Show Me My Opponent, 2020-21: Missouri (#1)

Yeah, this is a big one. The Missouri Tigers are 6-0, #12 in the nation, and own wins over KenPom #17 Oregon (83-75) and #6 Illinois (81-78). Tennessee has yet to play an opponent who’s looked this good yet, though Colorado has come pretty close. For all intents and purposes, this is the premier game of SEC Basketball this winter, as Tennessee and Missouri look to be the SEC’s two best teams. Obviously, the conference has reacted appropriately by putting this game at 9 PM on a Wednesday night on SEC Network, opposite the Cotton Bowl where the #7 and #6 college football teams play each other.

Anyway, all of the things you already know – Cuonzo Martin used to coach Tennessee, they made the Sweet Sixteen once, things didn’t end so well – are mostly covered on the following pages. There’s a lot of words to come, but here’s the basics you need to know:

  • Missouri’s had four fantastic performances (Oral Roberts, Oregon, Wichita State, Illinois) and two…fine-ish ones (Liberty, Bradley).
  • This is Tennessee’s closest projected game of the SEC season, per Bart Torvik.
  • Tennessee has topped 1.25 PPP offensively in four straight games; Missouri hasn’t allowed an opponent to top 1.056.
  • Tennessee has held all six opponents below a point per possession on defense; Missouri has gotten to at least 1.066 PPP in five of six games.
  • This is, uh, important.

The below section is game information to relieve pressure from Grant Ramey’s mentions.

  • THE OPPONENT: #12 Missouri (6-0).
  • THE TIME: 9:00 PM ET.
  • THE CHANNEL: SEC Network.
  • THE SPREAD: Tennessee -3 or -3.5, depending on where you look.

If you’d like to click ahead to a certain section, use this menu:

NEXT PAGE: THE CUONZONE

Quarterly Review #1: Tennessee’s answering these preseason questions very well

In the season preview, which is somehow over a month old, I proposed this statement on the basketball team at Tennessee:

“We can be confident of some things heading into 2020-21. Tennessee brings back a lot of talent from last year’s roster and a lot of young players with high levels of potential. They’ll get a full season to grow together, and even in a strange pandemic season, hopes are high. Preseason statistics models are a little lower on Tennessee, simply because their 2019-20 was kind of disappointing, finishing 68th on KenPom and 61st on Torvik, both the lowest of any school ranked in either site’s 2020-21 Top 20. National experts seem to generally have the Vols somewhere between 8th and 14th, which feels fair. Either way, fans are within their right to expect great things from this group and great things from the $5 million man heading the operation. They’ll have a lot of questions to resolve from here to March, but the nice thing about having as much talent as Tennessee has is an extended timeline to figure out the answers to those questions.”

In a new installment here on my website, I want to look into some of the questions I proposed for the 2020-21 Tennessee basketball team every time there’s a break in the schedule of sorts. Essentially, I want to know the following:

  • How has Tennessee answered the questions I proposed?
  • How impactful have their answers been?
  • Has this elevated their ceiling, or has it lowered somewhat?

All of which I’ll attempt to answer for them, in this post and in three more to come over the next three-ish months.

If you’d like to click ahead, choose below:

Here’s the schedule going forward, barring a schedule change: Quarterly Review #2 will be out on January 28 before the Kansas game; Quarterly Review #3 on March 5 after the regular season concludes; Quarterly Review #4 whenever the season firmly ends.

NEXT PAGE: The offense looks pretty good, IMO!

Show Me My Opponent, 2020-21: USC Upstate

The University of South Carolina Upstate is a moderately-sized school located in Spartanburg, South Carolina. They’ve been around for a little over five decades. A long, long time ago, in 1982, they won the NAIA Championship. Here’s five facts about this program worth knowing:

  1. This is their fourteenth season of Division I basketball.
  2. They’ve finished over .500 in three of those seasons, with the most successful season being a 2011-2012 run where they got to 21 wins and 13-5 in the Atlantic Sun before a surprise loss in the conference tournament.
  3. They won 24 games in 2014-15.
  4. They’ve won 26 games combined over the last three-plus seasons after Eddie Payne retired post-2016-17 season.
  5. I’m trying to be positive here, so…they only lost to #113 KenPom UNC Greensboro by eight?

