Show Me My Opponent: Murray State

I think I’ve always been impressed by the Murray State basketball program. I don’t know if I could pinpoint the exact time when I became aware of their existence and success; it’s as if they just appeared there one day, everyone agreed they were good, and that was that. And it’s a correct assumption! In the history of Ken Pomeroy’s ratings, which now date back to the 1996-97 season, just twice have they finished the season ranked outside of his top 200…and they went 13-7 in conference play in both seasons.

It’s not as if Murray, Kentucky is the exact spot you’d have in mind for a mid-major power. Murray’s closest population center of serious note is Nashville, just under a two-hour drive away. The roster isn’t stacked with overlooked Kentucky kids from a basketball-loving state; only two players on the team call Kentucky their home, with one of them a serious contributor (Jaiveon Eaves). It’s a national roster of sorts, with 14 players from nine different states. Murray State is the OVC’s patchwork quilt, an assembly of varied parts that, for the most part, works in collective 12-14 seed anonymity.

Until 2018-19.

Almost on accident, Murray State ended up with the #2 pick in the 2019 NBA Draft. Ja Morant was a high school also-ran that only ended up being discovered because a Murray State assistant checked out the #2 gym at a tournament. He went from that to taking Murray State to the Round of 32 for the third time in the last ten years.

Now, Morant is gone and Murray State is rebuilding…or so you’d think. What a lot of people don’t know about Murray’s 2019-20 team is the following:

  • Three of five starters return.
  • Five members of Murray’s eight-man rotation are back.
  • Their top two scorers departed, but their third-through-eighth highest scorers have returned.

All in all, it could be a lot worse for Oak Ridge’s very own, Matt McMahon. This is McMahon’s fifth season as the head of the Racers after a playing and coaching career at Appalachian State with one year at UNC-Wilmington in between. Tim Kaine – not the former VP candidate, but rather McMahon’s assistant – is also from Oak Ridge. Casey Long, another assistant, played at Chattanooga with Director of Player Development Ronrico White. The staff as a whole has a distinct Tennessee flavor to it. Now, they get to visit the home of the best basketball program in the state. As is the case seemingly every year, chances are the team they’re bringing with them is pretty solid.

WHAT THEY BRING

Offensive fluctuation with a lot to be answered

Here’s what I know about the 2019-20 Murray State Racers so far:

  • In an exhibition against Martin Methodist, KJ Williams took 17 shots. No other player took more than nine.
  • In Saturday’s outing against Southern University, Tevin Brown took 10 shots, while three others took seven or eight. No one else took more than four.

And that’s about it. When a team is forced to replace their top two scorers and rebuild around a group where no player scored more than 11.8 points per game the previous season or made more than four field goal attempts per game, it’s hard to draw huge, correct answers off of 80 minutes of basketball. What I can tell you is that even without Morant, Murray has largely ran the same offense for the last three-ish seasons of McMahon: lots of transition play with a focus on ball-screen sets in the half-court.

 

Transition/primary break offense is largely based on what you’re doing on the defensive end; if Tennessee does a good job of getting back, all I can tell you is that they’ll have to make sure Murray isn’t spacing the floor to its extremes like they’re used to. Let’s focus on the half-court game.

Ball-screen offense heavy on continuity sets

To start, you’re going to have to know about college basketball’s most popular play: the continuity ball screen. If I had to guess, I’d estimate at least 75% of Division I teams run this with fair frequency in some form. (Watch the first 90 seconds or so to get the gist of it.)

Murray State, unsurprisingly, counts themselves among said group. Here’s Morant and Leroy Buchanan running this last year:

Obviously, things aren’t going to look the exact same in 2019-20 for Murray, but a good amount of the philosophy will still remain. Murray offers the benefit of two legitimately very good post players in Darnell Cowart and K.J. Williams, both of whom could give Tennessee some serious issues down low. Before those two, let’s talk about the shooters off of these motion sets.

Tevin Brown (90 of 242, 37.2% in 2018-19):

Jaiveon Eaves (24 of 66, 36.4%):

I don’t know how much Brion Whitley, a 21-of-45 shooter in 2018-19 will play, as he was held out of the Martin Methodist and Southern games due to injury. However, the first two are certainly worth watching and guarding. Brown hit 5 of 9 threes against Marquette in Murray’s Round of 64 demolition; Eaves was less prolific, but you can’t dismiss a 36.4% shooter. Neither will have the benefit of the massive gravity Morant drew, however. I guess you can tell I’m hedging my bets here, and I am; I genuinely don’t know exactly what this offense looks like with this many points to be absorbed.

