Show Me My Opponent, 2022 NCAA Tournament: Michigan

OPPONENT (11) Michigan
18-14, 11-9 Big Ten, #30 KenPom
LOCATION Conseco Fieldhouse
Indianapolis, IN
TIME Saturday, March 19
5:15 PM ET
Jim Spanarkel (analyst)
Jamie Erdahl (sideline)
SPREAD Sinners: Tennessee -6
KenPom: Tennessee -6

Torvik: Tennessee -5.4

I have to admit that I was surprised by people responding to my post about how stress-free Tennessee’s game was yesterday by saying Michigan was next and they’re already stressed. Okay? I mean it’s March: after a certain point, generally the first round, you are going to have to play and beat really good teams. Sometimes you have to do that in the Round of 64. Tennessee didn’t, so they do now.

Anyway, Michigan was a preseason top 5 team that was extremely disappointing for a couple of months, then just became normal disappointing after recovering to make the NCAA Tournament and win a game. This is not 9-16 Kentucky, just a roster with serious construction flaws that took a while to gel. They’re now top 30 in KenPom for a reason, which is that they are pretty talented and pretty good, particularly on offense. Still, Michigan has an insane run of play going: for 11 games, they’ve alternated wins and losses. That means this is due to be a loss, which would send Tennessee to the Sweet Sixteen. Maybe it will be that simple. Maybe I am Sisyphus. There is simply just one way to find out: playing the game.

Michigan’s offense

Let it be known that this is the significantly more fearsome unit on the average night. Michigan ranks in the top 20 offenses per KenPom for a reason: they consistently get good twos, they have guys that make tough shots, and they possess a certain level of crazy. That crazy can get them in trouble (an 11-minute stretch against Indiana with no made field goals), but more frequently, it gives them life (such as coming back from 15 down against a 6 seed). The other thing is that Juwan Howard is genuinely a terrific offensive coach:

The problem is that Juwan the Coach may be ahead of Juwan the Roster Construction Guy. Michigan’s main problem, which shows up more on defense, is that there are a grand total of zero wings among rotation members. Caleb Houstan is a 4; Terrence Williams is a stretch 4; Kobe Bufkin is a 2. Therefore: no real wings, nothing resembling a JJJ type. Now you know.

The obvious #1 guy is Hunter Dickinson (18.4 PPG, 8.3 RPG), one of the best bigs in America. You may see this and think “but Tennessee shut down the best big in America, Oscar Tshiebwe, three different times. Also, Kentucky lost to Saint Peter’s, which is the funniest thing to ever happen.” All of that is true. But Dickinson is a bit more than Just Big: a terrific post scorer who is also an excellent jump-shooter. Synergy rates him in the 82nd-percentile in jump shooting among all players, not just bigs. This is why Dickinson is an elite player: there’s all the usual stuff in the post, but he can just as easily pop off for a mid-range jumper or, worse, a three. This is a guy who’s shooting 58% on mid-range twos right now and it feels unusual when he misses.

So: Dickinson is a bucket and a problem, and I didn’t even get to him being a good passer for a big. The problem is that Dickinson can be all Michigan has on certain nights, and even then, it isn’t always enough. Dickinson went for 20+ in 14 Michigan games this season; M only went 9-5 in those, including 6-4 against Big Ten competition. That’s still >.500, but generally, when your best player has a great game, you’d expect a better win rate. This is because the rest of Michigan’s team is largely coin-flips that either come up golden or goose-egg depending on the night.

Michigan’s #2 in scoring, but #4 in terms of on-court usage, is the efficient guard Eli Brooks (12.4 PPG). Brooks isn’t Michigan’s most talented player or shooter, but he’s their most consistent one at 38.6% on threes and, per Synergy, 38% on mid-range twos. Brooks also has a pretty silky floater he unloads that he’s converting 46.5% of the time, so watch out for that. Unless Michigan really needs him to take over, which doesn’t happen often, Brooks can be generally expected to take 8-12 shots a game and occasionally get to the paint. Just don’t let him get off an open catch-and-shoot three.

The other main shooter is Caleb Houstan (10.6 PPG), the closest thing Michigan has to a wing that’s actually a stretch 4. Houstan is hitting 36.6% of his 161 three-point attempts, but that doesn’t tell the story. Here is one hilarious split:

  • Caleb Houstan, home games: 47.7% 3PT%
  • Caleb Houstan, everywhere else: 29.2% 3PT%

Here is another.

  • Caleb Houstan, 59% eFG% or better (13 games): 12-1 record for Michigan
  • Caleb Houstan, <59% eFG% (21 games): 6-13 record for Michigan

Wait! One more.

  • Caleb Houstan, open catch-and-shoot threes (per Synergy): 47.1% 3PT% on 68 attempts
  • Caleb Houstan, every other three-point attempt: 29% on 93 attempts

How a freshman shooter who only shoots well at home is this predictive for Michigan I don’t know, but that’s the case. If Tennessee forces Houstan into threes where he’s off-balance or literally has to move at all, it’s a win. If you leave him open, it’s bad news.

Lastly: Devante’ Jones (10.7 PPG/4.6 RPG/4.6 APG). Jones is the true point guard on this Michigan roster and has developed into a very good Big Ten starter after having a very slow start to the season. Jones is a relatively infrequent jump-shooter; he took 90 across 31 games, and most of them were threes (33.8% 3PT%). Jones’ main value add is as a passer and paint scorer. The problem for Michigan is that Jones may not play; he missed the Round of 64 Colorado State win due to a concussion. Howard seems optimistic Jones could be back for this game, but at the time of writing, nothing had been confirmed in one direction or the other.

The swing piece here is Moussa Diabate (9 PPG/6 RPG), a hilariously athletic center and poor shooter (8-for-31, per Synergy) who nonetheless will do 1-3 things a game where you’re like “that’s a first-round pick.” Diabate is 79-for-100 at the rim and 30-for-99 everywhere else; you cannot let him get open off of Michigan’s numerous pick-and-rolls. Others: Terrance Williams III shot 38% on threes and Tom Izzo got mad about it. Brandon Johns Jr. began the season as a starter but now plays 10 MPG or so. Kobe Bufkin: 16-for-26 at the rim, 14-for-53 everywhere else. Frankie Collins started in place of Jones against Colorado State and was fantastic, but prior to that, his season high was 8 points and he still has more turnovers than assists.


Michigan’s defense

Here’s where I’d argue the lack of a true wing is most impactful. Last year’s Michigan roster had top-10 pick Franz Wagner, Isaiah Livers, and Chaundee Brown, three terrific players who could guard numerous positions and stay with guards. This year’s roster has Houstan, who was atrocious the first two months of the year on D, and…uh…well…

Here is the problem. At shooting guard is Eli Brooks, a 6’1″ player. Brooks is a gritty little dude who makes a ton of fun plays and hustles hard every time out. Brooks is also 6’1″ and regularly guarding 6’3″-6’6″ guys. This is a problem when you are playing 6’3″-6’6″ guys that can shoot well. This is a key reason why Michigan ranked in the 6th-percentile in defending off-the-dribble jumpers and 21st-percentile overall. Some of this is obviously luck-based, but some of this is just “your personnel cannot defend our personnel.”

The Michigan season can be defined by its hilarious 11-game win-loss-win-loss flips, sure, but it’s also more or less about a lack of wings that means having to panic into a zone mid-season (roughly 9% of the time, per Synergy, but more like 15-20% since January) to save the tournament streak. This worked out, and I credit Howard for doing it. Michigan did a terrific job of getting away with zone defenses against quality offenses by simply guarding them very well during the season; it is weird to see a 71/29 Guarded/Unguarded split in a zone but 67/33 in man. The point is that Michigan often has guys in place to force tougher shots. It just hasn’t always worked out.

Just like anyone else, Michigan has been wide-open to variance. The Wolverines are 4-8 when a team shoots 35% or better from deep against them and 14-6 when they don’t. Michigan is pretty good at running shooters off the line, and the fact that they’ve forced 20 games where opponents have shot worse than 35% is nice to see. Still: there will be some openings.

The problem with running shooters off the line with this roster is that it opens up a lot of driving lanes. Refer back to the lack of a consistent ball-stopper; refer back to how their two best defenders are a 7’1″ center that isn’t very fast and a 6’1″ point guard that may or may not play. If you get this Michigan team rushing at you on the perimeter, there will be lanes to the rim. That’s how a team with Dickinson can be giving up a 64.1% FG% at the rim, per Torvik, which is tied for fourth-worst among the 68 Tournament teams.

Michigan is also a very poor post defense team, but I think Tennessee’s odds of exploiting that are a lot better by drawing Dickinson/Diabate out of the paint than by playing bully-ball. Colorado State tried bully-ball and it worked when David Roddy was hitting crazy fadeaways; everything else was torture chamber stuff. I mean, watch this play: an extremely similar one to one Tennessee ran for John Fulkerson yesterday. Feels like basket cuts, once again, could come into play here.

Again: 78th-ranked defense in the nation that never forces turnovers, ranks 206th in 2PT% allowed, and has just the one somewhat-consistent rim protector who isn’t a foul machine. (Diabate is very promising, but 4.5 fouls per 40 leads him to play less minutes than you’d like.) Michigan went 0-12 in games where they gave up 1.09 PPP or greater, 4-13 when the opponent posted an eFG% better than 50%, and 4-8 when the opponent made 8+ threes.

How Tennessee matches up

The first instinct here is that Michigan ranks in the 23rd-percentile in ball-screen defense, Tennessee has Kennedy Chandler/Zakai Zeigler, and you think “okay, do that.” And that would probably work out just fine. Michigan has deployed a variety of coverages to try and make things work this year, but they’ve most often settled on putting Dickinson in drop coverage because of the mobility concerns. (I would also mention that Dickinson has played with nagging injuries over the back half of the season and still looks awesome despite it.)

Tennessee has not run a ton of ball screens this year or really ever under Rick Barnes, but it’s been effective when they have. Synergy has Tennessee’s ball-screen offense in the 68th-percentile; that number is obviously not adjusted for schedule, but take that number with the Michigan one and you can see the potential advantage. If Dickinson comes out to hedge or double, Tennessee will be playing 4-on-3; if Dickinson plays drop coverage, a good shooter like Chandler will have an open shot.

Along with that: gotta get stuff going at the rim, simple as. Michigan’s rim FG% allowed is horrible, of course, but being 8th-percentile in post-up defense is alarming no matter what type of schedule you’re playing. That being said, Tennessee’s post-up efficiency is similarly brutal, so I’d prefer to not see many of them. Instead, utilize Michigan’s perimeter aggressiveness to your advantage: when they rush to close out a shooter, drive to the basket instead. There, you can either go up for a layup or continue the power-play by finding someone open in the dunker spot. Either can work.

Defensively, this is first and foremost about slowing down Dickinson. You can’t shut him down – only three times this year did he fail to at least 11 points – but you can slow him down somewhat. Tennessee has to find a way to force Dickinson to his left, where he’s less comfortable. Per Synergy, Dickinson had 162 single-coverage post-up possessions this season. The 23 times he faced up were pretty obvious: most were jumpers. The other 139 are pretty interesting: 112 times turning to his right (his strong side), just 27 to his left. Dickinson was still very effective going to his left, but he’s not nearly as confident in it. If you can force him left, maybe you force a worse game? It’s not purely like last year where Dickinson could only go right but he’s still learning.

Beyond that, you’ve just got to force the toughest threes you can and hope the shooting variance gods smile on you Saturday. I did a study in late January of the Big Six teams to see just how much variance a team had in 3PT% from game to game; Michigan led the field with ease. At the time, anything from 19% to 54% from deep was within reason. That trend has more or less held for them: 10-3 when they shoot 35% or better from deep, 7-11 when they don’t. Or, if you prefer: 8-2 when shooting 40% or better, 6-4 when shooting 30-39%, 4-8 when shooting worse than 30%. I think Tennessee can survive Michigan shooting 35% or something. You have to do whatever you can to ensure that’s not 40% or better.

Starters + rotations

Three things to watch for

  • Which averages hold? Tennessee versus top 40 offenses: 69.8 PPG allowed. Tennessee versus defenses ranked 40th-100th: 74.7 PPG scored. Michigan versus top 40 offenses: 74.4 PPG allowed. Michigan versus top 40 defenses: 68.6 PPG. Taken all together, that would suggest a 75-69 Tennessee win. But I know better than to trust anything at all in March.
  • Shooting percentages. I mean if Tennessee posts their season average of 36.5% or better from deep, this should be a win. Tennessee is 18-1 when they shoot 35% or better from three. Of course, this is reliant on Michigan – a team averaging a 33-34% hit rate – not having an RNG game in their favor.
  • Turnover margin. This may be where the game swings Tennessee’s way. Michigan ranks 336th in defensive TO%; Tennessee ranks 15th. Tennessee projects to have a +5 advantage in TOs, which would be tough to overcome for a Michigan team in need of every shot they can get.

Key matchups

Hunter Dickinson vs. Center Roulette. Tennessee has narrowed down their center rotation to Plavsic/Fulkerson/Huntley-Hatfield but frankly, this could be an Aidoo game. Dickinson will need someone to challenge him vertically as best as humanly possible. You’re also rooting for Dickinson to be relatively inefficient on his jumpers.

Eli Brooks vs. Santiago Vescovi. Brooks is the Gritty Gritstein (h/t MGoBlog) of Michigan: a guy who makes all the little plays and seemingly never stops moving. Brooks can reasonably keep up with Vescovi for a while, so it’s on Tennessee to set good screens to get Vescovi open.

If Devante’ Jones is playing: Devante’ Jones vs. Kennedy Chandler.

If Devante’ Jones is out: Caleb Houstan vs. Josiah-Jordan James. My guess is that Jones plays. In that case, Chandler has to be prepared to be hounded by Jones for all 40 minutes. You can fool Jones into touch fouls from time to time, but mostly, he’s just a pest. Any time you can force him into taking jumpers you have to. Houstan, meanwhile, is somewhat simpler: just make him move.

Three predictions

  1. Tennessee records a +5 or better advantage in the turnover department;
  2. Michigan has a run of 2-3 made threes followed by six straight misses;
  3. Tennessee 73, Michigan 67.

Show Me My Opponent, 2022 NCAA Tournament: Longwood

OPPONENT (14) Longwood
26-6, 15-1 Big South, #139 KenPom
LOCATION Conseco Fieldhouse
Indianapolis, IN
TIME Thursday, March 17
2:45ish PM ET
Jim Spanarkel (analyst)
Jamie Erdahl (sideline)
SPREAD Sinners: Tennessee -18
KenPom: Tennessee -15

Torvik: Tennessee -14.4

Yes I’ve seen all of your Longwood jokes and they are very funny. So original! Ha Ha!

