Some fun tidbits:
- This is the first time Tennessee has played Louisiana-Lafayette since December 29, 2008.
- Louisiana-Lafayette’s mascot is still the Ragin’ Cajuns.
- THE RAGIN’ CAJUNS
If you think Tennessee’s 2017-18 was a thrill ride with a crushing disappointment at year’s end, talk to Louisiana-Lafayette. They were an absurdly fun story for the entirety of the regular season – starting 20-3, going 16-2 in the Sun Belt, beating Iowa, and heading into their conference tournament as heavy favorites. They made it to the semifinals, facing Texas-Arlington, a team who was in their shoes just a year prior. Just like 2016-17 UTA, they blew it.
It’s pretty dumb that a 26-win season in an okay mid-major conference results in a 6 seed in the NIT. Not that ULL had the greatest non-conference resume you’ve seen, but also, tell me about all the North Carolinas and Dukes that are willing to play 21-win teams with a loaded roster on the regular. Anyway, they lost three of their five starters from last year, and there’s a fair chance that the window slammed shut for a minute. Bob Marlin’s only made the NCAA Tournament once in eight years despite getting 10 or more Sun Belt wins in seven of those seasons.
While they rest in uncertainty, it should be noted that they’re still likely going to be a solid team. Bart Torvik has them at 18% to make the NCAA Tournament, which sounds small but ranks second in the Sun Belt. Basically, they’re in a fairly-wide-open conference where no team is expected to be dominant and four teams are starting the year with 10% or better odds of winning the conference. Window shutting or not, Tennessee could pick up a nice little win early on.
WHAT THEY BRING
JaKeenan Gant, one of the five best players in the Sun Belt
Gant takes over as the new top scoring option and, likely, top defensive option. Frank Bartley and Bryce Washington helped him ease into a leadership role last year; now it’s Gant’s turn to be the true dominant force. The Missouri transfer may have been the reason ULL failed to escape the semifinals last year, as a late injury allowed him to play just 12 minutes in two Sun Belt tournament games. Overall, he was still pretty good: 13.7 PPG, 5.8 rebounds per game, and best of all, 2.3 blocks per game. There wasn’t a better rim protector in conference play last year, nor was there a more efficient* shooter (tops in field goal percentage, but 9th in eFG%).
Gant has his flaws, of course. He shoots a lot of threes (89) for someone who can’t hit them (27). He blocks a lot of shots, but he was a strangely underwhelming defensive rebounder last year. If Gant becomes more complete, this team can seriously threaten a Sun Belt title. As Gant goes, this team goes. You’ll see ULL run a healthy amount of designs like this that get Gant the ball down low with space:
It’s not terribly dissimilar from what Tennessee runs with the trio of Alexander/Williams/Schofield. The only serious difference is that Gant was a top-50 recruit in high school.
Pick and roll and pick and roll and
That’s from ULL’s opening game against the University of the Virgin Islands, which, yes, is a real school. (Shoutout to Synergy Sports for having about 75% of a game between the University of the Virgin Islands and Louisiana-Lafayette, which is 75% more than I should have ever seen.) Marcus Stroman, another SEC (South Carolina) transfer, spends nearly half his plays running some form of a pick and roll. He passes out of it more often than not, but ULL likes to shoot threes (about 40% of their attempts are from beyond the arc), so you’ll see a lot of kick-outs and corner attempts.
Consider guarding Cedric Russell from three
Russell wasn’t a starter last year, but he will be in 2018-19, and for good reason:
Russell played just 14.6 minutes per game last year, but he managed to get up 117 three-point attempts, hitting 50 (42.7%). He went 2 of 3 against a fairly listless UVI defense to get warm. What’s funny is that he won’t actually use a ton of ULL’s possessions (among the team’s main rotation, he ranked last in Usage Rate last season, and his Usage Rate against UVI was 9%). He just happens to be very efficient when he is used. Think of him as ULL’s Skylar McBee, if it helps.