Please fast-forward to next Wednesday.

  • THE OPPONENT: USC Upstate (0-7).
  • THE TIME: 5:00 PM ET. I don’t know why either.
  • THE CHANNEL: SEC Network! Normal ol’ SEC Network!
  • THE SPREAD: Tennessee -33, over/under 143.5.

If you’d like to click ahead to a certain section, use this menu:

NEXT PAGE: They actually used to be called USC Spartanburg! Fun fact.

Show Me My Opponent, 2020-21: Saint Joseph’s

Another day, another opponent that wasn’t originally on the 2020-21 basketball schedule. Such are the joys of attempting to complete a season in the midst of a 100-year pandemic, and thankfully, we’re about to see game #5 when it had almost began to look like we wouldn’t get to game #1. So, in the spirit of the last couple of these posts, I’ve already written a lot about the opponent’s team below. Let’s talk about the opponent’s program, in five bullet points:

  • The Saint Joseph’s Hawks, for much of your and my lifetime, were coached by Phil Martelli, who was fired in 2019 and later became an assistant for Michigan.
  • Under Martelli, the Hawks reached highs they hadn’t seen in 20+ years, including the ultimate coup: a perfect regular season and an Elite Eight run in 2003-04.
  • They never quite reached that high, but the Hawks made the NCAA Tournament seven times under Martelli and produced a slew of great memories.
  • Now they are coached by Billy Lange, a former 76ers assistant who designed the offense Philly ran under Brett Brown.
  • Lange is…6-30 so far.

To alleviate pressure from various media members’ mentions, here is a list of important game information.

  • THE OPPONENT: Saint Joseph’s of Pennsylvania (0-4).
  • THE TIME: 6:00 PM ET.
  • THE CHANNEL: SEC Network.
  • THE SPREAD: Tennessee -22.

If you’d like to skip ahead to a certain section, click below:

NEXT PAGE: Saints and/or Josephs

Show Me My Opponent, 2020-21: Cincinnati

Normally you get my long-drawn out intros here, but…uh, don’t really know how else to say this, but I wrote 4,000+ words about the Cincinnati Bearcats even without this intro. I value your eyesight and your attention spans, so I’ll keep it succinct. The Cincinnati Bearcats are a basketball team located in Cincinnati, Ohio. They are most well-known for:

  • Having a genuinely amazing basketball history and being back-to-back national champions in 1961 and 1962
  • Being an NCAA Tournament mainstay for the last 30 years
  • Somehow only making one Sweet Sixteen in the last 19 years despite feeling like they’ve made seven???
  • Remember when they blew it to Nevada despite having a 23-point lead or whatever?
  • They employed Bob Huggins until he got a DUI. Then they did not employ Bob Huggins.
  • Mick Cronin, maybe the least-remarkable objectively excellent basketball coach in human history, made them very good for a long period of time. Now they have John Brannen, who led them to an AAC title in year one.
  • Also they force this slop chili upon you when you enter city limits. Nasty!

The preview follows this very poorly-written intro.

If you’d like to skip ahead, click below:

NEXT PAGE: The Cincinnati chili offense

Show Me My Opponent, 2020-21: Colorado

Three days ago, this game didn’t exist and Tennessee fans were all miserable together, watching the Tennessee football squad (supposedly still a thing?) lose their 15th game in 16 tries to hated rival Florida. Tennessee fans everywhere needed a win.

Three days ago, this game didn’t exist and Colorado fans were some of the happiest football fans on the planet. In this bizarre shortened COVID football year, the Buffaloes are 4-0 with wins over UCLA, Stanford, and Arizona. Colorado fans don’t really need a win, considering they live in one of the most beautiful places in America, but I needed a mirror section here so please bear with me.