Anyway, the first thing that will jump out about the Longwood Lancers is that they are from Farmville, Virginia. Secondly, they’re 19-1 in their last 20. This is their first NCAA Tournament, and they romped through the Big South pretty well. They had the best in-conference offensive efficiency by a fair margin. That’s all good. This is also a 14-seed that has not beaten a team ranked higher than 159th in KenPom and has played one game against a top 100 team, Iowa. That game ended in a 33-point defeat where they trailed 73-34 with 16 minutes left.

Tennessee, meanwhile, is coming off a conference tournament championship of their own. Both feel like massive rarities to each school’s respective fans. Of course, Tennessee’s expectations for March are quite a bit higher than Longwood’s. You don’t want to get bitten by the 14-seed bug in the first round, but you don’t want to lower the expectations much, either. This is the best 3-seed in the field, ranked like a 2-seed, taking on a team that ranks 139th and is the third-lowest 14. If anything went wrong, it would be one of the most stunning upsets ever. Then again, crazier stuff has happened.

Longwood’s offense

This is the superior unit of the two. You look at those basic numbers and admittedly, some of the sweat starts to build: 5th in 3PT%. 19th in OREB%. 50th in Free Throw Rate. It all feels like your classic Giant Killer coming home to roost one final time to kill off any optimism or hope you have left as a basketball viewer. I promise there is good news coming; we’ll get the tough stuff out first.

Basic offensive structural scout: Longwood runs a good amount of ball screens on the perimeter meant to open up dribble penetration for the guard, who can either take it to the basket or dish it to an open shooter. As shown in the above graphic, Longwood is more willing to get to the rim than take a three, but when they do shoot, they’re pretty efficient. Unsurprisingly, when the tallest player in the rotation is three different 6’7″ guys, you aren’t going to see much posting up. Onto the show.

The best, highest-usage, and highest-scoring player is Justin Hill (14.2 PPG/4.9 RPG/4.2 APG), a 6’0″ guard who is the closest thing the team has to a true point guard. The unusual thing about Hill is his willingness to attack the rim at all costs. You can squint and see Hill as Longwood’s Kennedy Chandler: a guy who takes more layups than threes and is one of the best rebounding point guards in America. Longwood doesn’t push the pace often, but when they do, Hill is the ringleader who attacks the basket like crazy. In half-court, he’s more likely to use ball screens to get what he wants.

Hill is the #1 option; Isaiah Wilkins (12.8 PPG, 6.3 RPG) is the #2. Wilkins is a 6’4″ wing that serves as the 3 in this small-ball offense. The thing you’ll immediately notice and fear about Wilkins is obvious: 40.9% from three on 137 attempts. Wilkins is also the best rebounder on the team and is simply a good shooter in general, but it’s worth noting that Wilkins doesn’t take threes off the dribble. Per Synergy, Wilkins has taken 39 off-the-dribble jumpers this year; 33 were mid-range twos. Wilkins is reliant on Hill and backup Jordan Perkins to create his shots for him, but he moves well off the ball and gets open fairly often.

Lastly: the scariest shooter. DeShaun Wade (12 PPG) is the third option; with a 50% FG% at the rim and more three-point attempts than twos, he’s the second-closest thing to Just A Shooter Longwood has. Wade hit 46.6% of his 148 three-point attempts this year, which is legitimately terrifying. You do not want to let Wade shake loose on the perimeter for any reason. You can’t really run him off the line, either; Wade is 26-for-57 on mid-range jumpers. Still, that beats threes. If Wade gets loose:

It’s not good. You can think of him as Longwood’s Vescovi, in a way.

The rest of the offense is various spare parts of mild interest. Center Zac Watson (7.8 PPG, 3.7 RPG) is fifth in the team in scoring and serves as a ball screen/basket cuts specialist. Leslie Nkereuwem (8.9 PPG, 4.8 RPG) is a defensive turnstile that is the main user of post-ups. Nate Lliteras hit 38.6% of his 83 three-point attempts. Starter Jesper Granlund (4.1 PPG) attempts a shot once every blue moon and mostly stays out of the way.

To sum it up: if Wilkins and Wade aren’t hitting 50% of their threes, they don’t generate much in the way of easy twos. That seems troublesome against the nation’s third-best defense.


Longwood’s defense

This is the more relieving half of the preview. Some of the Longwood numbers are good, of course; they’re top 100 in three of the Four Factors. I would remind you that those numbers are not adjusted for competition and they came against a schedule KenPom ranks as the 340th-hardest out of 358. This is an aggressive man-to-man defense that forces turnovers and doesn’t commit a lot of fouls, which is nice, but this is also a defense where the tallest player is 6’7″ and they allowed the 274th-best FG% at the rim against said #340 SOS. This is just the seventh defense Tennessee has played this year ranked worse than 150th by KenPom; they averaged 86.8 PPG in the other six games. Even if you want to lower the average by moving that to 100th or worse, it’s still 82.6 PPG across ten games. You get where I’m going.

The first thing I noticed when researching Longwood, other than everything, is that hilarious 2PT% ranking: 319th. Sometimes, teams will have unusually high 2PT% allowed in part because opponents are randomly very hot on mid-range twos against them. This can happen against smaller teams sometimes, but Longwood is allowing a 36.8% hit rate on mid-range jumpers, so no need. This is all about the rim and an alarmingly bad stop rate down low.

Remember that SOS ranking of #340? Synergy, which does not adjust for SOS, ranks Longwood’s around the basket defense in the 4th-percentile nationally. I would not imagine this is a surprise; the leading shot-blocker is Zac Watson, who is 6’7″ and has all of 17 blocks on the season. Longwood only played two offenses ranked in the top 125 this season: Iowa and Winthrop. Across three games, those two teams converted 59% of two-point attempts. Longwood ranks in the 3rd-percentile defending basket cuts, one of Tennessee’s most successful plays. 10 of Longwood’s last 11 opponents have converted over 50% of their two-point attempts. Again, I think you get the point.

However, the one super-positive thing everyone’s going to look at is the 3PT% allowed. Longwood does rank 46th at 31%, which does indeed save their eFG% from being purely in the crapper. That’s about 1.4% below the expected hit rate of 32.4%, which is solid. To go with that, Longwood’s Guarded/Unguarded split of 57/43 is a hair better than the national average, so I could reasonably say this is a solid-enough defense at forcing guarded threes. Then again, this is a Tennessee team that’s hit 39% of threes over the last two months and ranks among the nation’s 70 best 3PT% teams. Longwood played six games against members of the top 70 this year. Those six games: 17-for-72 (23.6%) on guarded threes.

If Longwood has figured out how to turn great three-point shooting teams into dust, I think that’s great. I also think that, considering those same teams shot 24-for-46 on open threes, it’s probably just your average perimeter defense.

How Tennessee matches up

Most of why I think Tennessee has a significant advantage in this game can be boiled down to two things:

  1. The height differential in the frontcourt, as Longwood’s starters are 6’4″ and 6’7″;
  2. The fact that Tennessee has Kennedy Chandler and Longwood does not.

I guess these can somewhat go together. Chandler was one of just seven players in America 6’1″ or shorter to attempt 160+ shots at the rim this season. He converted these at a 60% rate, which is good for someone his size. If you want another list, try this: 6’1″ or shorter players that took 150+ shots at the rim and 100% threes. Chandler and Darius McGhee of Liberty were the only small guys this year to meet those numbers and post percentages of 58%/37% or better at both spots. The point is that, on first glance, there is no point guard on the Longwood roster that can check Chandler consistently when he’s driving to the rim. Once he gets there, there’s no big man to really stop him, either. The only team Tennessee really played like this in regular season with a similar height deficit was USC Upstate; Chandler scored 17 points on 11 shots.

The other aspect of this is also pretty obvious: while Longwood has two utterly terrific shooters that held up very well against their best competition, Longwood doesn’t have the ability on the other end to dictate the game on the perimeter. I guess they believe they can, but it’s frankly hard to visualize. If Tennessee’s frontcourt gets going, Longwood will have to sink in to compensate, which will open up a lot of threes for Vescovi and friends.

Defensively, the first task is going to be making Hill take the toughest shots possible in the paint. Hill will get to the paint several times in this game no matter what Tennessee does, and frankly, the idea of him being forced to pass to one of the two S-tier shooters is not really something I’m looking for. Instead, I actually think Tennessee can dare Hill into taking some really bad shots in this game. For such an effective slasher, Hill hit just 54% of his attempts at the rim and 31% of his 84 non-rim two-pointers. Force him into a half-court set and his shot quality drops that much further. The more you can force Hill into shots from 5-10 feet away as opposed to those that are true layups, the better off you’ll be.

Then…the shooters. I would simply title this section “allow as few open catch-and-shoots as humanly possible” because that’s all this really is. If there’s any way possible to force the ball out of the hands of Wilkins and/or Wade, Tennessee may win this game by 20+. Those two are shooting 43.9% from deep; the rest of the team, combined, is at 35.4%. I would take a three-point attempt by literally anyone else on the roster before I let Wilkins or Wade get a clean catch-and-shoot look off. Make these guys finish over the top of long-armed defenders.

Just win.

Starters + rotations

Three things to watch for

  • Well, the shooting. Of course. If Tennessee has a normal (read: 34% or better) 3PT% night, I’m not sure what the path for Longwood to a win would be, exactly. I think they’d have to shoot >50% from deep, which is not a thing you can exactly rely on.
  • Can Longwood slow Tennessee down in the paint at all? This would appear to be Tennessee’s most obvious advantage, both in terms of their tallest guy being 6’7″ and because Longwood ranks 319th in 2PT%. (Frankly, considering the schedule they played, this would be like drawing Georgia on a night where you’re not looking ahead to Arkansas.) If Tennessee isn’t at 55% or better on twos it would be a surprise.
  • Rebounding? Maybe? I mean I’m hunting everywhere for potential Longwood advantages and aside from their two main shooters, this might be it, as they rank in the top 50 in both OREB% and DREB%. That being said, average opponent OREB% faced: 27.4%. Tennessee: 33.2%. Not to be all “they haven’t seen anything like this,” but, uh, have they?

Key matchups

Justin Hill vs. Kennedy Chandler. Hill’s the top dog and will attack the rim like crazy. Chandler will do the same and is a superior shooter. This comes down to how often Tennessee forces Hill into 5-10 foot shots instead of <5 footers.

Isaiah Wilkins vs. Josiah-Jordan James. This is the most common matchup, at least. In seven games against Top 200 teams (yes, I know), Wilkins was Longwood’s best and most consistent player. I kind of think he leads them in scoring here. I would like to see James use his size advantage here: take Wilkins, a player with zero blocks in said seven games, to the rim. Or just shoot over him.

DeShaun Wade vs. Santiago Vescovi. Shooter versus shooter. Wilkins and Wade shot 45.7% from deep on 70 attempts in the seven Top 200 games; everyone else, 30.1% on 93. My thought is that Tennessee has the perimeter athleticism to force one or the other into a bad shooting night if not both.

Three predictions

  1. Chandler/James/Vescovi combine for 7+ made threes;
  2. Tennessee converts at a 65% or better rate at the rim;
  3. Tennessee 79, Longwood 60.

Show Me My Opponent, 2022 SEC Tournament Championship: Texas A&M

23-11, 9-9 SEC, #42 KenPom
LOCATION Amalie Arena
Tampa, FL
TIME Sunday, March 13
Jimmy Dykes (analyst)
SPREAD Sinners: Tennessee -6.5
KenPom: Tennessee -7

Torvik: Tennessee -5.5


At least with Tennessee, you could’ve convinced yourself pretty easily that they were one minor upset of Kentucky away from an SEC Championship Game appearance. Texas A&M would’ve required quite the amount of mental gymnastics. The Aggies lost eight in a row, lost to Vanderbilt on February 19 to fall to 5-9 in conference play, and were roughly as close to the NCAA Tournament as Georgia. Out of nowhere, they have become one of the hottest shooting teams in the nation with a defense that’s pretty hard to prepare for on short notice.

Tennessee, meanwhile, just put up its tenth Quadrant 1 win and has forced the door open to the 2 seed line after they were once 11-5, 2-3 SEC. Sunday seemed more like a lark than a real possibility two months ago. Now it is here, and Tennessee is 40 minutes away from their first SEC title since 1979 for the third time in five years. If you treat all of these as slightly-weighted coin flips, eventually one has to land in Tennessee’s favor. Eventually.

Texas A&M offense

This was originally previewed back in February, but there’s been some fairly significant changes. I’m still doing the bullet-point structure here because of time constraints. Same basic structure of offense, same general lack of post-ups, same “hit shots and win, or don’t” status.

  • In the first preview, I mention that A&M doesn’t have a true #1 scorer. This is no longer true. Quenton Jackson (14.8 PPG) has been a volcano of recent; since the Tennessee game on February 1, Jackson’s scored 18.1 PPG on 59/40/82 shooting splits. He takes and makes more shots than anyone else on the team and has drawn a ton of fouls as of late. Don’t let him cook the frontcourt.
  • Second banana is Tyrece Radford (10.8 PPG season-long, 13.3 PPG last 12 games), who is scorching from deep: 25-for-44 on threes since February 1. I would consider not letting him shoot threes.
  • The third guy is the same guy you remember from the first battle: Henry Coleman III (11.2 PPG season-long, 11.8 PPG last 12), who remains terrific at the rim (69% on the season) and horrific everywhere else (22.8% on Other Twos). Coleman is a bear on the boards and draws lots of fouls, too.
  • The other two high-usage guys you need to know are Wade Taylor IV (7.3 PPG last 12) and Hassan Diarra (6.8 PPG last 12). You remember Taylor from him randomly exploding in TBA; what you may not remember is that he’s followed said explosion up by going 9-for-51 on threes and 17-for-51 on twos. Diarra, meanwhile, is much less Disaster Factory but just not as notable in either direction; he is simply a solid player.
  • A guy you’ll annoyingly have to watch out for is Hayden Hefner (3.5 PPG season-long, 4.9 PPG last 12), who I don’t think is related to Hugh but is slaying the nets from downtown (11-for-26 last 12) at the moment. It always hurts more when the bench hits you.
  • The rotation is still 10 players deep, which is proving useful against teams like Arkansas that only have seven playable guys. Still, guys like Obaseki/Henderson/Gordon have been in Struggle Mode as of late and you’d prefer them on the court over others.


