Go through the SEC’s standings right now and you won’t find too many terrific surprises:
- Tennessee (22-1, 10-0)
- Kentucky (20-3, 9-1)
- LSU (19-4, 9-1)
Okay, maybe LSU’s a little surprising, but they were expected to be a borderline Tournament team at the start of the season, per most metrics sites. Not bad! Alright, continue:
5. Ole Miss (16-7, 6-4)
6. Alabama (15-8, 6-4)
7. Auburn (16-7, 5-5)
8. Arkansas (14-9, 5-5)
9. Mississippi State (16-7, 4-6)
10. Florida (12-11, 4-6)
Yeah, Florida’s been a stunning disappointment. (Mike White can’t really get fired to my understanding; two straight NCAAT bids before this and having three freshman starters extends his leash a little.) Mississippi State should be better than they are. Otherwise, this isn’t super crazy; Ole Miss was expected to get about six wins in SEC play the entire season at the start, though. Wait, we forgot a team…
4. South Carolina (12-11, 7-3)
…sure. At the start of the season, KenPom had this South Carolina team projected #41 overall, #6 in the SEC. It would’ve been appropriate to expect South Carolina to be in the NCAA Tournament mix at year’s end. The average projection would’ve guessed that South Carolina would get to 9 or 10 wins in conference, barf out enough quality wins to get a 10 seed, and then quietly end their season in the first weekend of the Tournament. And then, in one month, it all blew up:
- November 9: Lost to Stony Brook at home, 83-81
- November 26: Lost to Wofford at home, 81-61
- December 5: Lost at Wyoming, 73-64
Another thread here asks why they’d ever play at Wyoming, but I digress. This team’s season was effectively ruined by the time SEC play started, where they rolled into Florida as double-digit underdogs with a 5-7 record. And they won. Then they beat Mississippi State, then Missouri, then Vanderbilt. And so it’s gone like this, for over a month, waiting to figure out what South Carolina really is. Even Bart Torvik’s rankings aren’t all that sure:
- Out-of-conference play only (12 D-1 games): 108th
- SEC play only (10 D-1 games): 53rd
So South Carolina probably wasn’t 5-7 bad through 12 games, and Torvik’s Average Lead/Deficit tool shows that they could’ve won any of the Stony Brook (-1.7), Providence (-0.7), or Wyoming (-0.1) games. For a team to go 0-3 in those is fairly unlikely. However, South Carolina also probably isn’t 7-3 good, either. They’ve won three SEC games now in which the average deficit was more than four points (Florida, Vanderbilt, and Arkansas), and they trailed by double-digits in the second half of each game. In an additional two games (Auburn and Mississippi State), they’ve led on average by four or fewer points and trailed in the final minutes of both.
So: they’ve been playing, on average, like a higher-end NIT team. But they haven’t been playing at the level you’d expect from what the record says is the fourth-best SEC team. Which is it? Alright, whatever, everyone wants me to preview Kentucky.
WHAT THEY BRING
Same team as two weeks ago
Hey, fun fact: Tennessee played and beat this same South Carolina team two weeks ago, 92-70. It was at their house, too! How fun. How cool it is that the SEC lines up these two games nearly back-to-back like there’s an actual rivalry here. Whatever. A reminder that they’re a bad shooting team everywhere but the rim. Felipe Haase sucks at midrange shots:
AJ Lawson, despite a recent resurgence, is still at 31.7% from three on the season:
Hassani Gravett remains the only reliably excellent shooter at 42.2% 3PT%:
And Chris Silva is going to draw 13 fouls and score 47 points as Tennessee wins this game by 19.
They were already pretty bad at committing turnovers, but it got really ugly last week. Kentucky forced a 27.8% TO rate, while Arkansas forced a 29.2% one.
South Carolina lost one game by 28 and won the other by 12. How? Because for just the third time all season, they hit over 50% of their threes. Tre Campbell, in particular, has been excellent as of late (10 of his last 14):
Past that, it’s still the same offense you already remember and want me to shut up about. They remain pretty solid in post-up mode with Silva, they’re hot and cold on pick-and-roll, and, despite the hot streak, they’re still missing a lot of open threes. Alabama and Arkansas goofed up and allowed 16 of South Carolina’s 23 combined catch-and-shoot threes to be open. I doubt Tennessee will do the same.
Maybe don’t foul Chris Silva?
I mean that’s about it. Silva drew 11 fouls against Tennessee and shot 16 free throws against them the first game; he’s shot 22 free throws in three games total since. His first half against Tennessee was like everything he did against Auburn packed into 20 minutes:
The good news is that Silva does foul, and he fouls tons. The Arkansas game on Saturday was just his seventh of the year in 23 games where he committed three or fewer fouls. He’s still the best in the conference at getting to the line, but he can’t help himself in letting others get free throws, too. Forcing him to shoot the ball is ideal.
