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:
- It is located in Portales, New Mexico, which is indeed Eastern New Mexico. (Drive 35 minutes east and you arrive in Texas.)
- Their mascot: the Greyhounds.
- They either used to or still have this strangely mesmerizing logo.
- Their current logo is what I know to be a greyhound but also looks like a dog that’s ready for bed.
- Every single sports field the school uses, and I kid you not, is named after greyhounds: Greyhound Stadium, Greyhound Arena, Greyhound Field. Quality synergy.
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.
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.
- 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.
- 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.
Tennessee 92, Eastern New Mexico 59.