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Show Me My Basketball Opponent: Vanderbilt (I)

Finally, we meet again. Two foes, back together, for yet another fight. A fight that we all face in our own souls, with only one side emerging victorious. That’s right, folks, we’re talking Man vs. Popcorn:

In all honesty, credit to the poster for not deleting this. (She’s a woman, not a man, by the way, so this is more Person v. Popcorn.) She took this photo in the devastating wake of the second straight Tennessee win in Memorial Gym, a place where Tennessee was 17-34 prior to 1999. Vanderbilt fans will remind you of the fabled “Memorial Magic” at a Gym with the dumbest sight lines in America, an atrocious bench setup, and a coaching staff that forces their floor moppers to wear suits. (This is real.) As far as I can tell, “Memorial Magic” seems to be based on very special occurrences – think Vanderbilt beating #1 Tennessee in 2008 or #1 Kentucky in 1993 – and not an overall record. After all, “magic” implies something miraculous happening in close games, and Vandy’s a solid 18-17 in games decided by five points or fewer at home this decade. Very magical!

Since the end of 2012 – AKA, the last time Vanderbilt won a game in the NCAA Tournament – Vanderbilt has won 69.6% of their home games. A fine number for…some programs, to be sure! (That rate is tied for 106th-best nationally.) And that Memorial Magic – look what it’s brought you! Losses to Bucknell, Dayton, Kent State, MTSU, Saint Louis, and…uh oh…four losses to Tennessee. Good to hear that Memorial Magic helped you escape Chattanooga and UNC Asheville, I guess.


A frat boy that slaps popcorn out of your hands at age 14 because Vanderbilt is losing to Florida 42-0

Whoops! Wrong post.

A really good transition offense, with little else of note going on

They don’t do many things very well offensively, as this is the #119 offense on KenPom and #131 on Torvik. However, they do run in transition very well, and unlike most teams you’ll see this year, they’re pretty quick to get open threes off of it:

This transition offense ranks in the 86th-percentile on Synergy, which is pretty darn good. They score frequently off of it, not least because they’re getting fouled a lot at the rim:

This is very much needed for an offense that can’t do much else well. All five of Vanderbilt’s starters rank in the 61st-percentile or better in individual transition offense, with four at 73rd-percentile or better. Factor in the overall numbers and no starter tops the 69th-percentile in offense (Matt Ryan, who is Just a Shooter). It’s nice that they’re great in transition:

But transition is just 20% of their game. When the other 80% is in play, well…

Per overall stats, Vanderbilt ranks 224th in 3PT%, 101st in 2PT%, and 197th in FT%. You can chalk up a healthy amount of that 2PT% rate to transition buckets, as their half-court scoring rate drops nearly 0.27 points per possession (PPP). Their 2PT% drops from 64.5% in transition to 48.4% in half-court; 3PT%, 44.9% to 30.3%. The path is simple: you get back, you make them run a half-court offense, and you watch a team without its best player devolve into a farting mess.

Three-ish good jump shooters, and that’s it

To follow up on the half-court struggles, Vanderbilt is 31 of 110 (28.2%) from three in their last five games. They’re not even hitting their layups and dunks: 59 of 116 (50.9%), which would rank 348th of 353 teams over a full season. This happens when you start playing real competition, not UNC Asheville. Luckily for Vanderbilt, they do still roster three jump shooters of okay quality. Matt Ryan (38 of 106, 35.8%):

Joe Toye (24 of 71, 33.8%):

And Aaron Nesmith (26 of 79, 32.9%):

None of those numbers make you shiver and shake, but they’re all…fine, I guess. Only Nesmith has hit at an acceptable rate (11 of 33, 33.3%) in the last five games; Ryan (8 of 27) and Toye (4 of 20) have been disastrous. Part of it is pure bad luck, as Vandy is on a 9 of 32 cold streak on unguarded threes. Then again, that comes after a red-hot 32 of 68 (47.1%) run in the first 12 games. The truth, as usual, lies somewhere in between: it’s a terribly forgettable outside shooting team that takes a lot of outside shots.