Murray, KY, home to Big Boy Records

On the scale of Chunk to Chonk, Darnell Cowart is OH LAWD HE COMIN’:

What a CHONK. Darnell Cowart is a 6’8″, 280 pound round boy, and this is after leaving junior college at over 300 pounds. To be a 280-pound post player having lost weight is pretty incredible. Sadly, I don’t have much to go off of for 2019-20 footage just yet, as they’ve held him out of play for all but 11 minutes thus far due to injury maintenance. Here’s one of his two baskets this season:

Hopefully he takes the floor at Thompson-Boling, as he possesses an excellent post-up skill set that should give Tennessee’s fledgling frontcourt quite a bit of practice.

On the other hand, there’s KJ Williams:

Williams is a 6’10”, 245 pound sophomore who took over a starting role last year in his first season with the Racers. He was hyper-efficient – 69.8% FG% – and remains hyper-dangerous.

Murray loves running him out as the roll man in ball-screen sets or in backdoor cut plays that also work for Cowart. Neither is an elite defender, so you can get to them on the other end…but both will do quite a bit of work on you on the offensive end. Like I said earlier, it’s worth noting that Williams took almost double the shots of any other Murray player in their exhibition. It wasn’t quite like that against Southern, but there’s a good chance their offense will feature him heavily this season.

Man-to-man defense that limits three-point attempts at the expense of post-up struggles/DREB issues

If you asked me to design a man-to-man defense for the average college basketball program, I’d probably toss in a few elements of what Murray State does. Matt McMahon’s squad has come in 6th and 4th the last two years in opponent 3PT%, which is traditionally not a stat that repeats itself. However, it helps when you’re well above the national average in preventing threes in the first place. Even when you get one off, Murray is usually pretty good about closing out on it:

However, there’s areas where you can crack the Murray egg. Remember what I mentioned earlier about Cowart and Williams being two exploitable players on the defensive end due to a lack of mobility? Neither is terribly efficient defending on the inside:

Also, just once under McMahon – actually, just once in the last 13 seasons – has Murray State ranked in the top 100 of defensive rebounding percentage. I know they were weak opponents, but Tennessee pretty much demolished Eastern New Mexico and UNC Asheville on the boards. They should be able to do similar work here, and it actually feels like an area where Yves Pons could be of massive use:

HOW TENNESSEE BEATS IT

Work it inside and make the Big Boys earn their keep

In a perfect world, Matt McMahon would give both Cowart and Williams 30+ minutes per game each. Instead, he barely got Cowart over 20 per game last season and had to hold Williams to 18. Why? Because Cowart committed 5.2 fouls per 40 minutes and Williams 4.1. In one of Murray’s five 2018-19 losses, Cowart went for 14 and 13 in just 23 minutes. It was as dominant of a per-minute showing as you’ll see, and yet, Cowart only got 23 minutes due to a four-foul outing. On the flip side, Williams was able to hold himself to just three fouls against Marquette and he went for 16 points in 24 minutes. Any amount of foul trouble you can get here is a huge bonus.

As such, Tennessee’s gotta go to the rim early and often, whether that’s with a post player:

Or with a guard:

Those aren’t and-ones like I’d prefer to use, but Tennessee has just one and-one through two games and it was a transition play, so we have what we have and that’s that.

Don’t give up on the perimeter entirely

Like I noted, I really do like what Murray does on defense, and I think there’s something to be said about their three-point defense. That said: they ranked right at the national average in terms of our beloved Guarded/Unguarded catch-and-shoot splits, with 58% of three-point attempts guarded, per Synergy. Also, it’s not as if they ranked #6 and #4 in preventing three-point attempts, but #90 and #80. I think it will be very hard to run out a third-straight top 10 3PT% defense season. If Tennessee’s patient and reverses the ball around the perimeter or uses their inside-out game, they should be able to find several open looks from downtown:

Crash the boards

Buddy it’s simple. Do I need to spell this one out?

A disclaimer: I do think Tennessee should only send three to the boards in this game instead of my preferred four-man rush. Murray State gets out in transition more than almost anyone in Division I basketball, and Tennessee needs to be prepared for McMahon’s initial rush. However, there’s no reason for Tennessee not to get quite a few offensive rebounds against this group. They may be thin, but they’re lanky and athletic and most of ’em can jump pretty well.