Mediocre defense that’s getting worse
The Arkansas game was South Carolina’s first since Mississippi State on January 8 where the South Carolina defense held their opponent below 1.035 PPP. They still managed to go 4-4 in those games because, well, of course, but it peaked with a 1.302 PPP allowance to Tennessee. Kentucky even got to 1.114 PPP on them despite a 45.1% eFG%.
Last time out, South Carolina tossed out a zone for eight possessions…and Tennessee did just about as well against that as they did man (1.25 PPP). This is, as we covered last time, because South Carolina’s perimeter defense has a Madden awareness of 7:
An already bad three-point coverage team has gotten worse
South Carolina, who was already allowing around 56% of catch-and-shoot threes to go unguarded, has somehow managed to let their season-long rate jump to 58.8% with three additional games in the books. Cooking up a 0 guarded/10 unguarded performance – The Perfect Game! – against Kentucky doesn’t help.
Against Tennessee, this rate was a lot better (8 guarded/8 unguarded), but you can tell how severe the lackadaisical run goes defensively. Like…come on.
Not it, chief!
However, the two-point defense (minus the Tennessee game) has been strong
As an exception here, Tennessee did go 18 of 26 at the rim and 29 of 45 on two-pointers against the Gamecocks. Of course, Tennessee isn’t really like other teams. South Carolina’s 2PT defense ranks #51 nationally because they block 12.1% of two-point attempts:
Again, though, Tennessee exploited this very well. In a game where Tennessee was already getting lots of rebounds (43.3% OREB rate) and didn’t turn the ball over much (14.2% of possessions; 129.1 Shot Volume), Tennessee also was hyper-efficient inside the arc. I mean, it just helps when you have, at worst, two of the three best players in the SEC.
Specific matchups to target
Point guard AJ Lawson got worked against Tennessee off the dribble, mostly by Jordan Bone. Tennessee would do well to get him in space via a ball screen like Kentucky did with Tyler Herro:
Felipe Haase, much as he tries, simply isn’t good defensively. He got destroyed on post-up possessions (10 points on 6 possessions, or 1.67 PPP) by Tennessee’s bigs. Check out Schofield’s work on him here:
Lastly, SF Keyshawn Bryant only played 10 minutes against Tennessee the first time, but that marked his season-low for minutes. He’s averaged almost 26 minutes a game in conference play, so you’ll see a lot of him. Good news: he has some serious issues with perimeter defense. Schofield should get a few threes in this one.
HOW TENNESSEE BEATS IT
Same as what worked last time: Transition offense…
Where Tennessee roasted a poor transition defense that South Carolina possesses:
Even up to the point where John Fulkerson was getting an early shot clock bucket!
…and Grant Williams post-ups…
Because these have worked in essentially every game other than January Missouri. I loved Grant’s work in the first South Carolina game, where he made five of six attempts off of post-ups. What’s most remarkable, per Synergy, is that each attempt was different:
- Right block, turns left shoulder, no dribble, layup
- Left block, turns left shoulder, dribble, seven-foot jumper
- Left block, turns right shoulder, dribble, drop step, layup
- Right block, turns left shoulder, dribble, drop step, eight-foot jumper
- Right block, faces up, drives middle, eight-foot jumper
- Left block, faces up, nine-foot jumper
What an array of moves this guy has. We’re pretty lucky to see plays like this:
…and just going to the rim
Which resulted in a 69.2% hit rate last game and could very well result in something similar this time.
Specific play types that worked last time: shots off of screens
Synergy calls these plays Off Screen, which spells it out just as well. It’s any shot that comes from a direct off-ball screen meant to create an open shot for the shooter. Tennessee had five of these attempts against South Carolina; they hit all five for 13 points.
A reminder that Jordan Bone went the entire month of February last year without getting 10+ points in any game. It’s pretty cool that, if the SEC had a Most Improved Player Award, Tennessee would have three serious contenders.
Crashing the boards
Tennessee was phenomenal at this in game one, getting 13 offensive rebounds on 30 opportunities. This wasn’t necessarily a surprise, given the fact that South Carolina ranks below 302nd in DREB%, but it was still good for Tennessee to do so. However: if you want to be the best, you’ve got to beat the best. Kentucky got 21 offensive rebounds on 39 opportunities. I don’t think Tennessee will have that many chances at rebounds, but they need more of this going forward:
Put up a quality defensive effort on the perimeter
South Carolina’s two most efficient 3PT outings this season have come in two of the three games since they played Tennessee. Considering the competition (Georgia and Arkansas), it’s likely meaningless, but Tennessee needs to put up the type of numbers they did against Missouri (15 guarded/4 unguarded) going forward. Less of this:
And more of this:
Don’t let Silva bully your bigs in the post
I mean, maybe they decide to call every little tap to the back Kyle Alexander gives Silva in this game, maybe they don’t. Ultimately, it’s up to the officials. Bruce, of course, is right:
Auburn coach Bruce Pearl on Chris Silva: "It's amazing how much they allow him to do."