Fast forward to 7:39 PM Eastern on Saturday night, and all was well again:

The Colorado Buffaloes, at least in the KenPom era, have firmly been a bottom-tier team in both of their conferences. Prior to Tad Boyle’s arrival, the Buffs had made just one NCAA Tournament in 13 seasons, an appearance where they immediately got stomped by Michigan State in the opening round. Boyle, a former Jerry Green assistant at Tennessee, took over Colorado in 2010-11 after four seasons building up the Northern Colorado program from 4-24 in 2006-07 to 25-8 by his final season. He’s legitimately very good at what he does.

From 2012 to 2016, Colorado made four out of five NCAA Tournaments, and seven times in Boyle’s ten seasons, they’ve won 20+ games. They would’ve made the 2020 NCAA Tournament had it happened, so you can reasonably count that. Inarguably, Boyle is the most successful Colorado coach they’ve had since Sox Walseth (260 wins in 20 seasons, a pair of Top 10 rankings before the 64-team NCAA Tournament existed) in the 1960s.

You would have a hard time telling this to someone who doesn’t understand that it’s quite hard to win at Colorado, though. The Rockies are not exactly a recruiting hotbed. Boyle does have a Top 100 recruit on this roster from Colorado Springs (D’Shawn Schwartz), but among Colorado’s top five players, he’s the only squad member from Colorado. Their best player is from Minnesota, and Boyle’s had to go as far as Georgia and Canada to put together this team.

While you probably didn’t know much about Colorado prior to Saturday, thanks to Tennessee not having played them since 1981, hopefully you’ll come out on the other side feeling a good amount of respect for what they do. It ain’t easy, and I’d imagine that Tennessee fans could probably find a lot to like in an underdog program that finds overlooked guys who battle on the boards and play quality defense.

If you’d like to skip ahead to a certain section, click below:

NEXT PAGE: Colorado’s offense

Tennessee basketball: a 2020-21 preview

After the longest year in human history, we have returned. Basketball is around the corner, amazingly enough. In a normal year, you would have seen this preview at least three weeks ago, if not further back, and you would already know a bit about the 2020-21 Tennessee basketball team by way of them having played two or three games. That’s not a huge sample size, and yet: it is larger than zero games, which is what we’re going off of right now.

All we can do is analyze what may or may not be there. What we know is that Tennessee returns roughly 70% of production from last year’s roster, including the Defensive Player of the Year and All-SEC John Fulkerson. They add two five-star recruits to the roster, along with suddenly-forgotten four-star Corey Walker. Understandably, this particular Tennessee roster has created the most anticipated Tennessee basketball season in years, perhaps even more anticipated than the final Grant Williams/Admiral Schofield run. 

Of course, it’s worth remembering how far we’ve all come in this year alone. When I last wrote about Tennessee basketball on this site, it was about a game that didn’t actually end up happening: the SEC second-round fixture against Alabama. The night before, Rudy Gobert’s positive COVID test forced the NBA to postpone their season for over four months, and a similar postponement simply wasn’t possible for college basketball. It felt like a matter of time building up to the Thursday afternoon announcement that the NCAA Tournament was done.

Here we are, eight months and 18 days since Tennessee last played basketball. It’s easy to forget that the last Tennessee road game played was an out-of-nowhere 81-73 win over SEC champion Kentucky. (Don’t check the score of the Auburn home finale played four days later, the last sporting event I attended in 2020.) Before we get into 2020-21’s expectations, let’s go over a brief reminder of what went down in 2019-20:

