourt is demolishing post-ups right now; they sit in the 96th-percentile nationally in part because they’re completely closing down driving lanes with their length and forcing a lot of bad decisions.

So: you¬†do¬†get up actual shots against this team. It is hard to find good ones, though. LSU is different from a lot of heavy rim-protection teams (8th in Block%) in that they really don’t force many runners; they just make you take a¬†ton¬†of jump shots, particularly from deep. About a third of opponent attempts have come at the rim against this team, and 18% of those attempts have been swiftly smashed into the dirt. You¬†can¬†score down low against LSU, but you either have to play fast or be really smart and decisive with cuts to the basket. Their ball-screen defense ranks in the 99th-percentile, and with Eason/Efton Reid both blocking shots at a high rate, well, I guess that was your accomplice in the wood chipper.

However: I do think there’s some regression coming. LSU is allowing over 47% of all shots to come from beyond the three-point arc, which is one of the highest rates in college basketball. It makes sense: a team that is murdering all two-point baskets is going to naturally force you to take deeper shots. But a couple of things stand out:

  1. LSU is allowing over 40% of all half-court possessions to end in a catch-and-shoot three;
  2. Their Guarded/Unguarded rate on these, while superior to the national average, is still just 60/40.

Over the last five seasons of college basketball, 35 teams have finished a season allowing opponents to get 46.5% or more of their shots from three. Exactly one of these teams – 2019-20 Fordham, a top 65ish defense – finished with an opponent 3PT% below 32%. LSU’s, as you can see in the graphic, is 26.7%. The last non-COVID team to finish a season forcing opponents to make less than 27% of their threes: 2007-08 VCU.

What LSU is doing¬†from three¬†is not sustainable. Everything else may unfortunately stick, but think of them as a top-10 defense, not the “#1 by a country mile” defense. There are cracks, and they can¬†be exploited. Eventually.


How Tennessee matches up

If you read the last five words of the LSU defensive section –¬†they allow lots of threes¬†– and immediately groaned, I understand you and see you. BUT! Consider this a get-right opportunity of…some sort.

The good news is that Tennessee has been well above the national average in generating truly open catch-and-shoot threes. Almost half (49.3%) of Tennessee C&S attempts are deemed as Unguarded by Synergy, and it feels real. For Tennessee to only be hitting 34.1% of these, 2% below the national average, is…well, bad luck.

Take a look at who’s on the roster. Santiago Vescovi’s only hitting 31.4% of his open threes. Josiah-Jordan James: 13.6%. Victor Bailey, Jr.: 13.6%. You may have opinions on all three, but none of them are¬†that¬†poor of shooters. The general process of finding open threes is working; just ensure the right guys keep taking them.

You’ll get a ton of deep looks in this one. The problem is that you have to take two-point attempts, too. Tennessee will probably take a few mid-range shots here, and as long as it’s not Victor Bailey or James (or, honestly, Kennedy Chandler) taking them, I can’t say I’ll be upset. Still: Tennessee badly needs to generate offense at the rim to keep pace.

LSU has only had 2.5 games (Penn State, Auburn, and the first half of Texas State) where they’ve even looked¬†somewhat¬†wobbly on defense. In those three games, the opponent had a point guard that was constantly applying pressure in the paint and forcing LSU to double them inside. Was it always efficient? No, but it generally worked. For Tennessee to win this game, Kennedy Chandler has to get at least 10 points in the paint. That’s as simple as I can make it.

The defensive scout here is moderately easier: LSU will want to use ball-screens to either get Pinson going downhill or to free up Days on the perimeter for a three. Other things will happen, such as lobs to Efton Reid, but the first two are the main actions we’re looking for. (Also please do not let Tari Eason eat in transition.)

Tennessee’s defense has been excellent this year at shutting down passing lanes, funneling guards to specific areas of the paint to be blocked by Fulkerson/Nkamhoua, and doubling/hard-committing to ball-screens to force the guard away from the basket and out of the main action. All of that has to hold here for a road win in a tough environment. If Tennessee forces Pinson or Eric Gaines to make tough decisions with the ball in their hands, the odds of a win increase. Pinson has a TO% of 25.1%; Gaines, 28.4%. I want the ball in¬†their¬†hands against Tennessee’s best five, not in Days or Eason’s.

Look: this is gonna be tough. But it’s far from impossible. Take the right shots, don’t allow open threes, and force LSU to finish through contact at the rim. The only quasi-starter LSU has that actually finishes at a high-end rate down low is Eason, and we covered how he’s more a transition threat than half-court. Low and slow, please.

Starters + rotations

Metric explanations: 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

  • Can Tennessee hit a third of its threes?¬†Well, this is kind of¬†the¬†thing. Kentucky nearly won despite shooting 38.2% on twos because they took and hit several threes. LSU’s three worst defensive performances have featured the opponent hitting 31% or more of their deep balls.
  • Who gets more shots up?¬†This is #6 vs. #11 in defensive TO%; it’s also two top-100 rebounding teams. A possible advantage exists here for Tennessee in that LSU is a below-average turnover prevention offense, while Tennessee ranks as a top-40 TO% side.
  • Will Tennessee finally commit to shortening its rotation?¬†LSU has played no more than 8 players most of the season; Tennessee has played 10 or more in every single game. For what it’s worth, Tennessee finally¬†committed to an eight-man rotation for the entirety of the second half + overtime against Ole Miss. This may be overstating the issue, but it is rare that a team goes deep in March playing more than 8 guys.

Key matchups

Tari Eason vs. John Fulkerson/Josiah-Jordan James. With Eason on the court, LSU plays faster and looks far more functional offensively. Eason is the best player this team has; the combo of Fulkerson and James have to find a way to limit his impact on both ends.

Darius Days vs. Olivier Nkamhoua.¬†This is LSU’s only high-level shooter and it’s a 6’7″ bowling pin with arms. The path to a win here: hold Days to 12 or less.

Xavier Pinson vs. Kennedy Chandler. I thought Pinson would be the guy for LSU entering the season, and in some aspect he has РLSU is about 14 points better per 100 possessions with him out there Рbut essentially none of that is because of his shooting or his defense. If Chandler is serious about being a top 10 pick, a top 10 pick would put up something like 15 and 5 assists in this one. That may not seem like much, but this is the #1 defense playing #2, so.

Three predictions

  1. Will Wade yells at an official over 70% of the fouls called;
  2. The ending of this game somehow makes both fan bases mad online;
  3. LSU 65, Tennessee 63.