Texas A&M defense

Same annoying thing to prepare for as you remember. First preview linked here. What’s new:

  • They’ve turned up the heat. Torvik ranks A&M’s defense as the ninth-best in the nation over the last 10 games, with all the turnovers playing a huge part. Teams are turning it over on nearly 22% of possessions against the Aggies; Arkansas gave it up on almost 21%.
  • Some of this heat has been driven by…wait for it…luck. Shocker! Teams are shooting 26.5% from three against A&M over the last 10. Part of this is, obviously, good defense. Another part of this is A&M, a team with a 50/50 Guarded/Unguarded rate, seeing opponents shoot 30.9% on open threes and 19.8% (!) on guarded ones. The former is probably a little more sustainable than the latter.
  • Defensive rebounding remains a problem. A&M has allowed their opponents to rebound 32% of misses over this 10-game run, which ranks 318th-best nationally. It was almost entirely why they nearly lost to Florida and Auburn despite both teams shooting very poorly.
  • It remains relatively easy to score at the rim against this team. Opponents are hitting at nearly a 64% rate over this 10-game run, per Synergy.
  • The big key is still finding ways to score in general half-court offense. When A&M slows an opponent down, it becomes pretty hard to generate points; they rank in the 86th-percentile or better against ISOs, post-ups, and ball screens.

How Tennessee matches up

The first game was more or less Tennessee forcing A&M to solve a math problem: does 3 > 2, or does it not? Tennessee hit 11 threes to A&M’s seven in a game Tennessee won by 12. That game featured A&M hitting some wild shots, which we’ll touch on, but for the most part, Tennessee identified early on that the Aggies couldn’t stop the drive-and-kick game. Tennessee generated 24 catch-and-shoot threes in the first game, and Synergy deemed 18 of them to be open (AKA, no defender within four feet of the shooter). That’s a heck of a rate.

A similar thing will have to happen here to win this game. I don’t know that Tennessee needs to shoot 42% from deep to win again, but against an A&M team that has become the Golden State Warriors of Tampa Bay, maybe you do. Tennessee will likely have to go deep in the clock against an Aggies side that slowed Auburn down into their second-slowest game of the last month. If so: gotta move the ball, gotta hit the nail on the free throw line, gotta look for the open man. Play smart basketball and such.

Along with this: get some good twos. A&M’s biggest struggles defensively this year have come against teams that are either good at converting second chances via the glass or hammer the rim with a variety of off-ball cuts and screens. To boot, Tennessee’s 1.261 PPP in the first A&M game is still the worst defensive efficiency surrendered by the Aggies all season. The threes were one thing, but Tennessee getting 10 points off of nine basket cuts were something else worth noting.

The two missed shots on cuts were via fadeaway jumpers; the cuts that ended in layup/dunk attempts were a perfect 100% FG%. A&M is hyper-aggressive on defense, which lends itself well to forcing turnovers, but they can get drawn away from the basket and give up easy looks down low. Tennessee’s guards need to be smart in taking advantage of the open space down low, just as they did the first time out.

Defensively…don’t turn it over? Texas A&M scored 29 points on 21 transition possessions in the first game; the other 51 offensive possessions resulted in 51 points. You can survive A&M going for 1 PPP, but banking on a second-consecutive 1.2+ PPP game is probably not that realistic. If Tennessee takes care of the ball and forces A&M into half-court offense, the game will look and feel like your average Tennessee basketball game: Sludge City, USA.

A&M spent a lot of time in ball screens in the first game and more or less did nothing with them. Synergy credits the Aggies as putting up just seven points on Tennessee over the course of 18 possessions, which is atrocious. Tennessee completely shut down what Texas A&M primarily wanted to do, and it took lots of fouls and OREBs and a couple crazy shots for A&M to stay in the first game. (Also a serious overperformance on free throws: 21-for-25, or +4 above what they’d be expected to shoot.) If Tennessee continues to own the pick-and-roll, forcing Texas A&M’s ball-handlers into tough decisions, I think they win this game.

I mean: Tennessee is 40 minutes away from the first SEC Championship since many readers were born, including myself. They’re expected to win by every metric system in existence. Whatever it takes to win, win.

Starters + rotations

Three things to watch for

  • Turn the faucet off. Texas A&M is an impressive 15-0 when posting an eFG% of 53% or better and 8-11 otherwise. This is generally driven by how well they do/don’t hit threes; A&M is also 12-1 when shooting 40% or better from deep. A&M just posted its two best 3PT% performances of the entire season in this tournament, which is either a great sign if you believe in regression to the mean or a terrible one if you believe that we live in a painful simulation.
  • Can Tennessee choose its shots wisely? In the first battle, Tennessee only got 15 shots at the rim, but they went 13-for-15 and hit threes, so they won. A situation where Tennessee is not taking numerous mid-range jumpers is ideal; you really should be able to generate open threes with fair consistency as you did the first time.
  • Officiatin’. Well, obviously. But I mean it this time: A&M is 18-2 when the opponent shoots 20 or fewer free throw attempts and 5-9 otherwise.

Key matchups

Quenton Jackson vs. Josiah-Jordan James. Individual plus-minus is about as useful as nothing at all, but sometimes it’s right: Tennessee was +8 with James in the game for 30 minutes yesterday and -1 in 10 minutes without him. They’ll need James for 35 to slow down one of the hottest scorers in America.

Henry Coleman III vs. Center Roulette. Coleman has held steady throughout the year as a terrific rebounder and quality foul-drawer that nonetheless cannot create his own shot very well. If Tennessee restricts him to just rebounds and exploits his lack of verticality on defense, they could create a significant advantage.

Tyrece Radford vs. Santiago Vescovi. Pretty simple matchup: who shoots better? Radford is blistering the nets at the moment, but Vescovi may be the SEC’s best deep shooter.

Three predictions

  1. Santiago Vescovi hits four threes;
  2. Tennessee wins three of the Four Factors and commits fewer fouls;
  3. Tennessee 69, Texas A&M 63.

Show Me My Opponent, 2022 SEC Tournament: Kentucky (III)

OPPONENT #5 Kentucky
26-6, 14-4 SEC, #2 KenPom
9-16, 8-9 SEC, lol lol lol lol 2020-21
LOCATION Amalie Arena
Tampa, FL
TIME Saturday, March 12
3:30 PM ET
Jimmy Dykes (analyst)
SPREAD Sinners: Kentucky -3
KenPom: Kentucky -2

Torvik: Kentucky -1.1

You again. You again!!!!

Both of these teams took care of business yesterday, which is pretty useful at a time where the #1 seed in the SEC Tournament lost and the #11 seed gave Kentucky quite the 40-minute battle. Tennessee enters this game playing for a potential 2-seed, Kentucky possibly for the final 1 seed. This is also a great narrative battle: John Calipari vs. the only coach that’s beaten him with regularity in the SEC. John Fulkerson vs. the team he’s owned in years past but not so much in 2022. Kennedy Chandler vs. a fellow first-round pick. Shooter vs. shooter in Grady vs. Vescovi.

This is a great basketball game played on a day where you have nothing else to do but look at the snow and smile. What’s better than this? Just guys being dudes.

Kentucky’s offense

Well, I’ve previewed this team twice already, and 18 hours is not a great amount of time to write much in the way of new observations. That being said, here are the major changes.

  • Leading scorer and likely Player of the Year Oscar Tshiebwe (17.1 PPG, 15.2 RPG) has gone to a new level over the last month: 20.6 PPG, 15.6 RPG over a nine-game stretch where six opponents were among KenPom’s top 50 teams. Not bad, that.
  • TyTy Washington (12.6 PPG) and Sahvir Wheeler (10 PPG), the two point guards, both missed a pair of games with injuries, but are back to full health. Washington in particular was terrific against Vanderbilt in the quarterfinals.
  • A player stepping up: Jacob Toppin, who’s averaged 7.6 PPG/4 RPG over the last eight. Toppin still remains less than impactful as a shooter, but he’s unstoppable in the paint when he chooses to go there. His height/agility may be unmatched on UK’s roster.
  • A player stepping down: Keion Brooks, who’s averaged just 8 PPG (#6 on the team) in that same span. Brooks is 13-for-15 at the rim and 12-for-38 everywhere else to go with a team-worst 22% TO% rate.
  • Everything else is the same. Grady hits threes. Mintz does too, just not as much. The rotation is now firmly down to seven players, with Lance Ware being the occasional eighth.


Kentucky’s defense

Same as above. Two previews linked here; updates:

  • The offense has lost no steam whatsoever and has only gotten better; I cannot say the same about the defense. It’s been the 84th-best defense in CBB over Kentucky’s last 10 games, per Torvik, and recently fell outside the KenPom top 25 for the first time since Christmas.
  • This is because of a pair of serious issues: no turnovers being forced and mediocre defensive rebounding. Kentucky’s only forced turnovers on 15% of opponent possessions (300th-best) and has allowed OREBs on 30.6% of missed shots (284th) since February 2. The DREB% is more defensible because these are largely very good rebounding teams, but the complete lack of turnovers forced is a problem.
  • Along with this: the interior/two-point defense is…strangely average? Kentucky ranks 74th in season-long 2PT% allowed, which would be very good for many programs but is the third-worst rate of the Calipari era. Over the last 10, opponents are converting 49.2% of twos, which ranks 148th-best.
  • The key is still that they never foul. Among the seven-man rotation, no player has averaged more than 3.4 fouls per 40 over the last month, and Tshiebwe sits at an astounding 2.4. Tennessee got him in foul trouble on home court, but a neutral court feels like tough sledding.
  • None of the individual Kentucky defenders grade out as obviously bad, but Brooks has the worst Synergy metrics and on/off splits via Hoop-Explorer. His main matchup: Josiah-Jordan James.

How Tennessee matches up

Two consistencies have happened in Tennessee’s two battles with Kentucky:

  1. Tennessee has gotten a surprising amount of open catch-and-shoot threes via drive-and-kick actions;
  2. Tennessee has used off-ball screens to create quality ball movement, which has led to a surprising amount of easy points at the rim.

Considering it’s held true for two, the first should probably work for three. Kentucky’s roster construction lends itself to quality perimeter defense for most opponents, but something about the off-ball motion of Tennessee’s offense has given them a higher shot quality than most. I don’t know that I could fully explain it, but part of this is just that Tennessee’s frontcourt sets a ton of perimeter screens, and Kentucky’s frontcourt (AKA, Tshiebwe) are not often willing to leave the paint. This is how you create sink-and-shoot scenarios as such:

If Kentucky continues to struggle to cover the perimeter against Tennessee specifically, I remain confident that Tennessee can find a points advantage outside of the paint. They’ve outscored Kentucky by nine on threes through two games, which is pretty important for a game projected to be very close.

The other part of this is utilizing some of Tshiebwe’s defensive limitations. As amazing a shot-blocker and rebounder as he is, you can still pull him away from the paint if you pull your frontcourt pairing out of the paint. Tennessee has consistently done this since Nkamhoua went out, which is nice, because I think most people had grown tired of Tennessee’s post-up addiction. They’ll still do it some, but it won’t be that often. This is useful because if you draw Tshiebwe out, that leaves a gap down low that basically no other UK rotation member can replace. Cutting to the basket at this time is how you generate points consistently.

The Kentucky defense is the significantly lesser unit of the two. Can it still choke out an opponent? Of course, because they’re crazy talented. But their struggle in putting away teams with defense as of late is of serious interest. You’ve gotta be able to do that to make the Final Four. I know Tennessee can. What about Kentucky?

Anyway, the defensive side of this is pretty similar to the last two: do whatever you can to wall off the paint and force Kentucky to shoot over the top of it. Kentucky has had games where they’ve shot well, but threes aren’t exactly their forte. Tennessee fixed the ball-screen issue at TBA, but they’re still giving up some good looks from deep to Kentucky. If Tennessee turns these into guarded, tough threes:

They can easily win this game. Then again, the guy shooting that is Kellan Grady, who is absurdly good from anywhere. Tennessee’s gotta hope for positive variance in their favor and a favorable officiating crew that lets some contact go between Tshiebwe and the various centers.

Starters + rotations

Three things to watch for

  • Consider this: hit shots. This is going to be the first bullet of this section until the end of time, or at least until I think of something else. All six of Kentucky’s losses have come when the opponent has posted a 50% eFG%, which Tennessee has managed to do both times out. Likewise, UK is 20-1 when posting 50% or better.
  • How big can you be on the boards? Kentucky’s posted a 40% or better OREB% in five of the last eight games, which is insane considering the competition. Adjusted for competition, Tennessee has been one of the ~25 best defensive rebounding teams this season. If Tennessee can find a way to keep that Kentucky number at 30% or so, it’s a good sign.
  • Is TyTy the guy? Tennessee can reasonably survive a great Tshiebwe game if no one else steps up to help. The TBA win would’ve happened regardless, but it was obviously helped by Washington being hobbled somewhat. Washington was fantastic against Vandy yesterday; a Tennessee win is very reliant on him not following that up.

Key matchups

Oscar Tshiebwe vs. Center Roulette. Typing that out is anxiety-inducing. Tshiebwe is the POY front-runner; Tennessee’s best frontcourt player is entirely up to debate on any given night. If Tennessee holds Tshiebwe to similar numbers as posted in TBA (13 & 15 on 5-15 shooting) it’s a massive win.

TyTy Washington Jr. vs. Santiago Vescovi. Washington will end up being matched with a few different guys, but Vescovi should get the lion’s share of minutes and could potentially go a full 40 if not in foul trouble. Washington is a terrific mid-range shooter but is vulnerable to variance from deep; Vescovi may be the single best deep shooter in the league. Exciting matchup!

Sahvir Wheeler vs. Kennedy Chandler. Wheeler’s best attribute is his speed, which can blind opponents on his best nights. The unfortunate part of it for Wheeler is that his shooting is not often matching his agility. If Chandler can force Wheeler into a lot of pull-ups or runners, I will be with all of the people who say he should be on the All-Defense team. (He probably should’ve been on a 10-man All-Defense team.)

Three predictions

  1. Tshiebwe puts up another double-double (17 & 13 or so) but requires 15 shots to get there;
  2. Josiah-Jordan James leads Tennessee in scoring;
  3. Kentucky 69, Tennessee 68.

Show Me My Opponent, 2021-22: Mississippi State (II)

OPPONENT Mississippi State
18-14, 8-10 SEC, #44 KenPom
18-15, 8-10 SEC, NIT runner-up 2020-21
LOCATION Amalie Arena
Tampa, FL
TIME Friday, March 11
Dane Bradshaw (analyst)
SPREAD Sinners: Tennessee -8
KenPom: Tennessee -6

Torvik: Tennessee -6.2

One of the nice things about basketball is that you can just point at a calculator and say 3 > 2 sometimes. This doesn’t always work, because it is better to be good at both than to be good at one or the other. However, if you’re blatantly bad at one or if you’re living out 1984 and telling your team that 2 + 2 = 5, this turns into a problem. As such, I think this explains Mississippi State basketball, a team that is 0-10 as an underdog (18-4 as favorite) in part because they do not understand that threes are a part of modern basketball.

