Hahahahaha I MISSED THIS!
Okay, anyway, this isn’t the preview I was anticipating writing. I fully expected Tennessee to be playing Florida this afternoon, because Florida has been perhaps the third-best SEC team of the last month (behind Tennessee and Kentucky). That’s no small complement, because all three have been Top 20 quality since January. Florida slowly but surely began to find their footing on defense after being torched by horrific free throw and three-point luck for three months – quietly, they’ve been one of the ten best defenses since UT’s Iowa State game, too.
But we aren’t writing about Florida basketball on this quiet Saturday morning. I get to write about Arkansas.
All jokes aside, this is, by efficiency, a slightly more enjoyable matchup for Tennessee. As I noted up top, Florida’s found itself defensively and, prior to Arkansas, had just obliterated Kentucky at home. Arkansas came perilously close to falling out of the NCAA Tournament before a late-season surge that peaked with them dropping 91 on the SEC’s co-champions. Bart Torvik says they’re the 13th-best team over the last 10 games. That part isn’t good.
But, then again, maybe they’ve been a little lucky. We talked about catch-and-shoot threes in yesterday’s article and how important it is to guard them. Arkansas hasn’t done that at nearly the same rate as Tennessee. On the season, they’ve had a defender within four feet of 62.5% of these, but during their 8-2 streak, that’s fallen to 56.5%. So of course opponents are shooting 28.9% (22 of 76) on these since February 3. That’s nearly 10% below the national average, and it ain’t like they haven’t had a lot of open opportunities.
What’s funnier is that, over the season, opponents are actually shooting better (36.2% vs. 35%) on guarded catch-and-shoots. Here’s a free tip: that isn’t sustainable. On the whole, a team that can’t get a defender in front of nearly half of their allowed threes – and it’s already a team with one of the worst allowed three-point rates per field goal attempts in the nation at 304th (41.7% of shots are from three) – isn’t likely going to stop someone who can hit them.
Sadly, Tennessee did hit these in their one game against Arkansas earlier this year, and they lost. Why? Let’s take a look.
Arkansas is the SEC’s Golden State of going to the rim
In Game One against the Vols, Arkansas attempted a field goal at the rim 23 times. They made 16. Six more attempts were marred by Vol fouls. Only about 38.3% of attempts came at the rim – a little below Tennessee’s average at that point – but a tiny bit above what Arkansas normally does. Arkansas correctly diagnosed Tennessee’s main flaw as a defense: there’s one big guy and several smaller guys. They’re really good pound-for-pound, but we’re more athletic and bigger. And, as such, we’re gonna run at you until you stop us.
Tennessee couldn’t stop them. Jaylen Barford, especially, was huge: eight of his 18 attempts came at the rim. He scored on five of them and was fouled twice. Daryl Macon got to the rim four times. Future NBA big dude Daniel Gafford was able to do mostly whatever he wanted in the second half and, curiously, never picked up a critical fourth foul in the final ten minutes. Oh well.
Other teams have slowed them down – Florida actually held them to 15 of 25 at the rim last night, and in nine games against Top 25 defenses, they were 8.3% worse down low. It’s all about making very skilled players take shots they aren’t so skilled at. Perhaps from the outside. Wait a minute:
They hit a lot of threes, but in an odd manner
Notice anything different about that first GIF?
I do: It’s off the dribble in transition. Arkansas hit 39.5% of such threes this year (220 total attempts). That’s the SEC’s best rate in a conference that hit about 35% of those an average. They’re really, really good off the dribble, which makes sense because of the basic athleticism and intelligence their guards have. It’s even more unusual considering that they were more efficient off the dribble – which basically no team is – than they were on catch-and-shoots (39%). They shot 45.6% on all other threes. Those numbers are almost always reversed. Weird team, fam.
Make them shoot from mid-range
For a team that’s so efficient down low and from outside, it makes almost no sense for Arkansas to be a 37.7% shooting team on non-rim two-pointers.
(Darker colors are better, lighter ones worse.)
The mission should be pretty obvious, and I won’t go any further because it’s boring: make them shoot outside of the paint but inside of the arc. Those shots blow, and Arkansas blows at them.
Well hey guess what, they can’t defend the rim
Of course they can’t! Arkansas, one of the ten best teams at the rim on offense, ranks 279th in rim defense. No one on their roster can defend shots at the rim. Literally not a single player on the team ranks in the Top 25 of SEC players in rim protection. This is very bad. This is how you lose 75-54 to LSU in January despite making them shoot 4 of 22 from three. Or how you lose to Mississippi State 78-75 despite them missing 16 free throws, most of which happened because they couldn’t stop them otherwise.
Arkansas does do some things well defensively. They’re a pretty good defender of the pick-and-roll, likely because of their athletic guards. They’re very good on post-ups, which is indeed worrisome for Tennessee as it’s their most-used play. Perhaps Tennessee can adjust and make more passes out of the post, similar to the Mississippi State and Ole Miss games.
Beat them in transition
Watch that GIF above: not only is that dunk beautiful, it’s born out of a play in transition. Tennessee hasn’t been the best in transition this year, but Arkansas is so bad at defending it – 289th nationally – that you might as well try to push them off of a turnover or a long miss. Opponents are hitting 37.7% of threes against Arkansas’s transition defense – significantly above the figures we’ve noted previously – and 61.2% of shots at the rim per Synergy, which may be lower than the actual number.
This is certain to be a pretty interesting game, win or lose. At 24-8 with a loss, Tennessee is still more likely to receive a 3 seed than a 4. Plus, they won’t fall below the 4 line. But with a win, it essentially locks a 3 seed up: they’d have as many wins as Auburn and a better RPI and Strength of Record than every team below them. Along with that, nothing feels good about losing twice to Arkansas.
Even in defeat last night, Florida showed that defeating this Arkansas team is not some Herculean task. It’s very rare that you hit 13 threes and lose by eight points, but they pulled this off because of a lack of attention to defensive rebounding and only forcing five turnovers. Arkansas had half as many offensive rebounds in their meeting with Tennessee and seven more turnovers. I have a feeling Tennessee won’t be repeating those same mistakes.
Lastly, there’s probably some serious fear of figuring out how to match Arkansas bucket-for-bucket after last night’s rough performance offensively against Mississippi State. Tennessee shot just 20 of 60 (33.3%) from the field and 5 of 20 from three. They missed eleven free throws. It wasn’t a fun time. But: they still went 13 of 21 at the rim, meaning they converted at about their normal rate. What wasn’t normal? Going 7 of 39 (17.9%) on all other field goal attempts.
It was by far Tennessee’s worst performance of the year; only Alabama (11 of 41; 26.8%) and Furman (11 of 40; 27.5%) came within 10%. It was the most free throws they’ve missed in one game since February 4th, 2017. By my calculations, they scored about 13.5 points below expectation based on shot quality; Tennessee should’ve scored about 75-76 points. Tennessee survived because they got 22 offensive rebounds and because they played an awful offensive team. It would be downright impressive if this type of performance happened in the next calendar year, much less today. Tennessee, 75-70.