  • Tennessee started 5-0, then 7-1, with wins over Washington and VCU. By the end of the season, these wins looked pretty forgettable, but at the time of each game, they were really important. With a six-man rotation and a makeshift roster, Tennessee flew to Toronto and dismantled Top 25 Washington for a full 40 minutes; in a tournament in Florida, they battled VCU to the wire and got a Lamonte Turner buzzer-beater to pull off a huge win. At the time, both wins looked to be a key part of a Tennessee NCAA Tournament resume, alongside a close loss to future ACC champion Florida State. Washington and VCU would finish their seasons at 15-17 and 18-13, nowhere near the NCAA Tournament. Still, Tennessee’s defense looked genuinely great, holding their first six opponents and eight of their first nine to 0.87 PPP or lower offensively.
  • Tennessee lost four out of their next five games, and in the only win, Lamonte Turner’s career ended. Turner battled shoulder issues during his shortened senior season and shot horribly, but once we all found out how bad the pain was, it became a lot more understandable. Suddenly, Tennessee had nothing resembling a true point guard at all, and offense became an excruciating thing to watch. Tennessee posted four games of 0.8 points per possession or lower offensively, their worst bad-game rate since 2011-12, the first Cuonzo season.
  • Enter Santiago Vescovi and an erratic SEC run. Last year’s SEC was very bad, and I don’t think that any member of the conference would’ve progressed past the Sweet Sixteen. It makes sense that Tennessee wouldn’t have found any real consistency. That said, they were simply more exciting by way of Vescovi’s deep range, fascinating passes, and extreme offensive volatility. In one three-game sample, Vescovi went from scoring 20 points to 7 to 14, and in his first game in a Tennessee uniform, he committed nine turnovers. For a half-season freshman, consistency wasn’t his thing, but you’d hope he’ll find more of that in a full season.
  • Some good wins, some close good losses, and some horrific performances. For a team with so little returning from the previous season, Tennessee was always going to have consistency issues. But even they might have been shocked by how inconsistent they were. Bart Torvik’s Game Score metric measures a team’s performance on a 0-to-100 scale. In the same season, Tennessee posted six 95-or-higher rated performances alongside three games rated a 21 or lower. Meaning: in certain games, Tennessee looked like a top 15 team; in others, they looked like a bottom-half Conference USA squad. Not once in the final five games did Tennessee hold their opponent below a point per possession offensively. In the season’s final week, Tennessee posted wins over Florida and Kentucky, two NCAA Tournament teams…and then promptly lost at home by 22 points to Auburn, the least-good of the three.

Using that as a refresher, we can be confident of some things heading into 2020-21. Tennessee brings back a lot of talent from last year’s roster and a lot of young players with high levels of potential. They’ll get a full season to grow together, and even in a strange pandemic season, hopes are high. Preseason statistics models are a little lower on Tennessee, simply because their 2019-20 was kind of disappointing, finishing 68th on KenPom and 61st on Torvik, both the lowest of any school ranked in either site’s 2020-21 Top 20. National experts seem to generally have the Vols somewhere between 8th and 14th, which feels fair. Either way, fans are within their right to expect great things from this group and great things from the $5 million man heading the operation. They’ll have a lot of questions to resolve from here to March, but the nice thing about having as much talent as Tennessee has is an extended timeline to figure out the answers to those questions.

if you’d like to skip ahead to a certain section, click below:

E.J. Anosike brings more than just rebounding to Tennessee

A light in the sports wilderness! Finally!

Obviously, I’m quite thrilled to be talking about an actual real basketball event of any sort. Plus, this one figures to go better than my last preview of a transfer, who was a guy that didn’t even end up at Tennessee. E.J. Anosike has a ton to offer a Tennessee team that will be almost perfectly split between freshmen and old hands: a newcoming old hand that brings sorely-needed rebounding skills to the worst defensive rebounding squad in the SEC.

Beyond that, there’s more to Anosike than his admittedly great rebounding skills. You don’t get to be #6 on ESPN’s Top Graduate Transfers list exclusively by rebounding, and you don’t get to be an important piece of an SEC squad with just one skill. Anosike can score, can shoot, and likely enters as a seriously useful bench piece for a Tennessee team in desperate need of useful bench pieces. (In case you’ve happily forgotten, Tennessee went with a six-man rotation in the final four games of the year and just about stopped playing all of the freshmen + Uros Plavsic entirely.)

The goal with this piece is in two parts:

  1. Figure out what E.J. Anosike’s skills and limitations are;
  2. Also figure out the best ways Tennessee can emphasize the good parts and hide the less-good ones.

As such: consider this a Show Me My Opponent where the opponent is actually your new pal E.J.

WHAT E.J. ANOSIKE BRINGS

Solid, useful post skills

The data for Anosike against high-end competition is obviously going to be limited; Sacred Heart’s home of the Northeast Conference hasn’t won a single first-round NCAA Tournament game and the conference itself ranks 27th of 32nd on KenPom. So, yeah, the Pioneers of Sacred Heart didn’t get to play Kentucky and Florida three times in a season. Per KenPom, Anosike got to play against six Tier A (Quadrant 1 equivalent) opponents in his three-year career, with an additional five games against Tier B (Quadrant 2 equivalent).