Tennessee enters this game on a heater, having won 12 of 14 despite losing a starter to season-ending injury. Mississippi State did blow out South Carolina last night, but this may be window-dressing on a season that began 13-5, 4-2 SEC and is now 18-14, 8-10. Ben Howland’s job is in serious limbo, with buzz growing on ESPN+ articles that his time is drawing to a close in Starkville. If only he had the TI-83 to add 2 and 3 together.

Mississippi State’s offense

Tennessee played this team barely a month ago, so you can read a full overview of the offense from the first post. These are the updates:

  • After losing a must-win game, Ben Howland panicked his way into trying three new starting lineups before eventually arriving back at the one they started against Tennessee. Nothing has changed, but I figured you might smile at that.
  • As State’s season has turned into desperation mode, the best player hasn’t been the guy everyone would expect, but rather Tolu Smith (13.8 PPG/6.2 RPG season-long, 15.5 PPG/6.1 RPG last 8 games). Smith is attempting nearly 6 FTs a game, has put up a 72.7% FG% on 55 rim attempts, and has become the co-#1 option offensively.
  • The other is the obvious: Iverson Molinar (17.8 PPG). Molinar had a great season, but since the Tennessee game he’s taken a significant hit: 44% on twos and 14% (!) on threes, both of which are 9% and 12% decreases from season-long numbers. A 39.9% eFG% in the month your team needs you most is egregious.
  • Beyond that, no one has averaged more than 8.1 PPG since the Tennessee game. Next up on the scoring list is D.J. Jeffries at 9.4 PPG season-long, but his usage rate is barely above that of Justin Powell’s.
  • The most efficient guy right now is Andersson Garcia (6.5 PPG/5.8 RPG since February 9), but his impact is more felt on defense and his main source of scoring income is an incredible ability to draw fouls.
  • Here’s the stat that I feel sums up why Ben Howland will be either retired or coaching somewhere else in a year: over the last nine games, no Mississippi State player has made more than five three-pointers. The team as a whole since February 9: 17.8% from deep on 112 attempts.

CHART! Small updates from the first time. Rocket Watts was DFA’d picked up a practice injury and seems done for the year.

Mississippi State’s defense

First preview is linked here. Updates:

  • State’s defense has surprisingly strengthened a tad since last time out; Torvik ranks them as 40th-best over the last 10 games.
  • The problem is that this is largely driven by an opponent 28.2% hit rate on threes, which I would be more inclined to believe in if State wasn’t posting a 52/48 Guarded/Unguarded rate. That’s about average, which is fine, but 28.2% is significantly below average. Regression coming.
  • Everything else is more or less the same. Context-free stats would indicate a defensive rebounding flaw, as opponents have rebounded 30% of their misses over the last month-plus (#265 nationally). However, that’s 2.5% below expectation, as the opponents have averaged 32.5% this season. Still good.
  • The scariest guy on defense right now is Garcia, who has posted 12 steals in the last six games. State’s defense is 8.2 points better per 100 possessions when he’s on the court.
  • Nothing else new to report. State still doesn’t press unless it’s desperation time and never runs a zone defense. Something interesting is that of State’s five lowest 3PA% allowed this season, four have come in the last eleven games. State doesn’t have much in the way of rim protection and has consistently sat in the 200s in 2PT% allowed, so opponents don’t see much of a reason to bomb away all that often.

How Tennessee matches up

No GIFs today, sorry. Free time has been very limited this week. Back tomorrow, if applicable.

The fundamental yes/no question in every Mississippi State game this year has been if the opponent hit enough shots or not. I guess that holds for literally every team ever constructed, but it feels especially pertinent for State. The Bulldogs are a perfect 15-0 when winning the eFG% battle this season; they are 3-14 otherwise. It’s pretty stark, but it helps making preview a game on short notice very easy: hit your shots, win the game.

Tennessee’s largest and most consistent source of points this season has been simple: a guard drives the ball to the paint, then kicks out to an open shooter. Generally, this has been Santiago Vescovi or Josiah-Jordan James, but it could be anybody on the right night. If Tennessee gets quality paint penetration in this game, it’s going to open up a lot of looks from deep against one of the least-positive perimeter defenses the league has to offer. Tennessee’s main issue in this game, to me, is avoiding settling for mid-range jumpers like they did in the first battle. You’ve got to look for threes first; threes will be what drives the separation factor.

Along with this, State has done a poor job of defending ball screens this year. Synergy places them as 30th-percentile in P&R defense over the course of the season. Tennessee doesn’t usually run many ball screens, but in the first game, they posted more P&R possessions (21) than they had in all but two other SEC regular season games. Clearly, Barnes and company see this as an area of opportunity.

The key is to utilize the passing ability of the ball-handler. Chandler and Zeigler can pressure the rim very well, but it’s their passing ability that could really open this game up for Tennessee. A well-timed pass to the roll man can both provide two points and help sink State inward to open more looks from deep.

The defensive side of this is a curious and weird case. For once, you don’t really have much fear of the opponent out-shooting you from deep. No high-major basketball team gets a lower percentage of its points from three than Mississippi State; just once since the Tennessee game have they hit more than three threes. Instead, this is all about protecting the rim. State will take a bunch of mid-range twos and you’ve got to live with that, but making sure the shots at the rim are well-contested and hard to convert is of utmost importance.

State’s biggest drivers of points down low have unsurprisingly been Molinar and Smith, but in half-court play, it’s Smith’s basket cuts that have shredded opponents. Tennessee has to toe the delicate line between committing too much to a driving Molinar and overplaying to allow Smith open while also not undercommitting to Molinar. The good news I can share is that Tennessee remains an excellent basket cut defense. In the first game, State only scored four points on seven cuts. It took a significant shooting overperformance for them to stay in the game. Absent that, Tennessee needs to control this game within five feet of the rim.

Starters + rotations

Metric explanations: Role is algorithmically-determined by Bart Torvik. MPG is minutes per game. PPG/RPG/APG/Fouls/Twos/Threes are what you’d guess. USG% is the percentage of possessions a player uses on the court. OREB%/DREB% are your available rebounds usurped. Finally, PRPG! is Bart Torvik’s Points Over Replacement metric; the higher the better. If you’re on mobile, zoom in; if on desktop, right click -> Open Image in New Tab.

Three things to watch for

  • Make shots. Again, the stat: State is 15-0 when they win eFG%, 3-14 when they lose. If Tennessee hits 8-9 threes in this one I’m not really sure how State would overcome that beyond either turnovers or a foul parade.
  • Frontcourt production. Mississippi State obviously has the best player of either frontcourt in Smith, but can Tennessee find someone that’s better than Garrison Brooks at the 4? This is a game I’d expect Josiah-Jordan James to show out.
  • Protect the boards. Mississippi State is 2-6 this year when held to a 30% OREB% or lower; Tennessee, in their first post-Nkamhoua game, held State to 28% the first time out. I guess people are allowed to live in fear after the Arkansas rebounding issues, but that’s the only time Tennessee’s gotten got on the boards in a surprising manner since the injury.

Key matchups

Iverson Molinar vs. Kennedy Chandler. And also Zakai Zeigler. Molinar may play all 40 in this one and has regularly taken on 35-36 minutes a night as of late. His shooting post-Vols (38.8% eFG%) has been atrocious, but I would prefer to not let this be the game he reheats.

Tolu Smith vs. Center Roulette. So, as of now, Center Roulette’s main minutes-getter is Jonas Aidoo…which would be fine if he wasn’t almost tied with Uros Plavsic for center minutes. Roulette it remains. Anyway, Smith has been State’s best player over the last month and can change the game with how frequently he draws fouls.

Garrison Brooks vs. Josiah-Jordan James. This will be BHH to start, but James will most commonly draw the matchup. Brooks is 14-for-50 on everything that’s not a layup/dunk over the last month and frankly may be State’s worst defender; this is why I think James could have a big game.

Three predictions

  1. This is the final game Ben Howland coaches at Mississippi State, but NOT because he is fired;
  2. Chandler and Vescovi combine for 10 assists;
  3. Tennessee 69, Mississippi State 61.

Show Me My Opponent, 2021-22: Georgia

6-23, 1-15 SEC, #209 KenPom
14-12, 7-11 SEC 2020-21
LOCATION Stegeman Coliseum
Athens, GA
TIME Tuesday, March 1
6:30 PM ET
Dane Bradshaw (analyst)
SPREAD KenPom: Tennessee -16
Torvik: Tennessee -12.8

Before this post starts, I wanted to get it on this site that I’m sincerely thankful for everyone who’s reached out in the last week. I read all of your comments and tweets and they really helped me get through what was a pretty rough week. It is good to be back in a normal routine.

Also, it’s not like I was going to miss this one. Sometime in the summer, I went on Chase Thomas’s show and said that Georgia had the worst roster I had seen in the SEC in nearly a decade. I felt pretty good about that, but when Georgia beats Memphis and Alabama in the same season you start to wonder about it. Then again, that Georgia team comes in at 6-23, 1-15 SEC, and you simply realize you were right. For once.

Georgia’s offense

Genuinely, this part of the Tom Crean Experience isn’t bad. Georgia has a top 100 offense that gets a ton of shots blocked and turns it over 24/7, but they have better scorers than I would’ve guessed in preseason and have had the 9th-best offense among SEC teams in conference play. Not bad! Promise! Crean’s reputation rests on the fact that he has a huge offensive playbook, so I guess that’s nice.

There are three players you need to know: Kario Oquendo (15.3 PPG), Braelen Bridges (12.7 PPG), and Aaron Cook (10.1 PPG). First scorers first: Oquendo is a sophomore who’s been the biggest positive surprise on the roster. He plays 2-4 but spends most of his time at the 3. Whenever Oquendo learns to shoot, I think he could be a legitimate All-SEC contender under a better coach; he is 48-for-176 (27.3%) on everything that isn’t within four feet of the rim this year. But man, he is incredible at the rim: 30 dunks, 102-for-151 (67.5%) down low. Don’t let him get loose in transition.

Bridges is the center and is entirely not a threat on jumpers, as he’s attempted two this season. Instead, you have to deal with an array of post moves and work down low, as he’s Georgia’s most consistent threat at the rim in half-court offense. He’s hitting 81.8% of his shots at the rim on non-transition possessions, which is an insane rate that you would expect from, like, Giannis.

Cook will not get a GIF because this post needs to be short, but he was the eighth or so best player on Gonzaga’s runner-up team last year. Here, he’s been fine, but inefficient (91 ORtg) and a pretty middling 28% 3PT% shooter. Cook’s main feature is that he’s Georgia’s only true point guard, and when your point guard is a guy that would probably be Tennessee’s seventh or eighth man…well, it’s not great. He holds a 24% TO% and has a 43.5% eFG% on the season. Not quite Disaster Factory stuff, but because announcers have to find someone on this roster to praise, prepare yourself.

Only two other players average more than 5 PPG: Noah Baumann (8.5 PPG) and Jabri Abdur-Rahim (7.3 PPG). Baumann is the only consistent deep threat on this roster, a guy that’s 41% from deep on the season and 42.5% for his career. He’s absolutely worth running off the line, even if it means Georgia gets an open look at the rim. Abdur-Rahim barely played at Virginia last year and functions as the sixth man of sorts here. He’s the second best shooter (33.7% 3PT%) but is bizarrely awful at Other Twos, going 4-for-30 on the year. Jaxon Etter averages 5 PPG but shoots it not even four times a game.


Yes: “Be afraid.” 😬
Somewhat: “They can hit this but not very efficiently.” 🤔
No: “Either never attempts this shot or is atrocious at making it.” 🥳

Georgia’s defense

I think my public high school experience, even in rural Tennessee, was probably similar to most in two very specific ways: 1. Every high school has a few ‘bands’ that last a year or two; 2. These bands are largely terrible, but you know the people in them, so you root for them to succeed. Anyone who attempts to play music in a public setting, in some sense, deserves applause. It’s not easy to try. This being said, you can absolutely feel second-hand embarrassment for someone else being very, very bad at something.

This is how I feel watching Georgia attempting to play defense in a public setting.

358 teams play Division I college basketball. 358 teams attempt to stop other teams from scoring at the rim. Georgia ranks 358th in FG% allowed at the rim, the very worst mark in college basketball. It does not matter how hard your schedule is. It probably does not matter what year of a tenure your coach is in. Injuries matter, but not this level of matter. Top to bottom, this is the single most embarrassing defense the SEC has had in 20 years.

If you want it hammered in – and why not, I think I’ve earned this – here is a list of fun facts about this Georgia defense, which shares a campus with the greatest football defense of the last decade.

  • The 13th-best SEC defense has allowed 1.081 PPP in conference play. Georgia has allowed 1.178.
  • Georgia has held three opponents below 1 PPP this season. Three.
  • The last time Georgia held an opponent below 1 PPP was December 7 against Jacksonville.
  • Georgia has not held an opponent below 50% on twos since December 7.
  • Georgia is undefeated (4-0) in games where the opponent turns it over on 23% or more of possessions. Unfortunately for Georgia, they have played 25 other games.

I cannot identify a single positive individual defender on this defense. It would be genuinely depressing to score below 1.1 PPP; only four SEC teams have fallen below that mark. It’s to the point that the fact they don’t foul is entirely an afterthought. Opponents take a lot of threes, too, and Georgia doesn’t guard those well either (52/48 Guarded/Unguarded).

This is a bad roster. This is worse effort. I’d imagine this starts at the top, because their coach last oversaw a Top 100 KenPom defense when Obama was in office.

How Tennessee matches up

I mean, just go to the rim. This is overly simplistic, but whatever. You are playing the worst rim defense in the SEC, and possibly the worst rim defense in modern SEC history. I cannot believe a team would be this bad at it, but hey, do your thing. None of their guards can consistently stop a drive to the rim. None of their frontcourt guys can stop a basket cut. Shots are blocked by accident if at all. The best defender on the roster commits 3.8 fouls per 40. Just go to the rim, whether by Chandler or by cut.

The rim is the point. Everything else is secondary. Sure, Tennessee should hit some threes in this one, because Georgia gives up a lot of open ones. But the first priority has to be exploiting this atrocious rim defense, forcing them to pack the paint, and then shooting over the top of them with ease. If Tennessee plays this correctly, they should score 80+ with little sweat.

Defensively, it is also mostly about the rim, but in the sense that you can’t let Oquendo get loose in transition and you have to get the ball out of Bridges’ hands in the half-court. The worst-case scenario involves Georgia hitting a few more threes than expected, but it also means Bridges and/or Oquendo getting a lot of buckets in the paint. It happened to Memphis, it happened to Alabama, it could…well, maybe happen to Tennessee. But even so: just cut it off. If Tennessee slows this game down, the path to points for Georgia is hard to envision beyond an outlier shooting day.