Stuff pick-and-rolls, whether at the rim or on the perimeter

Obviously, things will look a little different in 2019-20, but in half-court offense, Murray got over 42% of their field goal attempts at the rim last season, per Hoop Math. Tennessee’s rim defense has been very solid so far, and I’d hope to see a little more of this against pick-and-roll ball handlers:

On the perimeter, Tennessee’s defense was pretty excellent against UNC Asheville; the Bulldogs went 5-of-20 from three. Our Guarded/Unguarded split gave Tennessee an 8-of-14 (57.1%) success rate, but it felt better than that on rewatch. Tennessee’s been pretty excellent about closing out on spot-up opportunities like this one:

Get back in transition; don’t allow easy baskets

Murray loves to run; neither of Tennessee’s opponents really have so far. That said, Tennessee had at least a little practice against both. Tennessee forced UNC Asheville to play a 71-possession game, which would’ve been one of their four fastest games in 2018-19. Asheville went for 21 points on their 18 transition possessions (1.167 PPP), per Synergy; they went for 42 points on their other 53 (0.792 PPP), which is a large split. Tennessee got burned a few times:

However, on other possessions, they got back and defended quite well:

Tennessee needs far more of the latter and less of the former in order to attain the successful defense I know they’ve got in them.

LINEUP NOTES

A small twist this year: I’m posting the lineups for each team too, not just the starters/depth chart section. It’s a little longer, but provides way more context for most common lineups.

Murray State:

  • Again, this can change, but the first game against Southern made it seem pretty clear: Smith/Eaves/Brown/A. Smith/KJ Williams.
  • Murray played Williams and Cowart together in the starting lineup last year, and I suppose that could change for 2019-20, but it mostly appears that they’re waiting out Cowart’s recovery.
  • FWIW, Anthony Smith has taken 75 of his 77 field goal attempts from inside the arc in college. KJ Williams took a three against Southern and missed it, which now means he’s attempted six career threes. Barring a surprise outburst, Tennessee can pretty much know Murray will have three perimeter shooters and two interior players. Sort of a throwback Tuesday, if you will.

Tennessee:

  • Turner/Bowden/James/Pons/Fulkerson are the starters until further notice.
  • Against UNC Asheville, Tennessee gave no individual lineup more than 6.5 minutes of play; Barnes clearly took the opportunity to experiment and figure things out to its fullest extent. When your tenth-most-used lineup still got two minutes of use, you’re clearly still trying to get a rotation and its lineups solidified.
  • I don’t know if Drew Pember will be available for this game. If not, expect Tennessee to stick with the eight-man rotation it had against UNC Asheville with Zach Kent as the ninth.

KEY MATCHUPS

  • Josiah-Jordan James (and maybe Jordan Bowden) vs. Tevin Brown. Brown led Murray State in shot attempts against Southern and was expected to be the likely scoring leader on the team this season. He’s predominantly a three-point shooter but likes to get to the rim as well. Tennessee can’t commit many fouls here with a short rotation.
  • John Fulkerson/Yves Pons vs. KJ Williams/Darnell Cowart. There’s no easy solution here; I would’ve thrown in Nkamhoua too, but his 224 is not a super-muscular 224. Either of Williams or Cowart will have at least a 30-pound advantage on their Tennessee counterpart; I think the Vols have to be willing to double-team in the post and force the ball out of the hands of these two.

PREDICTION

Tennessee 78, Murray State 66.

Show Me My Opponent: UNC Asheville

Asheville: it’s a good American city. Think of all the great things you can do there: eat good food, go to excellent breweries, see a quality concert every now and then. Sometimes, it feels like it gets lost in the shuffle of larger Southeastern cities; indeed, it’s far smaller than I initially thought (estimated population of 92,000, per Wikipedia), and it ranks out as just the 108th-largest metropolitan area in the United States.

And yet: I’d take Asheville over all but four cities in this list. It’s a very pleasant downtown to visit, and pound-for-pound, it might be the most purely enjoyable visit in the Southeast, considering relatively minimal traffic and the lower population. It’s a city that punches well above its weight class and can be counted on to beat a few of the bigger guys out there.

For a while, its basketball program at the University of North Carolina at Asheville mirrored the city’s progress. From 2007-08 to 2017-18, the Bulldogs of Asheville finished with a winning record in the Big South every season, made the NCAA Tournament three times, nearly pulled off a 16-seed stunner, and, for the better part of this run, was the program to beat in the Big South under a pair of talented head coaches (Eddie Biedenbach and Nicholas McDevitt).