The Tier A stats aren’t perfect – 11-for-26 from two, two 4+ foul games, three double-digit losses – but Anosike himself seemed to handle the spotlight fairly well. In Sacred Heart’s two Tier A games in 2019-20, Anosike got as many free throw attempts (18) as he did shot attempts, which is pretty remarkable.

Anosike wasn’t quite as dominant on the boards as he was against lesser competition, but getting five offensive rebounds against Providence is something that…well, nobody on Tennessee would’ve done this past season. His Tier B stats were better: 15.5 PPG, 9 RPG, and a 55.6% hit rate from two. In particular, he had a lot of success inside the perimeter against Tier B opponent UCF, going 6-for-9:

I can’t tell you for certain what Tennessee’s schedule will look like in 2020-21, but you can pretty much know Anosike will face tougher competition than ever before. Tennessee played 19 Tier A + B opponents in 2019-20 and 20 in 2018-19; Anosike must rise his own game to match the competition. That said: Tennessee will likely play half or slightly under half of its schedule against the competition level that Anosike demolished at Sacred Heart.

Potential to be unlocked as a shooter; hits shots off the dribble pretty well

The headline sums it up fairly well, but I want to talk about sample sizes. E.J. Anosike attempted 403 free throws at Sacred Heart; he attempted 136 threes, with all but five of them coming after his freshman year. In his sophomore year, Anosike made 36.5% of his 52 attempts; in his junior year, 25.3% of 79. Here’s my two points:

  • We almost certainly know much more about Anosike’s free throw shooting than we do his three-point shooting;
  • We can then say that Anosike’s truth lies somewhere between the two extremes of his sophomore and junior years.

Anosike got open frequently in Sacred Heart’s offense, and I find it hard to think that he wouldn’t get open more often in a Tennessee offense that has Santiago Vescovi, Jaden Springer, and Josiah-Jordan James at the very least. Anosike’s Synergy splits are quite bizarre; he’s actually a pretty good shooter when at least somewhat guarded.

However: he became one of the worst shooters in his conference when left open.

As usual, my guess is a combination of small sample size + statistical anomaly. It’s meaningless, mostly. What’s more meaningful is this: in 2019-20, players who made between 70-75% of their free throws – as Anosike has done every season of his career – averaged a 34% hit rate from three. The middle two-thirds of the sample ranged everywhere from 30-38%. Considering Anosike was at the extreme bottom end based on a 79-shot sample but was above the average one year before, it’s reasonable to think he can hit that 30-38% range from three. That gives Tennessee something they didn’t have off the bench, and it makes him especially valuable in small-ball lineups.

Oh yeah, and his off-the-dribble pull-ups look good to me. I would prefer that he either takes one more dribble towards the basket or just takes the three, but if he’s comfortable from 17+ feet and hits at the rate we’re looking for on mid-range attempts (40% or higher), then you can’t really discourage that as a coach.

A more versatile P&R piece than Tennessee’s had in some time

With an important qualifier, that is. Yves Pons did a solid job when called upon as the roll half of a pick-and-roll, and popped out for wide-open threes about once every couple of games. I wish Tennessee had run that more, but I’ve also wished they’d use more ball-screen actions for most of the last three years. Anosike offered a very diverse split of rolls, pops, and slips at Sacred Heart, and it’s not really something that anyone at Tennessee has done to date.

He’s unafraid to drive to the basket from the perimeter:

And he’s good at finishing off of more traditional looks:

How much Anosike plays is heavily dependent on Yves Pons staying/not staying for 2020-21, but if Pons does stay, you’re looking at a guy who can realistically give you 15 minutes a night of diverse offensive action and high-end rebounding.