This is a great game to continue doing all the little things Tennessee normally does well: shrink passing lanes, stuff the gaps, make Georgia take a lot of bad two-pointers, let everyone not named Baumann take threes. Tennessee has a very smart roster with lots of quality defenders on it. It would be nice to see them do what we’ve grown used to them doing.

Starters + rotations

Metric explanations: Role is algorithmically-determined by Bart Torvik. MPG is minutes per game. PPG/RPG/APG/Fouls/Twos/Threes are what you’d guess. USG% is the percentage of possessions a player uses on the court. OREB%/DREB% are your available rebounds usurped. Finally, PRPG! is Bart Torvik’s Points Over Replacement metric; the higher the better. If you’re on mobile, zoom in; if on desktop, right click -> Open Image in New Tab.

Three things to watch for

  • Focus. Does Tennessee come out looking ahead to Saturday’s Arkansas game? Does Tennessee build an early lead, then let Georgia back into it because they’re focusing on Arkansas? This goes for Georgia as well, whose head coach may get fired for cause. If Georgia goes down by 10, does that turn into 20 in a four-minute span?
  • Shootin’. Georgia has actually shot fairly well in SEC play; they’re the 5th-best 3PT% team at 34.4%. Tennessee enters at 35.7%, or second-best. If Tennessee outshoots Georgia from deep I am genuinely unsure of how or why this game would be within ~12 points in the final minutes.
  • How much of a blowout is turnover margin? This is #18 vs. #340 in turnover margin. Tennessee winning this stat by less than 6 would be kind of disappointing.

Key matchups

Kario Oquendo vs. Santiago Vescovi. The games where Georgia’s played above expectation have largely been ones where Oquendo goes for 25+, excluding the Alabama win. Just don’t let him go off. Also would be nice for Vescovi to generate some offense inside the 3PT line.

Braelen Bridges vs. Center Roulette. Bridges has been insane at the rim and is one of the few nice things Georgia has. It would be ideal to hold him to his average of 12 or less.

Three predictions

  1. Tennessee wins turnover margin by 7+;
  2. John Fulkerson is the game’s KenPom MVP;
  3. Tennessee 82, Georgia 67.

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

OPPONENT #23 Arkansas
20-6, 10-4 SEC, #22 KenPom
25-7, 13-4 SEC, Elite Eight 2020-21
LOCATION Springfield Mystery Spot
Fayetteville, AR
TIME Saturday, February 19
Dane Bradshaw (analyst)
SPREAD KenPom: Tennessee -1
Torvik: Arkansas -0.9

It just feels pretty good man. Tennessee essentially needed to leave this week no worse than 1-1 to keep pace for the SEC 2 seed and for a top-three NCAA Tournament seed. All you had to do was win one. You got the one, and now you can travel into the Fayetteville House of Horrors For Anyone Not Named Arkansas with house money and a relatively clean mindset.

The opponent is Arkansas, who looked dead in the water in mid-January and has instead risen from the ashes to become the consensus fourth-best team in the SEC. All three years under Musselman, they’ve had like a five-game span of suck and the rest is somewhere between good and great. Even better: this year, I’ll actually pick them in a bracket.

Arkansas’ offense

Well, I’m not sure what to tell you? Arkansas’ season is a tale of two not-quite-halves that I’m calling halves: the first 16 games where they rotated through eight different starting lineups thanks to injuries and poor play, followed by the last 10 games where they’ve stuck with a starting lineup and gone 9-1. The problem is that this matters a lot more for defense than offense (numbers via Torvik):

  • First 16 games: 48th overall, 48th offense, 69th defense
  • Last 10 games: 11th overall, 108th offense, 1st defense

So yeah, don’t know what to say other than just ride with the season-long numbers and hope it makes sense.

You can pretty neatly divide the Arkansas offensive attack into two halves as well: the primary break (transition) and the secondary break (half-court). You can also do this for literally every college basketball offense in existence, but bear with me. Arkansas’s aim off of a missed basket or turnover is to push the pace as much as possible. Per Hoop-Math, 31.8% of the Hogs’ first shot attempts in a possession are in the first ten seconds of the shot clock, which ranks 41st-quickest in the nation. Most of Arkansas’ offense is driven in general by J.D. Notae (18.8 PPG, 3.5 APG), but especially in transition, where he’s responsible for 108 shots this year, 42 more than anyone else on the team.

If you just look at the Synergy data, then both parts of this offense look good. Arkansas is in the 76th-percentile of offensive efficiency when pushing the pace; they’re in the 56th-percentile in half-court. That happens. But Hoop-Math is more objective when it comes to transition: either it’s in the first ten seconds of the shot clock or it isn’t. And that’s where the story begins to be told:

  • Transition eFG%: 58.1% (#65 of 358)
  • Half-court eFG%: 46.8% (#276 of 358)

Whenever the pace slows and Arkansas is forced to run their secondary actions, the offense turns to mush. That alone may explain how Arkansas has managed to get hot at the right time despite an offense that’s gotten significantly worse over a 9-1 stretch of play. The shot selection changes as well. Normally, that’s not something to care much about – every team’s shot selection gets worse the deeper the shot clock goes – but Arkansas is a bizarre extreme in this:

  • Transition: 48.2% of FGA at rim, 17.1% mid, 34.8% 3PA
  • All half-court: 33.8% rim, 32.8% mid, 33.4% 3PA
  • 25+ second possessions: 22% rim, 40.7% mid, 37.3% 3PA

Arkansas goes from Gonzaga in transition to Gonzaga 40 years ago deep in the shot clock. It’s bizarre, because Notae is the leader of both breaks, and Notae’s shooting gap on the rest of the roster actually grows in half-court (295 FGAs; next-closest 177). Notae’s problem is that he defaults to a jumper on 58% of his half-court possessions when…well, he’s kind of a below-average shooter.

Notae is 31.6% from deep this year on 177 attempts and a perfectly average 33.3% on 640 attempts for his career; he takes a ton of difficult shots and rarely gets off a clean look. He kind of has to, because as a whole, this Arkansas offense is light on jump shooters. Synergy ranks the Hogs in the 10th-percentile in jump-shooting in half-court offense, which is, you know, putrid. It helps the numbers in the graphic make sense: 31.4% from deep, a terrible hit rate, and 33.6% on two-point jumpers.

Arkansas has three other guys that average between 10.2 and 11.4 points per game: Stanley Umude (11.4), Au’Diese Toney (10.3), and Jaylin Williams (Not Auburn’s Jaylin Williams) (10.2). All three have their own strengths; to highlight the latter two, Toney is a lower-usage guy that’s terrific at scoring down low via basket cuts and some drives, while Williams (NAJW) is a big that posts up some but most frequently features in ball-screens with Notae.

Umude is the most interesting and versatile of the three. The South Dakota transfer has 40 or more makes at the rim, non-rim twos, and on threes. Is he particularly elite at any of them? Uh…not really! But he’s at least good at most forms of offense. Also, he’s annoyingly good at mid-range twos; prepare yourself for a couple that go down at some point.

Others: Chris Lykes (8.7 PPG) transferred in from Miami and is a horrific shooter that nonetheless will somehow get to 8 points. Davonte Davis (8.7 PPG) was the hero of last year’s Elite Eight run, but he’s struggled to follow that up; he’s at 26.4% on threes and has really only added value by driving to the rim. Everyone else, including Slenderman Connor Vanover, is at 4.2 PPG or lower.

CHART! The official Chart Guide is now as follows:

Yes: “Be afraid.” 😬
Somewhat: “They can hit this but not very efficiently.” 🤔
No: “Either never attempts this shot or is atrocious at making it.” 🥳

Arkansas’ defense

Unfortunately, this is the side of the ball that’s completely turned the Razorbacks’ season around. As mentioned in the offensive section, this has been the best defense in America over the course of the last month of play. Two things have driven this turnaround: a lot of forced turnovers and a terrific two-point defense turning up the heat.

Strangely enough, I don’t think Arkansas has changed that much structurally. It’s just that they seem to be working as a cohesive unit, investing a ton of effort on defense to ensure that the opponent is uncomfortable for all 30 seconds of the shot clock. This is a hyper-aggressive style of play that’s naturally going to commit some fouls, but the rewards are pretty obvious when things work out.

In this 10-game stretch, Arkansas has forced turnovers on 22.4% of opponent possessions, the 22nd-highest rate in that span. Notae is unsurprisingly a hound on that end, but a guy who’s taken a big step forward year-over-year is Jaylin Williams. Williams was promising last year, but he ran hot and cold depending on the night. His defense, particularly his dominance on the boards and in creating havoc plays, has helped turn this Arkansas defense as a unit into something special.

But, yeah: as a whole, this team has only given up a 43.6% hit rate on twos across their last ten games. Part of this is just that effort we’re talking about, but such effort has led to a worse shot selection for opponents. The share of three-point attempts by Arkansas opponents has fallen from 43.5% of all shots in non-conference play to 36.4% in the SEC. They’re running shooters off the line, and as mentioned in the Kentucky preview, this is the defense forcing the highest amount of runners/floaters in the SEC. The actual around-the-basket finishing rate for Razorback competition is around the national average, but they’re doing a great job of forcing shots from 6-9 feet that aren’t going down.

Along with that, the rate of shots at the rim has held steady, and the overall shot quality for Arkansas opponents has dropped dramatically. That’s how you produce a mid-season turnaround that’s turned Arkansas from a bubble team to a legitimate 6 or 7 seed no one hopes to draw come Selection Sunday.

And yet: it’s time to bring our old friend, the Regression Devil, back for another round. We last talked to him before the home battle with LSU, showing that LSU was beyond due for some massive three-point defense regression. The Tigers were holding opponents to about a 27% hit rate from deep; the expected hit rate was 34%. From that game onward, LSU has allowed a 33.5% 3PT% defensively. Regression, positive or negative, will eventually come for everyone.

That’s about the only flaw I can point out with this Arkansas defense: they’re probably due for an opponent heater from three. Over the last ten games, opponents have hit just 28.3% of their threes. To the Razorbacks’ credit, they’ve done a terrific job keeping the ball out of the corners, as just 21% of threes have been there. Still: of 138 catch-and-shoot threes allowed since January 15, 74 (53%) have been deemed Unguarded, per Synergy. The hit rate on these has been just 32.4%, nearly 5% below what would be expected of an average team.

It’s simply hard to see that holding, but the problem is that opponents are only getting off 13.8 catch-and-shoot threes per game over the last month of play. We’re talking about, like, one extra made three per game. This is a legitimately excellent defense now.

How Tennessee matches up

If those Arkansas last-10 numbers worry you, think about it this way: across Tennessee’s last ten games, they’ve had the 8th-best offense in America, adjusted for opponent. What’s strange about it is that they’ve actually struggled to hit twos (46.3%, or 283rd-best), but basically everything else is good: 39.6% from deep, a national-average offensive TO%, 34.1% OREB% (35th-best), and a top-100 free throw rate. Even if they cool off from downtown, which seems fairly likely, they could make up for it by just being more efficient down low.

As noted by the average finishing rate opponents have had against Arkansas, I think there’s some gold to be struck here. It’s not like you’re playing Georgia or whoever, but you can score in the paint with the correct timing against this group. Per Synergy, Arkansas ranks in the 11th-percentile in defending basket cuts. That’s pretty wild for a team that’s so good defensively otherwise, but when you’re as aggressive as they are, you can extend out too far and allow a passing lane to open for two easy points. Case in point:

Likewise, as mentioned, Arkansas has been terrific over the last month-plus at running shooters off the three-point line. I expect they’ll hound Santiago Vescovi throughout this one in an attempt to limit what Tennessee’s best deep shooter can do. The way I would counteract this is with a single-big lineup – four guards/wings, one center. Arkansas can run Vescovi off, but if everybody’s running everybody off, you either have a driving lane to the basket or a wide-open shooter somewhere else. Given the Guarded/Unguarded split Arkansas has posted both in conference play and season-long, I would use this to my advantage to give guys a chance to hit some open shots. Keep the ball moving.

At the risk of saying this will be…uh, “easier” defensively, it will be easier defensively than having to keep a Player of the Year contender off the boards. Arkansas’s offense is the less fearful unit of the two by a significant margin, and generally, the goal is just to make them hit jumpers. If you can stop or at least limit the transition game as much as you did against Kentucky, the Razorback half-court offense isn’t terribly impressive and goes cold for long stretches of game time.

A key thing I’m looking for: how well can you limit drives to the basket? Arkansas doesn’t do much in the way of post-ups, and the team’s two leaders in attempts at the rim are Notae and Toney, neither of whom play a frontcourt position. Notae in particular is willing to pull up for floaters; again, Tennessee did a great job of encouraging that on Tuesday. If you’re able to hold Arkansas to 20 or fewer attempts at the rim, you’re doing the best you can to ensure a victory.

Starters + rotations

Metric explanations: Role is algorithmically-determined by Bart Torvik. MPG is minutes per game. PPG/RPG/APG/Fouls/Twos/Threes are what you’d guess. USG% is the percentage of possessions a player uses on the court. OREB%/DREB% are your available rebounds usurped. Finally, PRPG! is Bart Torvik’s Points Over Replacement metric; the higher the better. If you’re on mobile, zoom in; if on desktop, right click -> Open Image in New Tab.

Three things to watch for

  • Turnovers. Arkansas has only lost the turnover battle in seven games this season; three of those were losses. Tennessee’s won the TO% battle in four in a row and five of six.
  • Who gets more from their bench? Oddly specific, but a potential area of success for Tennessee. In their last two SEC losses, Arkansas got a total of 29 bench points on 7-for-36 shooting.
  • Shooting. Duh! It’s basketball, after all. Arkansas is a perfect 14-0 when their opponent posts a 49% eFG% or worse and 6-6 otherwise; Tennessee is 15-1 when going for 49% or higher.

Key matchups

JD Notae vs. Kennedy Chandler. The deciding matchup. Even in games Arkansas has lost, Notae has shot well and kept the team in it. Chandler must bring it defensively for all 40 minutes.

Jaylin Williams vs. John Fulkerson. Alternately, a huge cluster of centers versus Jaylin Williams. As many as five different guys could get this matchup, and Jonas Aidoo certainly looks promising, but Fulkerson is likely to get the most minutes against the Razorbacks’ second-best player, who is terrific on D.

Au’Diese Toney vs. Santiago Vescovi. Josiah-Jordan James will start out with this matchup, but if Tennessee follows what they’ve followed for two weeks now, Vescovi will close. Toney does not jump out as an especially notable defender; Vescovi, unless double teamed, may shake loose for some open ones.