McDevitt left for Middle Tennessee in 2018; behind him came Mike Morrell, a 36-year-old from Elizabethton, TN. If you want a true started-from-the-bottom guy, it’s him: Morrell played at Milligan College, began his coaching career at King University, and only breached Division I because of a relationship with Shaka Smart. Morrell bears some amount of responsibility for the following Guys You Know: Troy Daniels, Treveon Graham, Briante Weber, Isaiah Taylor, and Jarrett Allen.

Now, Morrell is in the midst of a program-wide teardown operation. Last year, UNC Asheville posted a 4-27 record – 4-0 against a pair of non-D-Is plus USC Upstate, 0-27 against everyone else, including a D-II loss – while playing the youngest lineup in America. Upon Morrell’s arrival at UNCA in April 2018, his two best players immediately transferred out, followed by valuable backup Drew Rackley. This was after the team he inherited graduated three starters and its sixth man. Any time a team loses its eight best players, things are going to be, uh, challenging.

Morrell’s hope and prayer is that his full-on youth movement in 2018-19 pays off in 2019-20. KenPom sees a program that realistically can’t be any worse, spotting them 293rd after a 347th-place run last year; Torvik, 241st after 344th. The benefit of last year’s awfulness: other than Donovan Gilmore, every UNC Asheville scholarship player from 2018-19 returns, and they get to add a pair of transfers in Jax Levitch (Fort Wayne) and Lavar Batts (NC State). The assumption here is that the worst days are over and, in Morrell’s true Year One, the program will at least be a mid-level Big South foe. Alternately, this could still be a really bad team with a long, long way to go. We’ll see.

AFTER THE JUMP: Hey did you know their coach is a Shaka disciple

If you’d like to jump to one of the following, click below.

Show Me My Opponent: Eastern New Mexico

BACK AGAIN!

Welcome back for another long season of Show Me My Opponent. My hope is that this year’s editions retain all the positives of last year’s work and build on the areas that could use improvement. This offseason was spent attempting to learn as much about basketball as possible; now I get to apply it to the team I cover most deeply.

This first edition is about an exhibition game. It is not a game that counts towards Tennessee’s regular season record. It is against Eastern New Mexico University. Here are the things I would like for you to know about Eastern New Mexico University:

On the actual basketball side of things, the Greyhounds went 13-17 last season, going 10-8 in Lone Star Conference play. It is nice that they play in the one conference in America proud enough to honor our country’s best cheap beer. Anyway, ENMU actually played three D-1 teams: UTEP, New Mexico State, and Grand Canyon. Only the UTEP loss (66-59) was close; the other two were monstrous blowouts (92-65 to NMSU, 95-64 to Canyon) that were never in doubt. Of those three teams, only NMSU ranked in the KenPom Top 100, which is where Tennessee will be.

Unfortunately for the Greyhounds, they’ll be rebuilding just like Tennessee is. Five members of their ten-man rotation were seniors, meaning they’ll have to replace a ton of offensive and defensive production. Only one or two starters (depending on head coach Tres Segler’s decision) from 2018-19 will start against Tennessee. It’s a team in flux that’s taking its first-ever trip to Knoxville; normally, that doesn’t end to well. Be kind to them; the greyhound is a good, useful dog.

WHAT THEY BRING

A solid-ish point guard

Devin Pullum is Eastern New Mexico’s only returning double-digit scorer. He was also the Greyhounds’ leading scorer last year, despite tossing up just 12.7 PPG. On the whole, the Greyhounds are a pretty democratic group: eight players averaged 5.8 PPG or more, but none topped Pullum’s 12.7. This is despite Pullum not being a terribly efficient shooter:

Pullum shot just 38.1% from the field – 43.8% on 162 twos, 31.1% on 132 threes. To be fair, though, it’s not as if anyone else around him was lighting it up; of players who attempted at least 30 threes last year on ENMU’s team, Pullum wasn’t even in the bottom two of efficiency. On the whole, Pullum ranked in the 42nd-percentile nationally in Synergy’s efficiency metric. However, he will present an interesting enough threat as a pick-and-roll handler for Tennessee’s perimeter defense:

And, in ENMU’s ball screen-heavy offense, he’s one to watch as a guy that can create gravity and space for his surrounding players:

On the whole, Pullum is about the only prominent returner that can create his own shot; that’s why he’s getting these words. If nothing else, he represents a practice run for Tennessee’s P&R defense that was either great or terrible depending on the game last season.

