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

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
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


…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.

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’t 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

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
Daymeon Fishback (analyst)
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 – LSU is about 14 points better per 100 possessions with him out there – but 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.

Show Me My Opponent, 2020-21: LSU

Here’s what I wrote last year when Tennessee played LSU in January, two months before the world ended:

“Largely, I think Will Wade’s a good coach. Good guy, well…that’s a debate for another day. Undeniably, though, he’s given LSU a lot of firsts, ones that they probably didn’t expect just two-plus years in. Now, he gets to live out the ultimate challenge of a coach: what happens after all those firsts?”

Obviously, we’ll never know how the 2019-20 edition of the team would’ve performed in the NCAA Tournament, but the year after the best year since Big Baby, the Tigers looked like they’d just follow it right up the next season. 21 games in, LSU was 17-4 and a perfect 8-0. They’d won 24 of their last 26 SEC regular season games. Even though an alarming amount of these were close, and even though LSU suffered three losses to teams ranked outside of the KenPom Top 50, it really did look like Will Wade was going to run it back.

Then, out of nowhere, they lost to a Vanderbilt team that hadn’t won an SEC game in two years. Then, out of something moderately predictable, given that they never got higher than #28 on KenPom, the wheels fell off and the luck ran out. LSU finished the 2019-20 season by losing six of their final ten games, giving up 90+ points three different times and ranking #179 overall defensively by season’s end. It was pretty rough, and it made sense that if an NCAA tournament had existed, LSU probably wouldn’t have escaped the first weekend as an 8 or 9 seed.

One year later, LSU sits at 7-4 in SEC play (same as Tennessee) and 12-6 overall. To Wade’s credit, the Tigers only have one loss to a sub-50 team: Kentucky. Still, the same problems that led to the demise of the 2019-20 team are pretty prominent with this group. LSU ranks 146th in adjusted defensive efficiency. They own one win against a team in the KenPom top 40. This is despite having a roster where the entire starting lineup are former top 100 recruits. So, yeah, I don’t quite know what’s happening after all those firsts.

Game information:

  • THE OPPONENT: LSU (12-6, 7-4).
  • THE TIME: 2 PM ET. Please pray for the writer of this article, who is doing a 7-mile run in the rain at 12.
  • THE ANNOUNCERS: I don’t know PBP as of the time of writing, but I do know Jimmy Dykes is the color commentator.
  • THE SPREAD: Vegas not available yet. Tennessee is -1 on KenPom and -2.2 on Torvik.

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Show Me Future Opponents: LSU/Saint Louis

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

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

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

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

When LSU had the ball

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

When Saint Louis had the ball

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The ten most fun Division I basketball offenses of 2019-20

In the midst of what is on target to be the least-efficient offensive season of college basketball since 2011-12 if not 2002-03, it’s best to find reasons to keep watching. The team where I live, Tennessee, is struggling through a gap year. The rest of the state, minus one notable exception we’ll get to, hasn’t produced a super-watchable Division I team. Schools are slowly adjusting to the new three-point line, but it’s taken the full season to do so. If you tossed on a random college basketball game, you’re likely to see more missed shots than you’re accustomed to.

That said, there are several teams and offenses this season that are worth your time and effort to watch them. In particular, the top two have reached “stop whatever you’re doing and watch this” status for me against any opponent that isn’t totally overwhelmed. (There’s numerous reasons to watch teams in the 101-300 range of KenPom’s rankings, as we’ll touch on, but not all of them are exactly fun to watch when playing a top 25 squad.)

In the post-Super Bowl pre-March area of the calendar, it feels right to give these teams their proper recognition. It’s been one of the least pretty years of basketball in some time, but it’s also been one of the most unpredictable and strange years, too. The closest comparison I have is 2010-11, which turned into an utterly insane NCAA Tournament in a year where it felt like there was no true #1 team. (Ohio State, in retrospect, was probably it…and they lost in the Sweet Sixteen.) So: here’s the ten Division I offenses I’ve had the most fun watching this season.

Honorable mentions: South Dakota, San Diego State, Iowa, Austin Peay, Louisville, Alabama.

NEXT PAGE: Teams 10-6