Three predictions

  1. I get a McDonald’s chicken biscuit, possibly two, on Saturday morning;
  2. Tennessee leads for over half the game before Bud Walton Arena happens;
  3. Arkansas 70, Tennessee 68.

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

OPPONENT #4 Kentucky
21-4, 10-2 SEC, #3 KenPom
9-16, 8-9 SEC 2020-21
LOCATION Thompson-Boling Arena
Knoxville, TN
TIME Tuesday, February 15
Jimmy Dykes (analyst)
Marty Smith (!) (sideline)
SPREAD Sinners: Tennessee -1.5
KenPom: Kentucky -1

Torvik: Kentucky -0.4

I don’t watch the comic book superhero movies you all talk about endlessly online, but based on my very limited understanding, this is like Infinity War, where your hated rival now has a Greek God at center and you need a full team effort to defeat them. Or something.

Kentucky is Kentucky, and they are quite good. Tennessee is also very good and is playing this game at home. Armageddon is back, and you get to watch a little mini-war for two hours.

Kentucky’s offense

One look at those numbers and the Grand Theft Auto GIF immediately pops up in your mind.

It brings me zero pleasure to report that this is the best offense Calipari’s put out since Jamal Murray was on campus and the highest-ranking among its in-season peers since the 2011-12 title team. Some of the same problems from last year that I felt existed during the first game this year against Duke still exist – they take an absurd amount of non-rim twos that don’t go down that often, they probably should take more threes, and I still don’t know that they have a truly consistent three-level scorer – but also, who cares. They’re a top-5 offense for a wide variety of reasons, mostly that they are impossible to stop down low and rebound like crazy.

This naturally leads us to the Thanos in the room: Oscar Tshiebwe (16.4 PPG, 15.2 RPG), who is currently on pace to be the first Division I player to average 15 & 15 in 42 years. Tshiebwe does not feature much in transition when Kentucky wants to run, but the plurality of their half-court offense runs through him. With Tshiebwe on the court, Kentucky scores an opponent-adjusted 1.246 PPP, which would make them nearly the best offense in America. Attempting to stop him in the post has been like attempting to stop a runaway train by throwing a Nerf ball at it.

Aside from post play, Tshiebwe doesn’t stand out that much offensively; his second-most frequent play type is putbacks. The problem is that his putbacks are lethal. Tshiebwe is the best rebounder in America and rebounds 20% of Kentucky’s misses when he’s on the court. If you can hold him off of the offensive boards, your odds of winning greatly increase; Kentucky’s three post-Duke losses all featured Tshiebwe getting four or fewer OREBs. That task is easier said than done; only Mississippi State has a better DREB% than Tennessee among Kentucky’s SEC opponents, and Tshiebwe got 22 boards against them.

Moving on from that fear to the next one! TyTy Washington is the co-point guard and a potential lottery pick; he’s also the #2 option offensively (12.8 PPG, 4.2 APG). Washington’s main feature this year has been a solid assist-to-turnover ratio, but he’s been terrific scoring off of ball-screens (87th-percentile in P&R offense). The scariest thing he offers is his ability to knock down non-rim twos at an absurd hit rate of 51.4%, with mid-range jumpers specifically sitting at 49.4%.

Considering Washington gets almost as many expected points (1.028 per shot) on non-rim twos as he does from threes (1.038), he’s genuinely scary pretty much anywhere on the court. However, here’s something worth noting:

  • Washington on jumpers from 0-15 feet: 26-for-37 (70.3%)
  • Washington, 16-21 feet: 15-for-46 (32.6%)
  • Washington, threes: 27-for-78 (34.6%)

There’s a clear delineation: Washington inside the free-throw line is more dangerous than Washington outside it. If you can restrict him from getting within 15 feet, you’ll feel better. Good luck doing that. HOWEVER: Washington is also questionable to play after picking up an injury against Florida, which would obviously impact Kentucky’s offense in a negative manner.

The other two guys worth highlighting are Kellan Grady (12.1 PPG) and Sahvir Wheeler (9.7 PPG, 7.2 APG). (Keion Brooks averages more than Wheeler, but doesn’t do much self-creation.) Grady is mostly Just A Shooter (75% of all shots from deep), but he’s a truly elite shooter: 73-for-166, or 44%. It is truly mystifying to me that he gets open at all, but he’s elite both in catch-and-shoot scenarios (47.3%) and off the dribble (41%). He floats around the court, but most of Grady’s shooting is generated in the corners and at the low end of the wings.

If you leave him open, well, you get what you deserve.

Wheeler is less known for his shooting/self-creation than what he opens up for everyone else on the team. Wheeler is lightning-fast and makes the offense play way faster; Kentucky spends almost 20% more time in transition when Wheeler’s on the court. Wheeler himself is an openly bad shooter – 9-for-34 from three, 18-for-74 mid-range – but he creates so many opportunities for everyone else that it generally doesn’t matter.

The best chance you have against Kentucky, at least through 25 games of play, is to stop the transition game and force a half-court oriented style. Unfortunately, the half-court offense is elite, too. Good luck and such.

Others of note: Keion Brooks, Jr. (11.2 PPG) is the fourth-leading scorer. Not much of a shooter (5-for-22 on threes), but he’s excellent for his size on the boards and is dangerous in transition. Davion Mintz (8.9 PPG) was Just A Shooter last year and is still hitting 37% of his threes this season, but has evolved to be at least competent at the rim and in mid-range. Jacob Toppin (5.8 PPG) is 10-for-31 on everything that isn’t a rim attempt, but is hitting 73% of shots down low.

CHART! The official Chart Guide is now as follows:

Yes: “Be afraid.” 😬
Somewhat: “They can hit this but not very efficiently.” 🤔
No: “Either never attempts this shot or is atrocious at making it.” 🥳

Kentucky’s defense

Not quite as displeasing to look at as the offensive chart is, but it’s pretty close. Kentucky has an excellent defense that kind of got taken apart by Tennessee at times in the first game, but they haven’t allowed an opponent to top 1 PPP since Auburn on January 22. The most similar defense Cal’s had is probably the 2018-19 version with P.J. Washington: not elite at blocking shots, but great at forcing one-on-one scoring and very tough to score on in general.

Indeed, this is a great unit. Still: what about that absence of blocks? Kentucky ranks 77th in Block% right now, which is good for most teams but terrible for a Kentucky program that’s ranked 32nd or better in every Calipari season and no worse than 39th since the Tubby Smith era. Kentucky ranks out well in a lot of things, but even Synergy, who’s pretty charitable to the ‘Kats, ranks this around-the-basket defense as in the 78th-percentile. Hoop-Math’s play-by-play data ranks them 198th as of the time of writing. This isn’t quite as fearful a unit down low as they used to be.

The problem is that, well, it’s still a great overall unit. The key of each Calipari team is its ability to force and block non-rim twos, and this one is no different. Kentucky forces more non-rim twos than all but 26 teams in the nation and blocks more of these shots than all but ten, so that part is legitimate once again. The structure of Kentucky’s defense sinks inward to prevent you from getting all the way to the rim on a typical possession. I imagine it’ll come as no surprise that Kentucky forces more runners and floaters than everyone but Arkansas in the SEC.

Still, the path to scoring is there. Tennessee found it in the first meeting, if you’re able to remember the actual positives of that day. In the first meeting, Tennessee went 14-for-19 at the rim and 20-for-35 (57.1%) on twos as a whole, which is tied for Tennessee’s best 2PT% against Kentucky in the Calipari era. As I’d expected before the game, Tennessee found a lot of success attacking the paint by way of ball-screens and basket cuts, with Kennedy Chandler having an immense amount of success in making Kentucky sweat.

For all of the great that comes with your standard Kentucky defense – and there is a lot – there’s still holes. Kentucky ranks in the 68th-percentile in ball-screen defense after a switch occurs, per Synergy. They’re in the 56th-percentile at defending cuts to the basket and the 53rd-percentile in defending the roll man on ball-screens. We’ve already talked about the rim issues, but also recall that Tennessee had a lot of success from deep in the first matchup.

The problem is that Kentucky seems to have gotten better at defending the perimeter since that game, now posting a 64/36 Guarded/Unguarded rate compared to the 57/43 they had entering the game. They funnel a lot of opponent attempts to the top of the key, which (by about 0.2-0.5%) is generally the least-efficient of the five three-point areas on the court. Opponents are hitting 40.4% of these catch-and-shoot attempts from deep, but everywhere else is tough: 25% 3PT% allowed in the corners, 26% at the wings. I’d simply argue they’ve been a little lucky in those two while unlucky up top, because most of these are good guards.

My preference would be for Tennessee to attack the wings of the court, where they’ve been most efficient this year, and see how real that 26% is. (Also the corners, obviously.) If they get suckered into a bunch of top-of-the-key threes, you obviously hope they hit them, but the process doesn’t feel quite as agreeable as that of a wing/corner three.

How Tennessee matches up

Honest to God, my first thought was “do the exact same thing you did last time.” Tennessee had a genuinely excellent offensive performance against what’s now a top-15 defense in going for 1.081 PPP, putting up a 62.9% eFG%, and rebounding a third of their misses. If you simply cut down on the turnovers, they could’ve put up 85. The problem is that the opponent put up 107 on the worst shooting day the program has ever surrendered.

The first time out, Tennessee seemed to identify Kentucky’s defensive flaws and did a really good job of exploiting them. As a summary:

  • 20 points on 19 P&R possessions (Tennessee’s normal averages: 12 on 14)
  • 11 points on 8 cut possessions (Normal: 9 on 7)
  • 33 points on 23 catch-and-shoot threes (Normal: 21 on 20)

Kentucky will undoubtedly adjust, but this reminds me a lot of the 2018-19 series. That year, I thought Tennessee did a pretty good job offensively in the first game and got a lot of quality looks. It simply happened to come the same night as Kentucky’s best offensive performance of the season. In the return game, Tennessee pushed their ball-screen usage to a season-high and diced apart Kentucky’s defense to the tune of a 71-52 win. I doubt Tennessee will do the same and win by 28 tonight, but a similar exploration of Chandler/Zeigler in the pick-and-roll could really pay dividends, whether that’s with their own scoring or with passing.

Similarly, Tennessee has to exploit the three-point line to win this game. Like it or not, there’s no better path to a victory that I can imagine. Of Kentucky’s six worst defensive performances this season, five have seen the opponent shoot 32% or better from three, and four of those were 38% or higher. Kentucky’s done a great job of limiting some of the issues they had last time out, but you look at that catch-and-shoot number and it’s hard to ignore.

It’s also as if that first Kentucky game led Tennessee to discover what actually makes them tick offensively. To boot:

  • Pre-Kentucky (15 games): 32.2% 3PT% on 27 attempts a game
  • Kentucky and after (9 games): 39% 3PT% on 23.3 attempts a game

Tennessee’s three-point attempt rate is only about 2% lower, but they’ve been able to use that three-point gravity to draw opponents out and allow for better looks inside the perimeter. If Tennessee came out against Kentucky and took their first five shots from three (assuming those shots were given to the appropriate players), would anyone blame them? You’ve got to find the extra points you need in a space you feel confident in. I think that as it is in many basketball games, deep balls can be the difference-making havoc Tennessee needs.

Defensively…well, frankly, Tennessee played poorly last time out. That much is obvious. I don’t think they played “give up the worst defensive efficiency the program has ever seen” bad, but whatever, Kentucky hit a bunch of shots and it was very much Their Day. Even if Tennessee played their exact same style of defense this game, Kentucky almost certainly would not score 107 points on 73 possessions.

Still, changes need to be made. If we’re going to show how Tennessee exploited Kentucky in the first game, we should obviously do the reverse:

  • 28 points on 19 P&R possessions (Kentucky’s normal averages: 16 on 18)
  • 31 points on 18 transition possessions (Normal: 21 on 20)
  • 30 points on 14 catch-and-shoot threes (Normal: 15 on 14)

That’s a ton of points above expectation. In the first game, Kentucky exploited Tennessee in two different ways: single coverage, where Sahvir Wheeler sped past Kennedy Chandler on several occasions, and hedges (mostly the second half), where Kentucky exploited some of the poor agility the Tennessee frontcourt features. Neither was what I’d call a pleasure to watch.

The fix for this is complicated, but some of it is just hedging stronger and forcing Kentucky to shoot over the top of Tennessee rather than speeding to the rim. If Tennessee can craft something that enables Chandler to stay with Wheeler while not committing 1.5 defenders and giving Kentucky an offensive power play, the odds of a victory go up immensely. Outside of Grady and Mintz, I genuinely do not believe in this Kentucky roster’s game-to-game ability to shoot their way to a win. If Washington is really out – and I don’t know that as of now, but it seems like it may happen – that’s Kentucky’s one knock-down mid-range shooter gone. Make them shoot early and often.

Secondly, I have a bizarre-but-possibly-not-stupid theory for encouraging the threes: run a zone. I don’t want the zone for the full game, just a few possessions here and there. Before I am murdered, let me explain: Kentucky’s barely faced much in the way of zone defense this year. Synergy pegs it at about 4.8 possessions per game, and in that small sample size, Kentucky’s been significantly worse (to the tune of 3.7% lower eFG%) than they have against a man-to-man defense.

The crux of it is this: against zones, Kentucky hasn’t been as effective at the rim (56% FG% versus 65% in man, per Synergy) and they’ve struggled greatly to hit threes, going just 13-for-45 from deep. Here’s the most interesting part of that: Kellan Grady is 6-for-14 against a zone from deep. The rest of the Kentucky roster combined: 7-for-31. Grady only hits the bench about 4 minutes per night in SEC play, but even trying the zone for a couple minutes with him on the court could be of serious interest.

Tennessee’s zone defense this year has been good enough; it doesn’t force turnovers at all, but opponents are shooting 41% at the rim against it and Tennessee’s forced an above-average amount of guarded threes with it. This is something they didn’t try at all in the first game, but they’ve gone to it for 31 possessions over the last six games. Clearly, Rick Barnes and Mike Schwartz see something in it. This kind of seems like the game you’d try it in, no?

Lastly: Tshiebwe. He’s going to get at least a few rebounds in this one; the goal is just to not let him overwhelm you. There’s a few paths worth exploring, but one I would like to see from time to time is a hard double in the post. If Tennessee’s going to keep running out these double-big lineups, which I frankly don’t love but understand the purpose of, using one of those bigs and either the other or a wing to double Tshiebwe seems reasonable. Tshiebwe scores 55% of the time in single-coverage, but Kentucky as a whole only scores on 45.6% of possessions where he’s either doubled or is forced to pass the ball. He’s not a great passer, so make him make hard decisions. It’s all you can really do; I would rather bet on Wheeler or Brooks beating me than let Tshiebwe run roughshod.