Past Nesmith/Toye/Ryan, you’re looking at a team that’s 44 of 144 (30.5%) from three. That counts the fallen Darius Garland, a lottery pick that was 11 of 23 from three in five games. So, yeah, more like 33 of 121 (27.3%), or mostly worthless. Saben Lee (the point guard) launches about 1.5 attempts per game but is hitting 23.1% of them. Simi Shittu, the other NBA guy, is 1 of 13 from three and 20 of 74 on all shots not at the rim. Maxwell Evans hits 33.3% of his, but seems to be a pretty poor defender and has scored one point in his last three games (32 minutes).

Terrible at post-ups, but above-average rim finishers

Not sure how to square this one, really. Of Vanderbilt’s eight players with 55+ field goal attempts, seven have made 60% or more of their attempts at the rim. Only Saben Lee, who’s at 54.2% on 83 attempts, shows any signs of being mildly inefficient. Considering that just 44% of their rim attempts as a team are assisted, you’d assume that most of these come from drives or from post-ups. You’d be half-correct:

Lee and Toye, in particular, have scored quite a few of their points from drives. Shittu can create shots from a rolling position at times as well:

The only player who’s hyper-dependent on the offense creating opportunities for him at the rim is Clevon Brown, who’s had 14 of his 17 layups/dunks assisted. A positive note for Tennessee here: of Vanderbilt’s 415 layup or dunk attempts this year, 43 (10.4%) have been blocked. That’s not a low number at all, and they’ll be going up against a Tennessee defense that’s blocked 18.7% of opponent rim attempts.

As for the post-ups, well…

Synergy informs me that 87 offensive possessions for Vanderbilt have run through the post this year. If that seems like a small number to you in comparison to Tennessee, it’s for good reason. Vandy’s scoring on just 32.2% of these possessions! They’re turning it over on 17.2% of post-ups, they shoot 33.3% on them, and no player devotes more than 26% of his offensive possessions to them (Yanni Wetzell).

However, they do have outstanding post-up defense

Synergy actually has this as the best post-up defense in America right now at 0.564 PPP allowed. They force turnovers on 20.5% of these possessions, and when opponents have gotten a shot off, it’s looked like this:

So, a couple things: Vandy’s forced a ton of turnovers on these. That’s good for them. However: they don’t force turnovers anywhere else (287th nationally in TO rate), and this could be a small sample size quirk. It helps that they’ve got something Tennessee is pretty familiar with by now.

Yet another boom-or-bust rim defense

Boom (26th in Block% at the rim):

Bust (161st in FG% allowed at the rim; opponents 59 of 90 in SEC play):

I like keeping these simple, so here’s a simple fact. Of the 90 attempts at the rim by opponents in SEC play, 13 have been blocked. Pretty good! However, this means the following: on unblocked attempts at the rim, opponents are 59 of 77 (76.6%). Tennessee’s status as quite literally the least-blocked team in America (4.4% of shots blocked) will be a benefit.

Other varieties of rim problems

It really helps Tennessee that they’re not playing Alabama again. Even setting aside the absurdly lucky John Petty game (a guy who’s gone for more than 24 points once in his career hits 30 against a top 30 defense?), Alabama’s one of the best rebounding teams in America and they get fouled a ton. Vanderbilt holds up to one of those qualities: they get fouled a ton. Otherwise, this is a thoroughly mediocre rebounding team at 205th in DREB% nationally:

Shittu and Nesmith rank in the 85th-percentile or better for defensive rebounding, but Matthew Moyer (SF/PF, 16 MPG) and Matt Ryan (SF/PF, 20 MPG) are abysmal. Could be a great Schofield/Williams game here, especially as Nesmith, Wetzell, and Moyer all struggle quite a bit with fouls.