Oh yeah, and the rebounding

It is really good. Pound-for-pound, Anosike is likely the best non-6’10″+ rebounder Tennessee has had since Jeronne Maymon or even Jarnell Stokes. This appears simple, but Anosike anticipates his own misses very well:

And I admire that Anosike is really smart as a rebounder, in that his first instinct isn’t always to go straight back up. I love how he finds an open man here:

Even in a bench role, this is a type of player that can frustrate Tennessee opponents into some bad fouls. Six different times last season, he attempted 10+ free throws; Tennessee as a team did that eight times all season, and half of those were John Fulkerson in the final month of the season. If opponents hated how many fouls Fulkerson drew down the stretch of SEC play, the potential is there for Anosike to draw a lot of ire from those that run sports radio stations in the state of Kentucky.

On-ball defense needs work

To be frank, Anosike’s got a lot to do on the defensive side. The advanced metrics aren’t impressed with his defense, giving him a below-average Box-Plus Minus all three years at SHU. (This could be a team-wide issue, of course, as SHU was terrible defensively. That said, Anosike only graded out as the third-best defender among SHU’s regular starters and fourth-best out of the rotation as a whole.) In particular, he’s struggled to keep up with shooters on the perimeter:

And Synergy has him as a rather paltry isolation defender.

Of course, Tennessee can limit this damage by putting Anosike on larger guys that aren’t good shooters, i.e. 70% of the SEC’s starting centers. He doesn’t lose many rebounding battles, so you don’t have to worry about the height difference. That also leads into his main positive as a defender.

Good, solid post defender

Synergy rates out Anosike as being very good in the post across all games, which makes sense. His skill set represents that of an undersized 4 by height only; it is worth noting that Anosike is 245 pounds and appears well-built. He’s held his own against the best competition SHU faced, along with everyone else.

Tennessee can use these skills against the stiffs of the schedule, as I mentioned, as well as against basically any PF/C in Quadrants 3 & 4. I don’t think anyone is currently anticipating Anosike to start; we are all generally anticipating him to be a useful, good piece from the bench when Tennessee needs him to be.

Various other skills

These are more flashes than anything of serious consistency, but they’re worth noting nonetheless. At times, Anosike shows active hands, and perhaps with better defensive coaching, he’ll do it more often.

Synergy says Anosike got much better at pick-and-roll defense from 2018-19 to 2019-20, and the video looks to back it up. In 2018-19 he struggled to make decisions fast enough; in 2019-20, he appeared more decisive and better at forcing tough shots:

More of that and Tennessee has a quality defensive piece in some specialized spots. Also, you don’t need any video to be reminded of his excellent rebounding capabilities.

HOW TENNESSEE USES HIM

Uh…exactly where you think? By height, Anosike would theoretically be locked in at the 4 or even the 3. However, Anosike didn’t play the 3 at all at Sacred Heart, and it’s hard to rationalize playing a guy at the 3 that you hope can get to 34% or thereabouts from three. Anosike will be at the 4, and I think he’d be a really good fit as a super-small-ball 5.

Imagine the following lineup whenever Fulkerson needs rest:

  • PG: Vescovi or Bailey
  • SG: Keon Johnson
  • SF: Springer (or JJJ)
  • PF: Pons
  • C: Anosike

Is that a small lineup? Sure…in theory. Johnson is 6’4″ and Springer 6’5″, so you’re not going all that small. Anyway, look at that lineup. It contains a point guard (either one!) that’s comfortable out to 30 feet, two hyper-athletic wings, the reigning SEC Defensive Player of the Year, and an elite rebounder that is willing to shoot threes. All five players can and will shoot, and that’s not something Tennessee has offered in my lifetime.

Even so, Anosike at the 4 is worthy of thinking about happily, too. I think he and Fulkerson can play at the same time in a way I absolutely never thought Nkamhoua and Fulkerson or Plavsic and Fulkerson could. Plus, I’m not totally out on the idea of playing Anosike with one of Nkamhoua/Plavsic as a second-string lineup, but that’s mostly because it’s not a lineup with both of those players at the same time.

Anyway, this is a nice addition to a Tennessee team that I think pretty much everyone has in their 2020-21 top 15-20. Could they end up better than that? Of course, and having depth pieces like this is how you ensure a higher floor in March.