Starters + rotations

Metric explanations: Role is algorithmically-determined by Bart Torvik. MPG is minutes per game. PPG/RPG/APG/Fouls/Twos/Threes are what you’d guess. USG% is the percentage of possessions a player uses on the court. OREB%/DREB% are your available rebounds usurped. Finally, PRPG! is Bart Torvik’s Points Over Replacement metric; the higher the better. If you’re on mobile, zoom in; if on desktop, right click -> Open Image in New Tab.

Three things to watch for

  • The boards. Well, duh. It may not feel this way, but this is the #1 defensive rebounding team in the SEC (Kentucky) playing #2 (Tennessee). Even funnier: it’s Tennessee that’s been superior on the offensive boards in conference play. If Tennessee can hold Kentucky to a 30% OREB% or lower, which they did the first time around, it’ll help shift the odds in their direction.
  • Threes, again. I mean, eFG% determines anywhere from 50-55% of an average team’s offensive efficiency. If Tennessee gets 10+ threes like they did the first time out they’ll win, barring Kentucky having another insane shooting day. Even 9 would possibly suffice.
  • Can you find any way to get Tshiebwe in foul trouble? Oscar’s only at 3.3 fouls per 40, but he’s finished seven games this year with four fouls. If Fulkerson can do the wacky tube man thing that the new movie NOPE clearly found inspiration in and you get the usual SEC home calls, well, hey.

Key matchups

Oscar Tshiebwe vs. Literally Four Guys. All of Plavsic, Fulkerson, Huntley-Hatfield, and Aidoo will probably get time at the 5. Of those four, I probably rank them Fulkerson > Huntley-Hatfield > Plavsic > Aidoo in terms of how I feel about the rebounding impact of each, but the real key here is that you have 20 fouls to use. Huntley-Hatfield in particular could get some serious offensive run in this one, given how well he performed in the first game.

Kellan Grady vs. Santiago Vescovi. Weird to highlight a guy like Grady with a miniscule usage rate, but he’s such a devastating shooter that if you forget about him you pay for your sins immediately. Vescovi had 20 in the first game and could reasonably get to 20 again if he’s on.

Either TyTy Washington (if available) or Sahvir Wheeler vs. Kennedy Chandler. If Washington is out, it’s Davion Mintz, who doesn’t have the same impact yet has been hot as of late. Wheeler burned Chandler alive off of ball screens in the first one, but Chandler’s defense has improved seemingly every week since.

Three predictions

  1. Both teams go on a run of 10-0 or greater;
  2. Tennessee wins the foul battle by 3 or so, sparking a controversy on Matt Jones’ Twitter account;
  3. Tennessee 71, Kentucky 70.

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

OPPONENT Vanderbilt
13-10, 5-6 SEC, #81 KenPom
9-16, 3-13 SEC 2020-21
LOCATION Thompson-Boling Arena
Knoxville, TN
TIME Saturday, February 12
ANNOUNCERS Not listed at the time of publishing. (shrug)
SPREAD KenPom: Tennessee -13
Torvik: Tennessee -11

At home this time! Tennessee has now won six of seven since the Kentucky debacle and pulled off a genuinely impressive road win – their first Quadrant 1 road win, mind you – on Wednesday at Mississippi State. They’re now up to 10th in NET and look to be on pace for somewhere between a 3 and 5 seed. Vanderbilt, meanwhile, is better in Year 3 of Jerry Stackhouse but still has a ways to go to be Tournament-level competitive. If they can squeak out a .500 record (7-11 in SEC play), that’s probably an NIT bid.

I am legally required to mention that they have lost nine in a row to Tennessee, which is pretty funny.

Vanderbilt’s offense

Tennessee played this team all of 25 days ago, so shockingly, not a lot has changed. The main difference right now is Rodney Chatman suddenly being available more often than not. (Minnesota transfer Liam Robbins has finally begun to play as well, but he’s only touched the court for 11 and 13 minutes so far.) Chatman provides more of interest on defense than offense, so we’ll get to him in that section. The rest of this is mostly repurposed from the first preview.

One of the few general positives of the Jerry Stackhouse Era has been Scotty Pippen, Jr. This year is no different; Pippen is responsible for 39% of Vandy’s points this season through both his shots and his assists, per Synergy.

For a guy who gets the headlines as a ball-dominant guard, Pippen’s passing acumen is genuinely fairly good.

The problem comes when Pippen has to pass the basketball. Pippen still draws fouls like crazy (7.4 fouls drawn per 40, 6th-most nationally), but no one else comes close. Pippen is the only guard on the team that can get to the rim. Pippen is the only guy that can regularly create his own shot from deep. That’s why this Vandy offense has genuinely been pretty disappointing. Pippen is capable of spectacular things when the ball is in his hands.

Unfortunately, you can’t spend the entire game with the ball in your hands. Pippen leaves the floor for about a 3-minute break in each half, usually near the midway point. When that happens, Vanderbilt’s already just-okay offense becomes dust. Vandy’s offense goes from performing like a top-90 unit with Pippen on to a top-320 unit when he’s off. Pippen is only really allowed to take about five minutes off in a close game; any more and Vandy’s simply accepting a loss.

Pippen’s only main help is Jordan Wright, a 6’6″ wing that can drive to the basket but isn’t as efficient a scorer at the rim (53.1% vs. 57.4%) or in mid-range (30.9% vs. 38%). Wright is an alright deep shooter, but he’s reliant on Pippen to help create opportunities. (Lineups with Wright on and Pippen off are scoring just 0.858 PPP.) Still, Wright is a pretty dangerous catch-and-shoot scorer, and he’s hitting 52% on unguarded threes. (He did go 0-for-2 against Tennessee on these, at least.) Don’t let him get loose.

There’s a few other intriguing parts if you squint. Myles Stute is mostly Just A Shooter (8.5 PPG, 77% of all shots threes) who’s been terrific from deep (42%). Trey Thomas is Pippen’s backup PG and also mostly Just A Shooter (78% of all shots from deep), but less efficient. Chatman is mostly a role guy that takes more threes than twos (42% on 31 attempts), yet has turnover issues. Liam Robbins has barely any data to speak of, but three years of Minnesota data show a below-average jump shooter that’s good on twos. Excellent beat writer Aria Gerson claims that Vanderbilt is a lot better with Quentin Millora-Brown on the court and I completely believe it; even with luck-adjusted numbers, Vanderbilt is an astounding 25.3 points better per 100 with him on the court. (He mostly just hangs out in the post and sets screens.)

Still: when your entire system is built around one guy and you fail to give him much to work with, I guess it’s not a mystery that the offense is a disappointment. If they were as good as projected in preseason (#61 nationally, per KenPom), this team would be ranked in the top 50 nationally and be on the NCAA Tournament bubble. Unlucky.

CHART! The official Chart Guide is now as follows:

Yes: “Be afraid.” 😬
Somewhat: “They can hit this but not very efficiently.” 🤔
No: “Either never attempts this shot or is atrocious at making it.” 🥳

Vanderbilt’s defense

THE GRAPHIC IS WRONG IN ONE SPECIFIC SENSE: Vandy ranks 308th in Rim FG% allowed, not 51st. I obviously mis-sorted that in an Excel sheet, so that’s on me.

The most interesting thing here isn’t that Vandy has suddenly started in working in some zone defense (though they do include a zone about 5-8 times per game) or that they’re forcing more jumpers than ever before. We’ll get to that. First, it’s worth noting that Vandy has changed up its ball-screen coverage. This year, the Commodores are doing a little of what Arizona did: different coverages based on different personnel.

If Quentin Millora-Brown is the big involved in the pick-and-roll, you can expect him to drop and force a shot or a floater over the top of the defense:

If it’s…well, just about anyone else, you’ll see more of a hedge/double coverage that runs the ball-handler out of the screen and forces him to give the ball up.

Providing multiple things to watch for on defense rather than just one or the other has led Vandy’s ball-screen defense to improve quite a bit, up to the 94th-percentile this year from the 70th-percentile in 2020-21. It’s not that different from what Stackhouse and company did before, but working in more quirks like this have forced jumpers on 56.4% of Vandy half-court defensive possessions, one of the highest rates among Big Six teams in America. Adding in Liam Robbins to this mix is also of genuine interest. Again: barely any Vandy data at all to speak of, but across three seasons at Minnesota, he blocked 12% of opponent two-point attempts when he was on the court, an absurdly good rate.

Like any defense, though, it has holes. The main ones Vandy has are deep and two-fold:

  1. A defense that forces lots of jumpers doesn’t force many off-the-dribble ones, instead giving up a shocking amount of open threes (Guarded/Unguarded of 41/59, worst in the SEC);
  2. The actual rim protection scheme still doesn’t have a true rim protector; the best they have is either the fledgling Millora-Brown, who only plays 24 minutes a game, or possibly Robbins, who has committed 6 fouls in 24 total minutes played.

The first is easier to decipher. Vandy does a lot of good in forcing opponents to shoot over the top of them, but they’ve had a hard time actually guarding said shots. They’ve been remarkably lucky that opponents are shooting just 28% on those unguarded threes; I would be surprised if that number isn’t worse by March. You can’t give up 10-11 wide-open threes a game and expect to survive it every time out.

In that clip, Vandy simply sinks way too deeply on Jaylin Williams of Arkansas; when he throws the ball to the corner, he’s being triple-teamed. The aggression has helped Vanderbilt immensely in forcing buckets of turnovers (22.1% TO%, 30th-best) and in ending possessions prematurely for the opponent. The new twist here is that, when Chatman is on the court, Vanderbilt has seemed to fix this issue somewhat. Lineups with Chatman on force 8% more non-rim twos than those without him, per Hoop-Explorer. Chatman had a reputation at Dayton as a significantly better defender than offensive player, so that’s not a surprise. 

Unfortunately, even with Chatman, the aggression leaves Vanderbilt open to loads of basket cuts. The average Division 1 team gives up a cut to the basket on about 7.4% of possessions; Vandy is almost at 9%, fourth-worst in the SEC and second-worst among teams that aren’t majority-zone on defense. Opponents are scoring 1.248 PPP on cuts, too, which is horrific.

Last time out, Tennessee shot an astounding 8-for-35 on everything that wasn’t a layup, dunk, or tip. Even on those, they shot 11-for-21; it was a minor miracle they hit 25 of 29 free throw attempts. Considering Tennessee shot 23% on actual shot attempts at Hell Arena, I would be pretty surprised if that didn’t rise by playing in TBA.

How Tennessee matches up

Things will obviously be different in the rematch. Olivier Nkamhoua occupied the court for 22 minutes at Memorial and was responsible for 7 points/7 rebounds, which isn’t much but is indeed a deficit of sorts. The nice(?) thing about the first matchup is that Tennessee actually did a great job of getting the shots they wanted; they simply didn’t go down. If Tennessee wanted to run out a pretty similar gameplan for the rematch, I’d be willing to bet they’d see a significant increase in offensive efficiency. The shots they got are that of a team on pace to score 80, not 68 with help from tons of free throws.

So: keep doing your thing. In the first matchup, Tennessee got off 22 catch-and-shoot threes. 15 were unguarded (i.e., no defender within four feet of the shooter), per Synergy. Would you like to guess Tennessee’s hit rate on those? A nice 3-for-15. The national average on unguarded threes is 37%, and as a team this season, Tennessee’s just a hair under that rate at 36.3%. Even an average day from deep adds ~7 points of expected value to those 15 shots; if Tennessee just had a normal day from downtown at Memorial (admittedly a tall task) we’d be talking about, like, a 15-point beatdown. Kennedy Chandler and Zakai Zeigler did a great job of getting the ball to the right guys in the first game. Verdict: just make shots, bro.

The other thing is that Tennessee was credited with eight basket cuts in the first game, per Synergy. Again: as a season-long average, Tennessee gets 1.153 PPP off of these, which is right at the national average. I wish that were better, but even so, this is a fine cut offense who’s played a lot of great defenses going against a defense that’s had a terrible time defending cuts. Tennessee only got eight points off of their cuts in the first one; again, if they ran it back, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see them score more.

Here’s where I think Tennessee should use a four-guard lineup to create havoc. I have more coming on this in a story in a couple of weeks, but here’s the gist of what you need to know. All numbers adjusted for schedule and 3PT% variance:

  • Lineups with one big on the court: +41.2 Net Rating; 121.6 Offensive Rating, 80.4 Defensive Rating
  • Lineups with two or more bigs: +19.6 Net Rating; 108.6 Offensive Rating, 89.0 Defensive Rating

So: I think the defensive rating for the single-big lineups is a little noisy, because those lineups are giving up a 3% worse hit rate on twos and are nearly entirely dependent on forcing tons of turnovers. But the offensive boost is very real, promise. 83% of Tennessee’s shots in those single-big lineups are either at the rim or from three. It’s the closest thing Tennessee has to a cheat code. Use it early, especially with your speed at guard, to create some havoc on cuts to the rim.

Defensively: stop Pippen. Well, stop Pippen without fouling. In the first game, Pippen only got off 10 shot attempts and ranked third on the team in FGA, but this was because he got to the line 13 times. Considering only one other player on Tennessee’s schedule got more than eight FTAs in a game (Arizona’s Bennedict Mathurin), I think Tennessee probably gets a more beneficial whistle in this one. If that’s the case, the path is sort of easy to chart: just make Pippen take a bunch of jumpers.

In half-court offense this year, only 27% of his shots have come at the basket; the rest are jumpers (59%), runners (8%), or post-ups (6%). He’s done well in the post, but he only posts up about once a game, so no real need to fret on it. Instead, focus on the jumpers:

  • Off-the-dribble: 17-for-50 on twos (34%), 18-for-54 on threes (33%)
  • Guarded catch-and-shoot: 8-for-42 on threes (19%)
  • Unguarded catch-and-shoot: 13-for-29 on threes (45%)

Pippen is a good shooter, but a lot of it is context-dependent. If you’re forcing him to take tough shots, he hasn’t shown a consistent ability to hit those this year. Basically: avoid anything that isn’t an open three (this goes team-wide, really) and things will likely feel pretty good come 8:10 PM ET or so.

Onward and upward.

Starters + rotations

Metric explanations: Role is algorithmically-determined by Bart Torvik. MPG is minutes per game. PPG/RPG/APG/Fouls/Twos/Threes are what you’d guess. USG% is the percentage of possessions a player uses on the court. OREB%/DREB% are your available rebounds usurped. Finally, PRPG! is Bart Torvik’s Points Over Replacement metric; the higher the better. If you’re on mobile, zoom in; if on desktop, right click -> Open Image in New Tab.