Elsewhere, you can crush this team with cuts to the basket. Cut plays yield a 1.155 PPP return, better than any other type of play defensively. Second-best? Putbacks on offensive rebounds, at 1.074 PPP. Let’s have fun with it:

Lastly, Vandy will go to a zone around 20% of the time. They ran it for half the game against Kentucky and a decent chunk against Ole Miss. At no point has it proved terribly effective; opponents are indeed just 26 of 80 on threes against the zone, but that’s nearly 45% of overall attempts. (Also, they’re hitting 36% of unguarded threes.) In man, Vandy is much better at limiting three-point attempts and guarding threes in general. Zone defense is more of a necessity than a proficiency; Vandy fouls way less in a zone, so Bryce Drew is forced to run it.

Anyway, that’s a long way of saying that opponents are hitting 56.4% of shots at the rim against Vandy’s zone:

Might want to, you know, go to the rim.

Specific matchups to target

Saben Lee, though he does appear to be a good leader and voice of reason for Vanderbilt, isn’t the best player Tennessee will face. He’s probably not even Vanderbilt’s best (maybe even second-best) player. In particular, Lee gets roasted going to the basket, like he did by Lamar Peters here:

Attempts at the rim against Lee this season have gone down at a 62.5% rate, per Synergy. He’s also fouling on 20% of these layup/dunk attempts, so Jordan Bone/Lamonte Turner should go at it.

Likewise, 2 guard/sometimes SF Joe Toye is a good guy to attack on the perimeter. Of his 25 catch-and-shoots allowed this year, 13 have gone unguarded, which is easily the worst rate among Vanderbilt’s rotation. He’s getting lost quite a bit out there. Considering he’ll mostly be defending Jordan Bowden and Lamonte Turner, it could be a long night:


Run it

Vanderbilt’s transition defense ranks in the 56th-percentile nationally – okay, but certainly nothing home to write about. It very rarely forces turnovers. As such:

The #1 transition offense in the nation by eFG% should hammer Vanderbilt off of steals and missed shots.

Tiny cuts, over and over

We discussed above how much Vanderbilt’s defense is struggling with cuts to the basket. Considering Tennessee is dropping 1.345 PPP on cut plays, it would be advantageous to run a bunch of these. Because I feel like I give Grant Williams, Kyle Alexander, and Admiral Schofield all the love for these, here’s a great one for Yves Pons:

Yes, ISO will work in this one

ISO, of course, is the least-efficient category of play call there is. Nothing’s more infuriating than watching bad 1-on-1 basketball when there’s eight other players on the court. (Conversely, nothing’s more exciting when it’s good 1-on-1.) Tennessee ranks in the 77th-percentile in isolation plays, which is very good. Vanderbilt ranks in the 20th-percentile in defending them, which backs up my hypothesis that there’s no great one-on-one defender on this team. Schofield:

A pair of potential mismatches

We’ve already discussed the likely Jordan Bowden vs. Joe Toye mismatch. Bowden (and Lamonte Turner) could really roast Toye in this one. Elsewhere, I really like the potential of the Schofield vs. Aaron Nesmith matchup. Against his best competition, Nesmith hasn’t really stayed in front of his man. Keldon Johnson of UK went 6 of 8 from the field in 24 minutes (fouled out). Cartier Diarra of Kansas State went just 2 of 6, but Nesmith fouled him four times. Nesmith guarded Mississippi State’s Quindary Weatherspoon for 32 minutes, and Weatherspoon went for 17/8/4 on 50% shooting, drawing four fouls. Nesmith fouls a ton, and Schofield is a decent drawer of fouls. (Hypothesis #2: Schofield only draws 3.3 fouls per game because opponents don’t feel like getting in his way.) I think Schofield could get the freshman in the air on something like this:

Secondly, Kyle Alexander draws potential NBA guy Simi Shittu, a 6’10” center that isn’t much of a shot blocker. Shittu is their best player, and he’s adept at guarding out to ~18 feet, but it’s still worth running a perimeter screen or set for Alexander to open up an easy shot for him:

As many jump shots as they’d like, preferably mid-range

Vanderbilt shoots a lot of jumpers. Around 62% of their shots overall are jumpers, and they aren’t efficient at hitting them from three (33%) or two (32.7%). Considering their above-average efficiency at the rim, you’d be fine with packing the paint to some extent. Well, maybe not to this extent:

But something like this can work:

Basically, you don’t want to give up a ton of open threes like you did last game, but Vanderbilt’s going to shoot even if they’re guarded. It’s what Bryce Drew wants, and it may be dumb to watch, but whatever.