Run and gun
Of Louisiana-Lafayette’s 87 possessions against UVI, Synergy classified an astounding 34 of those as being in transition. (In a normal ~70 possession game for Tennessee, about 7-10 possessions will be in transition.) This is, of course, a much higher rate than what they ran in 2017-18, but it’s still a team that likes to play faster than most (averaged 72.1 possessions per game in 2017-18). UVI falls asleep here on Gant, but notice that every player immediately heads straight to the opposing basket:
Against weaker competition, Marlin gets that his team’s basic strength lies in athleticism. ULL will be rangier and faster than probably 70% of their schedule. On the nights where they aren’t, that’s where the deep shooting helps. Tennessee has to pay full attention on missed shots and avoid any breakdown in the back of the defense.
HOW TENNESSEE BEATS IT
And Admiral Schofield, who I still argue is the better overall player, but if Williams is gonna hit that three this offense really may make The Leap. In all seriousness, Tennessee has two of the top ~50 players in America. Gant is very good, but barring a serious leap to Sun Belt Player of the Year status, Tennessee has the two best players in this game and six of the best seven. That’s why they’re preseason #6 and no lower than #14 on the analytics sites.
It’s true: by and large, the post-up is about the least efficient shot in basketball. It’s a borderline pointless possession for just about every team in America, but also, Tennessee is built differently than essentially every other team in America.
That’s a ferocious move from Alexander that basically no non-marquee opponent will be able to defend well. I know it’s a white guy with an alternate career as Fortnite Twitch streamer defending him, but he’s clearly practiced his post moves a ton. Gant defended the post well in game one:
But that’s also a 6’7″ guy taking a very slow turnaround jumper. Alexander/Schofield/Williams should be able to get theirs, though I do feel like Gant steals a block or two just because. A player I’m very curious to watch in this game is Derrick Walker:
Walker gets a mismatch on a guy who’s half-a-foot shorter here and just works him. That’s not something you would have seen last year. The other takeaway is that he’s got to be 20 pounds lighter, which is a good sign for his agility. This may be a good game to turn Walker loose for 13-16 minutes and see what happens. ULL’s second-tallest regular is 6’6″ and only 250-pound Justin Miller (very adept at fouling, pretty average otherwise) outweighs him. Bully ball will work just fine.
Defeat them at their own game
ULL plays solid-ish defense in general, but this is an exploitable area. Lenoir-Rhyne frequently had communication issues on quick-strike possessions, and even John Fulkerson had serious success against it. ULL won’t be as bad, but they ranked 81 spots lower (123rd unadjusted) in transition defense versus half-court defense (42nd) a year ago. Plus, it’s never a bad idea to get some transition reps in – that was one of the reasons Tennessee pounded Arkansas in the SEC Tournament.
Kyle Alexander/Grant Williams versus JaKeenan Gant. I wouldn’t be surprised to see Tennessee switch on and off here to frustrate Gant with multiple looks; the only way ULL can hang the entire way is either by hitting 50% of their threes or by Gant and Stroman combining for 40.
Tennessee’s Perimeter Defense versus A Collection of Decent Guards. Stroman is fine, but he turns the ball over way too much. This should be an opportunity for Bone to show out defensively. Bowden/Pons could show out here, too. Tennessee left about of Lenoir-Rhyne’s catch-and-shoots open; shoring up that rate long-term to 65%+ guarded threes is highly recommended.
Kyle Alexander/Grant Williams versus Foul Trouble. Stroman had the fourth-highest free-throw rate in the entire nation last year in terms of free throws to overall shots. This is despite a fairly pedestrian (4.1 per 40) rate of fouls drawn. Regardless, it’s on these two to avoid blandly slashing at a Stroman layup attempt. Same goes for Walker/Fulkerson.
Big Guys versus Protecting the Boards. Again, ULL’s tallest player is 6’8″, but they ranked 6th nationally in offensive rebounding rate last season. They won’t this year, but this could be a familiar test of protecting your boards against undersized opponents. Do so, and this game should slip by quickly.
Tennessee 84, Louisiana-Lafayette 67.