A couple of other dudes

Here is Isaiah Murphy:

And here is Darius Sawyer:

Together, they represent the only other 6+ PPG scorers returning from last year’s ENMU team. Murphy averaged 7.9, Sawyer 7.1; this would be like having to rely on James Daniel returning from the 2017-18 team for a rebuilding year. (Which might have been good. Who knows.) Sawyer appears to be a decent rebounder, as he got 35 points off of putbacks last season. Murphy spent a little bit of time as a ball-handler in ENMU’s ball screen offense, but largely, he’s a guy that operates out of spot-up looks and in transition. He is somewhat efficient at the basket, if you’re curious.

Man-to-man defense that’s replacing a lot

I had to give the asterisk-type thing there. ENMU was a decent defensive team last year, ranking in the 64th-percentile on Synergy and holding opponents to a 50.6% eFG%. (That would’ve ranked exactly 0.1% above the D-I average.) ENMU, to my eyes, doesn’t do anything super special; 95% of the time they ran a man-up defense, and the other 5% was mostly wasted effort in a porous zone. They could reasonably give Tennessee a zone for fun in this one, but nothing statistically suggests it’s a worthwhile endeavor.

Anyway, the stats. ENMU guarded about 53% of catch-and-shoot attempts in half-court, which isn’t terrible (the national average is 58.4%) but also not ideal. Considering they’re replacing so much, and considering neither Pullum nor Murphy ranked above the 54th-percentile in individual defense, I can’t imagine they’ll have fewer of these plays:

ENMU was also not the most ideal interior defense you’ll find. Synergy has them as ranking in the 26th-percentile in cut defense and the 10th in post-ups. Within 4 feet of the rim, opponents shot 55.9%; this was a pretty poor rate for Division II. Both of the quality D-I games they played last year resulted in the opponent getting a considerable amount of offensive rebounds and a lot of quality looks at the basket:

Also, if Synergy’s ratings are a reasonable reflection of the players’ defensive abilities, ENMU lost their only two rotation members to hit the 60th-percentile or higher in individual efficiency. If Tennessee struggles to score at all, please adjust your expectations for the November offense downwards drastically.

HOW TENNESSEE BEATS IT

The game starts at 7 PM Eastern Time and lasts for about two hours

Look: I know Tennessee’s replacing a lot. I know that there’s a lot in flux. I know that the November/December Tennessee basketball team is likely going to struggle to find its way. (Maybe not, who knows.) I also know that they’re drawing a Division II team who lost half of its rotation and most of its offensive production in Game One. An average Big Six team should beat Eastern New Mexico on an average night by 30+ points. Even a bad one should win by 25+. It’s also a team with no player taller than 6’7″ that got demolished on the boards by New Mexico State and a bad UTEP team last year. That means you should get to see plenty of this:

And this, against a poor interior defense:

And, hopefully, this against a perimeter defense that doesn’t love guarding threes:

What we’re looking for here is a fun, clean game that results in no injuries and you spend zero time thinking about if this is a win or a loss. Any sort of 25+ point win is fine; we can probably live with a 20+ pointer, too. Defensively, Tennessee needs to show…well, not much, but a general resistance to pick-and-roll implosions. Less dumb plays, more aggressive blow-ups of ball screens. I think that’ll bode well for early games if they do so.

Also a lot of newcomer playing time

I can’t wait to see what Josiah James + friends do in this game. Practice reports have suggested the offense will run through James, which is both an exciting and scary thought; even the best freshmen are prone to horrific nights. That said, James clearly has the most potential of anyone of the roster. He, Olivier Nkamhoua, and whoever else gets to come off the bench should have a fun night playing into their new roles. I’ll have GIFs of their play for next week’s UNC Asheville game; until then, you’ll have to pretend we all know what they look like shooting a basketball.

LINEUP NOTES

Eastern New Mexico:

  • ENMU started eight different players last year, and only one who started more than half the games returns: Isaiah Murphy. I think he slots in at the 2? Pullum, who was last year’s sixth man, will be the starting point guard, surely. Darius Sawyer is the 3. I have no idea who’s starting in this frontcourt but my guess is Deng Kuany (3.5 PPG, 2.7 RPG in 12.1 MPG 2018-19) and Jose Serrano, a JUCO guy.
  • I assume Segler will play as many dudes as he can. No clue on rotations at all.