— Josh Vitale (@JoshVitale) January 23, 2019
Whether fans like it or not, Chris Silva gets officiated in a unique way, and that allows him to draw 10+ fouls in a single game. (Notably, he only drew three against Kentucky. Wonder why!) Kyle Alexander has to be careful to avoid plays like this:
Tennessee’s rim defense, which is really good, should be able to force more stuff like this:
Please force more turnovers before it’s too late
It’s not a five-alarm thing, but along with Tennessee’s perimeter defense, I’m a little worried about Tennessee’s defensive turnover rate. It’s okay – 148th in America, 19.3% TO rate – but considering Tennessee’s weak DREB% (30.4%, 258th nationally), you really need to be better at forcing turnovers to limit shot volume. I think most anyone that’s watched this team this year would agree Tennessee’s been a little more conservative defensively in terms of going for steals (246th-best this year, 104th-best last year). Early on, that was probably a product of a short rotation that didn’t need to commit as many fouls as they did last year.
Now, it becomes a little more serious. Tennessee’s eFG% allowed is almost exactly the same as last year’s (46.5% in 2019 vs. 46.7%; 26th vs. 14th) with a better two-point defense and a higher block rate. So why is this defense ranked 39th and last year’s finished 6th? It’s pretty simple. Tennessee’s opponent Shot Volume (OREB% + (100 – TO%)), which attempts to mark how many extra possessions you allow per 100 possessions, is at 111.1, which…is not good compared to other elite teams.
Defensive Shot Volumes, 2018-19 (national average 109.6):
- Virginia: 107
- Gonzaga: 107.9
- Duke: 108.6
- Michigan State: 112.5
- Michigan: 104.7
- North Carolina: 104.1
- Kentucky: 105.4
Tennessee’s only ahead of Michigan State in this metric. (Hey, I wonder why Michigan State blows it early in the Tournament every year!) This isn’t necessarily a requirement for a deep run, but it obviously helps, just like Michigan’s tiny 2017-18 Defensive Shot Volume (105.4) helped them make the National Championship despite scoring 69 or less in four of their five games leading in. That’s a long way of saying Tennessee needs more of this going forward:
- Same starting lineup for all but one game of SEC play: Campbell/Lawson/Bryant/Silva/Kotsar.
- Evan Hinson played 12 minutes against Tennessee and 13 against Kentucky, but outside of those two games, he’s hit double-digit minutes just once in 2019. This is likely a seven-man rotation with Gravett and Haase as the two bench guys.
- Alanzo Frink, who played 38 minutes combined against Vanderbilt and LSU, has played 31 minutes combined in the last six games. Seems done-ish.
- The first substitutions are almost always for Bryant and Kotsar; this shifts Lawson to SF, Gravett in at SG, and Haase at C.
- During the rare moments they play Hinson/Frink, Martin tries to slot them in alongside the other four starters. I think he distrusts them at this point.
- Yves Pons returns tonight. Jalen Johnson usurped what would’ve been his minutes against Florida, making a grand return by playing…nine minutes.
- Kyle Alexander only played 19 minutes against Florida, which meant John Fulkerson got 11 and Derrick Walker 4. Again, for those wondering, Walker has yet to play more minutes than Fulkerson in a non-blowout game. It ain’t happening this year.
- Even with Pons back tonight, I expect both he and Johnson play, as prior to the injury, they’d both gotten minutes in four straight games. It’s kind of wild that Pons fell from a 32-minute outing against Samford the week before Christmas to this, but I like that Barnes is trying a few different rotations for March.
- An intriguing lineup that Barnes is running with most times he wants to give Schofield a rest: Bone/Turner/Bowden as the backcourt. I’ll try and hunt down numbers on this three-man lineup, but that seems impressively tough to stop if all three are hitting.
Kyle Alexander/Grant Williams vs. Chris Silva. Not that Tennessee can’t win this game by 20+ with Silva going for 23 and 8, but Alexander needs a win in a matchup like this. As noted above, he only played 19 minutes against Florida, but I thought he did really excellent work on Kevarrius Hayes. (Of course, Silva is the polar opposite in nearly every way.)
Lamonte Turner vs. Hassani Gravett. Turner held Gravett to 4 points on 8 shots the first time around and played a part in forcing five turnovers. It was as good a defensive outing as he’s shown all year; he’ll have to do it again in this one.
Admiral Schofield vs. Keyshawn Bryant. This is a matchup Schofield should win with ease; my main reason for highlighting it is that Schofield got 24 points on 17 shots the first time, which remains his only 20+ point outing since Memphis on December 15. (Yes, that’s a real stat.) He desperately needs a great outing again.
Tennessee 94, South Carolina 73.