For mid-range attempts, forcing their post men into jumpers they’re not thrilled about taking would be ideal. Tennessee did this with both Daniel Gafford and Donta Hall, and it worked:

Get back in transition

Considering it’s the only thing Vanderbilt’s offense is legitimately excellent at, it would be worthwhile to do this. Tennessee struggled in transition Saturday for the first time in a long time. I hated this from Turner:

Like, what are you doing? You don’t give up on the play with other dudes running down the court. Anyway, Tennessee also did some good in getting back:

More of the second than the first, please.

Make Wetzell give you the ball

I’m not crazy about being ultra-hard on a guy who plays on a team I rarely watch, but Yanni Wetzell is a turnover machine. He’s turned it over on 28% of his possessions this year (!), turned it over six times in his last two games (32 minutes played), and isn’t much of a shot-maker otherwise. Reproduce this:

By running a hard double team at him once or twice and forcing him to make a decision with his hands:

Tennessee really should get multiple turnovers from this guy.



  • Vanderbilt is now on their sixth starting lineup of the season, which is seriously impressive. Because they’ve lost five straight games, I don’t know if any lineup changes are coming, but if they are, it’s probably Matthew Moyer starting over Matt Ryan.
  • Anyway: Lee/Toye/Nesmith/Ryan/Shittu.
  • Nine-man rotation, all of whom are averaging 13 MPG or greater. Moyer has gotten a lot of run off the bench at the 4; Clevon Brown got 27 minutes in the last 2 games at 4/5. Wetzell is probably their closest thing to a sixth man, but it’s more like having four seventh men.
  • Most lineups will feature Lee/Toye/Nesmith/Shittu. The 4 will be up in the air all night long, which means Grant Williams could face four different defenders.


  • No lineup changes expected; Bone/Pons/Schofield/Williams/Alexander to start.
  • It’s more of a fact than a trend now, but Bowden has played more minutes than Pons in every SEC game so far, with a 34 minute run to Pons’ 14 against Alabama. Bowden is the de-facto starter.
  • Turner in SEC play: 15 minutes, 29, 29, 19, 24. Tennessee does indeed play seven starters.
  • Derrick Walker’s minutes have dwindled in every SEC game thus far, from 10 against Georgia to a DNP against Alabama (2nd of season). You can firmly consider him a member of the mop-up/emergency crew the rest of the way, as you would Jalen Johnson.


Kyle Alexander vs. Simi Shittu. Alexander got rocked by Donta Hall on Saturday to the tune of 16 points on 10 shots, as well as 12 rebounds. Alexander came through with a pair of strong offensive rebounds and five blocks on assorted players, but he’s gotta be better against the toughest big men in the SEC. This would be a good place to start.

Tennessee’s Perimeter Defenders vs. the Fine Vanderbilt Shooters. More of a regression to the mean than anything truly worrisome: opponents are 40 of 106 (37.7%) from deep against Tennessee in the last four games. That’s not ideal, but outside of the Alabama game, Tennessee’s done an acceptable job of getting hands in faces. To be an elite perimeter defense, they need to step it up, though; Alabama got 15 unguarded catch-and-shoots versus five guarded ones.

Tennessee’s Offense vs. the Shot Clock. This is the only bad part of Tennessee’s otherwise near-flawless offense. On 64 possessions and 53 FGA this year with 4 seconds or less on the shot clock, Tennessee’s shooting 24.5%. They’ve turned it over eight times. Against Alabama, they had five of these possessions, and just one resulted in points. Maybe don’t screw around for 27 seconds? (Jordan Bone is the worst offender at 4 of 18.)


Tennessee 84, Vanderbilt 69.

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