Tennessee:

  • Uh…ah…Turner/Bowden/James/???/Fulkerson?
  • I genuinely have no idea who’s the fifth starter here. Is it Pons? Is it Fulkerson with Plavsic (depending on eligibility) starting at the 5 in a three-shooter lineup? Does Nkamhoua start? Is Jalen Johnson a factor here? I’ll take a stab and say Pons gets the first start simply by way of system familiarity; I don’t expect that to hold all season long.
  • I think Tennessee probably has a fairly set eight-man rotation to start: the four starters listed above, Pons, Nkamhoua, Jalen Johnson, and Euro Plastics. For games like this, they may add Davonte Gaines or Zach Kent to the mix. I’d imagine they redshirt Pember if at all possible. Obviously, the walk-ons will get a couple minutes in this one.

KEY MATCHUPS

  • Devin Pullum vs. Tennessee’s Perimeter Defense. This is the only 10+ PPG scorer returning, so yeah. Tennessee needs to show that it can handle solid, workable guards early on in ball screen sets; if Pullum gets to 20+, it feels like a bad omen for the much more talented guards on Tennessee’s November slate.
  • Tennessee Newcomers vs. General Working-Out-The-Kinks. They’re gonna look sloppy. It is what it is. Don’t freak.
  • My Brain vs. HIT YOUR FREE THROWS. John Fulkerson, Yves Pons, etc.: please don’t do the thing that makes me go bonkers.

PREDICTION

Tennessee 92, Eastern New Mexico 59.

 

2019-20 Tennessee Basketball Preview: Defense

There are two previews available for the 2019-20 Tennessee basketball team on this here website. You’re reading the Defensive preview, which exclusively focuses on what each returning player brings to the team on the ball-stopping side, along with what newcomers can do for a rebuilding program. To read about Offense, click here. Onward! (This is all on one page since it’s shorter.)

RETURNERS

JORDAN BOWDEN

2018-19: 31 steals, 11 blocks, 1.6 DBPM, 0.88 DPIPM, 33.3% FG%, 44.1% eFG%, 70th-percentile on Synergy. Consistently a plus defender at Tennessee, though his status as Tennessee’s best defender is less consistent. Notable for owning Gonzaga’s offensive actions late in the game:

Less notable for being Tennessee’s single best closeout guy. Got unlucky in 2018-19 (opponents hit 38.3% of guarded C&S, 31.8% of opens) at times.

Good: Still doesn’t foul often, still a quietly good defender at the rim:

Still Tennessee’s best closeout defender.

His PIPM dropped some, but he’s never had a negative defensive rating through three seasons and a lot of his fall could be blamed on bad jump shot luck.

Bad: Not a ton? He’s an okay isolation defender that gets burned sometimes:

And, through his career, has struggled at times defending dribble handoffs.

This is not to say he’s terrible at either, just that these are his lone weak spots on an otherwise consistent resume.

Stat of Questionable Fortitude: He’s not a terribly aggressive guy, but Bowden had one of the more unusual runs of steals I’ve seen in a long time: 12 straight games with at least one steal in 2018-19, but never more than two in any game. He just…is consistently there.

LAMONTE TURNER

2018-19: 35 steals, 3 blocks, 0.9 DBPM, 0.63 DPIPM, 33% FG%, 42.9% aFG%, 65th-percentile. Where Bowden is consistent, Turner can run extremely hot and cold. He can either be purely locked in (held Tyson Carter to 6 points on 9 shots in SECT) or locked in deep struggle (allowed Hassani Gravett, of all people, to go 4 of 6 from three). Turner’s highs, to my eyes, are higher – he destroyed Kentucky’s backcourt in the 71-52 win – but his lows are far lower.

Good: He’s Tennessee’s best pick-and-roll defender on the roster. Turner ranked in the 85th-percentile in 2018-19, per Synergy, in P&RBH defense. He was both good at forcing weak shots:

And at forcing ugly turnovers.

Considering he was in the 44th-percentile in this play type a year prior, you could see this as a small sample size thing, but it looks like he legitimately got better.

Bad: Where Bowden thrives at closeouts, Turner frequently leaves his man open to get off a good look; Auburn crushed him on these:

He’s also never been a good isolation defender and struggles to stay with more physical guards at the rim.