Three things to watch for

  • Rim points. Tennessee’s in-theory largest advantage in this game is that they’re an above-average efficient offense at scoring at the rim and they’re playing the 308th-best rim defense. Score score score.
  • Foul trouble, both ways. Vanderbilt’s one of the 15 best teams in America at getting to the line; unsurprisingly, most of that is Pippen. If Pippen draws eight fouls or whatever in this one, it’s a bigger issue than last time because you’re down a key body in Nkamhoua.
  • Open threes. Hit them. Tennessee has actually been terrific at this since the Vanderbilt game, but it would be nice to include Vanderbilt in such a sample.

Key matchups

Scotty Pippen Jr. vs. Kennedy Chandler. Same goals as last time: eight or fewer FTAs, ten or more jumpers. If you take away Pippen’s easiest points, Vandy’s path to a victory becomes a lot slimmer. Noting here that I have seen Chandler’s That Dog Rating (TDR) increase the last couple of weeks.

Jordan Wright vs. Santiago Vescovi/Josiah-Jordan James. These two essentially split time at the 3 along with Justin Powell now. Wright can score at all three levels, but I want him taking mid-range jumpers or heavily guarded threes. No need to let him get loose with any frequency.

Three predictions

  1. Tennessee trails at the under-12 timeout in the first half and there is much weeping and gnashing of teeth in online chat spaces;
  2. Tennessee wins all Four Factors;
  3. Tennessee 73, Vanderbilt 61.

Show Me My Opponent, 2021-22: Mississippi State

OPPONENT Mississippi State
14-8, 5-4 SEC, #43 KenPom
(18-15, 8-10 SEC, NIT runner-up 2020-21)
Starkville, MS
TIME Wednesday, February 9
Jimmy Dykes (analyst)
SPREAD Sinners: Tennessee -1.5
KenPom: Tennessee -3

Torvik: Tennessee -0.9

Tennessee was poised to enter this pretty tough road game on a heater – they’ve won five of six since the Kentucky debacle – then Olivier Nkamhoua blew out his ankle on an unfortunate play and now The Fear has returned. Still, they have quite a bit of talent and seem to be learning how to use it. Mississippi State, meanwhile, has solid metrics and a good-looking overall record but is 1-5 against Quadrant 1 opponents and has yet to win a road game. (Seriously!)

Winning at Humphrey Coliseum, which is regrettably nicknamed the Hump, is not an easy task; State is 35-9 at home from 2019-20 onward while 17-25 elsewhere. I think Tennessee is reasonably up for it, but the context of Nkamhoua’s injury is key.

Mississippi State’s offense

By a solid margin, this is the better of the two State units. It’s interesting, though, because you could reasonably consider it a clash of styles with Tennessee. Which SEC team gets the greatest percentage of points scored from threes? Tennessee, at 36.8% of all points (48th). Which team gets the least? State: 22.6% of all points (346th). One team is looking to shoot a lot; the other loves playing inside the perimeter. This may explain why State is 14-3 as a pregame KenPom favorite, yet 0-5 as an underdog: a safe style that beats lesser teams with regularity but doesn’t give you much variance for an upset.

Just like the last few years under Ben Howland, State runs an offense predicated on off-ball motion, ball-dominant guards, quality post play, and a billion mid-range jumpers. State averages about 10.4 true mid-range jumpers a game, but that doesn’t include the variety of runners (4.5 per game), post hooks (1.9), and mysterious ‘other twos’ that the Bulldogs take. You look at that chart and think “that’s a pretty average amount of rim pressure,” but 43.2% of all State shots come within five feet of the rim, per Synergy.

The leader of this team, and the only legitimate All-SEC level guy on the roster, is Iverson Molinar (18.2 PPG). Most of what State does on offense runs through him, both in transition (infrequent, but a thing) and in half-court. Molinar’s first goal offensively will be to attack the paint, and being a 6’3″ guy that’s a 65% finisher at the rim is a legitimately excellent skill. Torvik/PBP data makes Molinar look like a mid-range specialist, and he can score from there, but his main attribute is a devastating floater. Molinar’s are going down at a 51.9% rate on 54 attempts; it’s one of the best floaters out there.

Molinar will also attack the rim off of a ball-screen; he’s the only guard on the roster that can really do that with any regularity. The best-case scenario is to make Molinar shoot; he’s at 38.3% on mid-range jumpers this year and 27.6% on threes. He was a lot better at these in 2020-21 (46.8%/42.6%), but my wild guess is that this comes with the territory of being the co-#1 option on last year’s team with D.J. Stewart, whereas he’s now the runaway #1 in 2021-22.

Molinar’s supporting cast consists of North Carolina transfer Garrison Brooks (11.4 PPG), Shakeel Moore (9.9 PPG), and frequently-injured Tolu Smith (12.9 PPG in nine games). Because of Smith’s injury, Brooks has been the main option at center for Mississippi State this year and deservingly so, as he provides a positive impact defensively. Brooks is unusual for State: normally, they play back-to-the-basket 5s who are never a serious threat to take a jumper, but Brooks has nearly taken as many jumpers as Molinar and is the team’s main mid-range specialist (40.8%, 71 attempts).

Moore is a decent threat at the rim, but his main value is from shooting; he’s 34-for-94 (36.2%) from deep, pacing the team in both makes and attempts by some distance. Moore is significantly less effective off the dribble (33%) than in a catch-and-shoot situation (39%), so a defense should do everything they can to make sure his shot attempts are difficult ones.

Lastly: Smith. I don’t know what to tell you. Smith is supposedly available, but his season has truly been week-to-week with an injury: 4 off, 4 on, 4 off, 1 on, 2 off, 3 on, 3 off, now 1 on. I think he will play, but I genuinely can’t tell you with 100% certainty he will. If he does, he’s a 6’11”, 245 pound bowling ball that takes one mid-range jumper a game and spends the rest of his time bullying his way to buckets down low. Also a terrific offensive rebounder, so watch out for that.

The only other guy that scores more than five a game is D.J. Jeffries, a Memphis transfer that takes a lot of jumpers (slightly more from three than two) and is a fine-not-great shooter.

CHART! The official Chart Guide is now as follows:

Yes: “Be afraid.” 😬
Somewhat: “They can hit this but not very efficiently.” 🤔
No: “Either never attempts this shot or is atrocious at making it.” 🥳

Mississippi State’s defense

The script has flipped somewhat from last year, when State’s offense was built around Abdul Ado blocking lots of shots down low. Ado left for Cincinnati, State has only infrequently had Smith available, and so it’s only natural State’s defense would take a hit. Still: they’re blocking a lot of shots (70th-most), forcing lots of steals (32nd-most), and cleaning up the defensive boards while not fouling much. What gives?

  • 2020-21 Mississippi State: 63.1% FG% allowed at rim, 30.1% on non-rim twos
  • 2021-22 Mississippi State: 62.2% FG% rim, 39% non-rim twos

How much of this is real and how much of it is simple variance is up for debate. Still, not much else has really changed: this is the same man-to-man defense that will let you take all the jumpers your heart desires and does a good job of blocking shots both at the rim and on shorter mid-range twos. My guess is that this can be explained to some extent by the fact that 2020-21 Mississippi State had a 6’11” shot-blocking center backed up by a 7’0″ shot-blocking center, while 2021-22 is a mix of an out-of-position 4 that’s just okay at shot blocking who splits time with either Smith (a terrible shot-blocker) or Javian Davis (also bad at blocking shots). Translation: it’s easier to score inside the perimeter now.

Two things instantly jump out at me from State’s Synergy page: opponents are running a ton of ball screens against them (32% of all half-court possessions ending in one) and State, who’s played the 68th-toughest schedule, ranking in the 39th-percentile in ball-screen defense. If you separate it out to ball-handler and roll man possessions, State ranks in the 82nd-percentile in the former and the 37th-percentile in the latter.

My take is that this makes sense given where their roster talent lies. Molinar and especially Moore do a pretty good job of forcing turnovers, but none of the frontcourt options are particularly good at either blocking shots or forcing turnovers. If the pass gets through, it’s likely to result in some easy points.

Still: the turnovers are a thing, and State has gotten better at forcing them, particularly from ball-handlers. Tennessee hasn’t been the cleanest in ball security, particularly Kennedy Chandler, so a fan would probably like to see him not be exploited by those guards.

The most common shot against State, though, is a three-pointer. Almost 43% of all shots are from deep, and data from CBB Analytics notes that State is forcing a pretty high rate of threes from 25 feet or further out. State has actually guarded these pretty well (Guarded/Unguarded of 60/40, per Synergy), and they’ve deserved the national-average results they’ve received.

However, State’s got a moderately uncommon problem with their defense: of the 23.6 threes they force per game, 10.4 (a bit over 44% of all attempts) are from three. In particular, opponents get 3.7 left corner threes per game. This wouldn’t be worth noting if State forced just 2.1 right corner threes per game. Perhaps unsurprisingly, teams have been able to exploit this shot in conference play, though the success (28% FG%) is still to come. State isn’t guarding these corner threes particularly well, as they’re listed at a 47/53 Guarded/Unguarded rate. I would look to get the usual suspects – Vescovi, James, Zeigler – some shots from the left corner.

How Tennessee matches up

At first glance, this is an improving offense playing an NIT-level defense that hasn’t changed much up over the years and has taken a significant hit in two-point defense. Still: road SEC game, good-ish opponent, and if it were that easy to score on them Arkansas would’ve dropped more than 63 and Kentucky wouldn’t have had to go to overtime to win.

A pretty obvious thing from that scout is State’s serious struggles to play quality inside-the-perimeter defense this year. They don’t foul and they rebound well, but opponents’ initial shot quality is fairly good. I think State’s backcourt defense is at least fine, but nothing about the frontcourt options feel all that scary. Prior to Arkansas, five of six State opponents had gone for 51% or better on twos, and Texas Tech went 24-for-34. There’s just not much in the way of elite rim protection or bad shot enforcers.

State ranks in the 37th-percentile in Roll Man defense, 21st-percentile in Cuts, 25th-percentile in Spot-Ups (a good percentage of which end at the rim), and 41st-in post-up D. The guards have to be involved early and often, sure, but so does Tennessee’s new-look frontcourt. This will certainly look and feel different without Nkamhoua, but John Fulkerson remains pretty good at knowing when to cut to the rim.

I’d also use ball-screens or some sort of dribble-drive impact that brings multiple defenders Kennedy Chandler or Zakai Zeigler’s way, therefore freeing up the corner threes mentioned in the defensive section. At most, Tennessee can only expect to get, like, eight of these off in this game…but if Tennessee goes 4-for-8 on those shots, it could be the difference-maker in what’s being treated as a weighted coin-flip. Use this clip as the example of a great corner shot: Chandler draws multiple defenders and has all ten Texas A&M eyes on him as he locates Vescovi for one of the most open threes of the season.

Defensively, Tennessee must first find a way to make Molinar take jumpers. While last year’s numbers do scare me, I think he’s simply taking different types of shots this year. Attention isn’t as easily drawn away from him by his teammates, so he’s having to take on a more difficult scoring load for all 40 minutes. Molinar will find his way to the rim without Nkamhoua on the floor, but Tennessee will have to find a way to build a wall and accept whatever results they get.

Right now, Molinar is shooting just 29% off-the-dribble this year no matter where he’s at on the court. Even if Tennessee forces him to take a dribble or two before pulling up, it beats a true catch-and-shoot attempt. Again: if he hits, he hits, but the actual process of letting him shoot is superior to that of letting him get within eight feet of the rim.

The other thing: you gotta protect the boards and not commit a bunch of fouls in the process. There is a human element to Nkamhoua’s injury, obviously, but a key basketball piece is that Tennessee now has five fewer fouls to use in a game. If Fulkerson gets in foul trouble, that either means more Plavsic minutes or it means Barnes will have to give a much worse defender (Huntley-Hatfield or Aidoo) serious minutes. That’s not a winning strategy.

Tennessee will have to defend the post very well in this game to come out on top. State will take some threes, sure, but they haven’t put up even 20 in a game since before Christmas. They’d much rather bully you from two than increase the variance of the game. If Tennessee can find a way to defend Smith, Brooks, and Javian Davis without fouling an extreme amount, they’ll have a good shot. In particular, Brooks – who posts up more than anyone else – looks to take a jumper first before a hook shot or a layup. Force as many jumpers as you can, and live with the consequences.

This won’t be easy, but with or without Nkamhoua, it’s a winnable basketball game. We’ll see if Tennessee brings it home.

Starters + rotations

Metric explanations: Role is algorithmically-determined by Bart Torvik. MPG is minutes per game. PPG/RPG/APG/Fouls/Twos/Threes are what you’d guess. USG% is the percentage of possessions a player uses on the court. OREB%/DREB% are your available rebounds usurped. Finally, PRPG! is Bart Torvik’s Points Over Replacement metric; the higher the better. If you’re on mobile, zoom in; if on desktop, right click -> Open Image in New Tab.

Three things to watch for

  • Well, what’s your post-Nkamhoua lineup of choice? Tennessee has barely played Fulkerson and Plavsic together at all over the last few weeks, which is a good thing, because it’s the worst frontcourt pairing Tennessee may have. Hopefully, this injury doesn’t give them a reason to go double-big. Tennessee’s most common non-Nkamhoua lineup has been Chandler/Zeigler/Vescovi/James/Fulkerson, and barring either a Plavsic over-performance or a great Justin Powell game, I imagine that will be the closing five.
  • What’s Tennessee’s rim protection strategy? Lineups with Nkamhoua on the court were holding opponents to a 51.2% conversion rate at the rim, which would be the 18th-best rate in the country. It’s hard to replicate that, but it’s worth noting that the James/Fulkerson combo has been the best from a 2PT% defense perspective.
  • Threes. Also, twos. State when opponents shoot 32% or better from deep: 5-6, including 1-4 against Top 100 teams. State when shooting worse than 50% on twos: 0-5.

Key matchups

Iverson Molinar vs. Kennedy Chandler. Iverson is going to take the equivalent of 16-18 shots in this one (counting every two FTs as one shooting possession); if Chandler holds him to 18 or fewer points on all those possessions it’s a success. Meanwhile, Chandler simply must avoid turnovers. Two or fewer is the goal.

Tolu Smith (if playing) vs. Uros Plavsic or John Fulkerson. Smith seems likely to play, but I’m leaving the qualifier in just in case. Either way, this is an instant test for how well Tennessee protects the rim post-Nkamhoua.

Garrison Brooks vs. Josiah-Jordan James. Consider this the X-factor matchup. Brooks takes an insane amount of jumpers for a guy who plays all his minutes at the 4 & 5, but he’s willing to post up all the same. This is a good test of how well James can hold up when playing most of his on-court time at the 4.

Three predictions

  1. Justin Powell starts the game but isn’t in the closing lineup;
  2. Tennessee wins the turnover battle by 4 or more;
  3. Tennessee 69, Mississippi State 68.