Stat of Questionable Fortitude: It’s pretty likely that even if he does leave shooters open at the same rates, Turner won’t allow opposing players to shoot 43.1% from three in half-court offense. That should fall, but will it be because he got better at closeouts more frequently or because he’s luckier?

JOHN FULKERSON

2018-19: 18 steals, 25 blocks, 6.3 DBPM, 2.20 DPIPM, 32.4% FG%, 37.5% aFG%, 83rd-percentile. Those numbers are going to surprise some fans, but the problem with Fulkerson has never been his defense. Largely, the Pals Man stays with post players well, rebounds strongly, blocks shots, and forces turnovers. Those are all hallmarks of a quality option on defense, even if his offensive capabilities are largely lacking.

Good: Only Kyle Alexander had a higher Blocks/100 Possessions rating, and he played half of Alexander’s minutes.

Fulkerson’s work is never pretty, but it’s efficient for a reason; he really is solid at staying in front of most SEC big men and forcing tough misses. Per possession, he tied for Tennessee’s best post-up defense, though it’s obviously a small sample. Also generally fine at closing out on the perimeter.

Bad: In general, you don’t love the idea of John Fulkerson being forced to defend in isolation. He’s at his best working within a team context; singling him out is rarely going to work out, as evidenced by Will Rayman of Colgate immediately going at him 13 seconds after he’s subbed in.

Plus, Fulkerson has always struggled with foul trouble (6.2 fouls per 40 in 2018-19, highest among rotation players); it’s going to be tough to reconcile this while allowing him to stay strong defensively.

Stat of Questionable Fortitude: Fulkerson, of all players, had the highest Steal% (2.4%) of any rotation player on Tennessee’s roster. Can this sustain itself? Likely not. But it’s time to give him a little more credit for being a solid defensive option.

JALEN JOHNSON

2018-19: 2 steals, 1 block, 0.1 DBPM, -1.52 DPIPM. Johnson, of the returnees, is easily Tennessee’s worst on-ball defender. Frequently, Johnson doesn’t seem to be able to stay in front of much of anyone; he’s poor at closeouts, despite not being asked to do much. Despite being a relatively conservative defender, he picked up 17 fouls in 151 minutes last year, which is above the national average. Alright, I promise there’s positives here.

Good: He’s lanky and can move somewhat? I guess? Here’s one of his two steals:

And his only block:

He left 56% of opponent catch-and-shoots open despite spending essentially all of his time on the court defending the perimeter. Not Great!

Bad: Well, he’s not good at closeouts at all.

Johnson has a high Synergy output entirely based on opponents hitting just 1 of their 8 guarded three-point attempts. (Small sample size.) I have him as defending *one* drive to the basket all season, and it was an and-one for Tennessee Tech.

Stat of Questionable Fortitude: Well, he did force seven misses on those guarded attempts. If he learns to guard more threes, then positive plays like this:

Could reasonably become more common.

YVES PONS

2018-19: 9 steals, 15 blocks, 3.8 DBPM, 0.54 DPIPM. What you think about Yves Pons is likely determined by if you prefer process over results or results over process. Largely, Pons’ process isn’t bad – he guarded 67% of catch-and-shoots in 2018-19 and held opponents to a 6-of-26 hit rate at the rim – but his results were forgettable. Add it to his inability to force turnovers and a tendency to go invisible, and…well, you know what’s coming.

Good: I mean, he did guard 67% of threes attempted when he was the primary defender. It’s not Pons’ fault, necessary, that opponents hit an insane 43.9% of their threes against him and 34.2% against all other players when he had one of the better guarding splits on the team. Like, this is perfectly fine:

Pons also is a pretty good shot blocker, which is unsurprising as he can leap out of the gym.

Bad: There are times where it doesn’t seem like Pons knows where he’s supposed to be, which is, ah, not good.

It’s not as frequent as some fans may think, but it’s a clear sign that his defensive awareness still has quite the amount of room to grow. Also, he struggles with bad fouls that add to the frustration levels.

Stat of Questionable Fortitude: It’s almost a certainty that his 3PT% allowed won’t be as bad as last year; studies have shown that it’s much more about preventing threes in the first place. If Pons remains good enough on closeouts like these:

The numbers will improve greatly.

NEWCOMERS

JOSIAH JAMES

It’s hard to tell too much about James, considering he hasn’t played a second against college-level competition yet. However: we can assume someone with his athletic range will factor greatly into Tennessee’s levels of defensive success. ESPN isn’t very high on his defense for now: “While he has tools that should eventually translate defensively, he needs to get serious about that end of the floor so he can be a two-way player of impact. He still stands up too much defending the ball, is undisciplined with his close-outs, and needs to be more alert on the help-side of the floor.” They also said this, though: “Defensively, he uses his length and reach to stay in front of the ball and has a good degree of future potential on that end with his physical profile and ability to cover the court.” Basically: the same as 99.9% of all freshmen. I’ll take it.

OLIVIER NKAMHOUA

Unlike James, a couple of Q&As and highlight videos lead me to believe Nkamhoua took defense seriously in high school. Here’s a highlight from a late 2018 Q&A: “I try to play very good defense every single day; I know if my offense is not working then I know my defense is where I’ll have it.” That’s an attitude Rick Barnes loves to have, and it will remind you of another unheralded high school recruit that just went to the NBA. Nkamhoua is long, rangy, and seems like a guy that can frustrate opponents if he’s as dialed in as he tells us.

DAVONTE GAINES/DREW PEMBER

Neither of these two will play very much, and neither should; both are too thin to propose any serious resistance to a player 6’4” or taller. Gaines doesn’t have many scouting reports out there, but he told 247 recently that he “takes real pride in defense,” which makes him a great fit for Tennessee, of course. Pember averaged three blocks a game last year in high school and Bearden experimented at times with putting him on opposing guards, but there’s a large gap from Tennessee 3A play to the SEC. Both need the weight room, badly.

UROS PLAVSIC

Euro Plastics has but two serious goals as a defender: block shots and get rebounds. When you are seven feet tall, these are the things you should be doing. Per 247, his teammates seem to like him (surprising!) and think he can be a good floor leader. Considering Kyle Alexander could be really, really good defensively, I’d keep my expectations low for Plastics as he transitions into the college game, but there’s a lot of potential here.

PROJECTION

Just like offense, this will look quite a bit different, too. Tennessee’s finished 150th, 55th, 6th, and 42nd in Adjusted Defensive Efficiency in four Barnes seasons; I don’t think they’ll be setting a new low by any means, though. In fact, the more I look at the newcomers, the more I think this will be the better side of the ball. Tennessee returns one excellent perimeter defender, a hot-and-cold one with the capacity to be excellent, an underrated post defender, and a couple of potentially useful pieces. Nearly all of the newcomers have discussed their enjoyment of defense publicly; I think this is a great sign for their level of care to come. Consider this an educated wild guess: Tennessee finishes 35th in KenPom’s Adjusted Defense rankings for 2019-20.

2019-20 Tennessee Basketball Preview: Offense

Hey, I don’t know if you know this, but basketball is coming back. Thank God. It is returning, and all is right with the world again. Tennessee basketball is also coming back, but it’s going to look a lot different.

Gone are Grant Williams to the Boston Celtics, Admiral Schofield to the Washington Wizards, Jordan Bone to the Detroit Pistons, and Kyle Alexander to…well, we’ll see. All four were excellent players for Maybe the Best Team in School History last season; all four are near-impossible to replace. Collectively, they represent 2,077 of Tennessee’s 3,035 2018-19 points, 870 of their 1,391 rebounds, 140 of their 199 blocks, I think you get the point. It’s going to be tough, and that was before the team lost D.J. Burns (redshirted) and Derrick Walker (might as well have) to transfers.

New are a bunch of young dudes. Josiah James is the headliner, a five-star from South Carolina that can play three different positions and likely will have the most shot attempts on the team. Behind him are Oliver Nkamhoua (a 3/4-star that we don’t know a ton about), Drew Pember (local from Bearden), Davonte Gaines (string bean from New York), and Uros Plavsic (Euro Plastics). How much do we know about these kids? Well, a few things. No one knows for sure what, exactly, they are until the lights come on and they’re playing in front of crowds of 20,000 or greater. That’s the fun of youth.

There’s two previews; you are reading the Offensive preview. This one exclusively focuses on what each contributor, both confirmed and potential, can bring to the table on the offensive side of the game. Because there’s so much changing on this team, I’ll venture to guess that some of these predictions will be wrong. Surprise! I’ll also guess that this is as good and detailed of a preview as you’ll find in the Knoxville market. Nothing here is, or ever will be, clickbait. Let’s get into it.

AFTER THE JUMP: Who’s back of the week