A list of Wright State facts, before we start our work:
- Wright State is in Dayton, Ohio. Because the Horizon League was dominated by Indiana schools for my entire childhood and adulthood, I did not know this and simply assumed it was in North Indiana. Nope!
- This is Wright State’s first NCAA Tournament appearance since 2007. Very cool for them.
- Their most famous alumnus is…ah… Nicole Scherzinger (Big Sean just cheated on Jhene Aiko with her)? Brad Sherwood (friends with Colin Mochrie)? Robert Pollard (the dude from Guided By Voices)? At least Sherwood has acknowledged it on Twitter; Nicole Scherzinger seems busy and Robert Pollard had no clue they were in it until Dave at the Dayton Chili’s told him on Sunday night. Too busy recording.
- Brad Brownell (Clemson’s current coach) was the last coach to get them to the Tournament. Yep.
- It’s cheaper to attend than Tennessee (by nearly $20,000 for out-of-state students), but so are a lot of schools.
When Jon Reed and I did our live Selection Sunday reaction show on…well, Sunday, we both agreed we’d do just about anything to receive a bid in the South Region. Cody McClure and I discussed potential 14 seeds we were alarmed by; his was College of Charleston, mine was Stephen F. Austin and Penn (a 16 seed???). At no point did we really stop to consider much about the Wright State Raiders. That’s fine; I can’t imagine their fans care what we think.
Over the last couple of days, getting to dive into Wright State basketball has been an experience of sorts. They’re the lowest-ranked 14 seed on KenPom and Bart Torvik, ranking below a 15 and 16 seed on both. They weren’t the best team in their own conference; that was Northern Kentucky, who goofed up their quarterfinal game out of nowhere against a team they’d previously beaten by 15 and 17. Wright State did beat Northern Kentucky twice, but they lost three games to Quadrant Four opponents and won all of two games against Quadrant One or Two opponents (Western and Northern Kentuckies) this season.
And yet: we must credit them for what they do well. Wright State is the best 14 seed defensively in the field and they’re #34 in defensive turnover rate. They’re top 60 in making teams shoot poorly on mid-range shots, which is fine, though not opponent-adjusted. They aren’t the lowest-ranked or most hopeless 14 seed in the KenPom era – nine teams entered their games against 3 seed opponents with worse odds! They all went 0-9 and lost by an average of 17.3 points, but still – not the worst! They also had two of the six or seven best players in the Horizon League with Loudon Love and Grant Benzinger.
It isn’t a bad team, and there’s certainly ways they can keep it close – 8+ threes, poor defensive boards work by Tennessee, and they’re in business. I mean, anything can happen – Wright State could play one of their two or three best games of the season and Tennessee could play one of their two worst at the same time. At that point, all bets are off. But on average? It shouldn’t be close.
Please pay me because I spent three hours watching this offense
This isn’t an exaggeration: Tennessee, somehow, has both the best KenPom offense (40th; Toledo 45th) and defense (4th; Loyola Chicago 25th) that Wright State has played, not just this season, but also last season. This also isn’t an exaggeration: Tennessee has played two worse offenses than Wright State’s all year, and they allowed 53 points to both (High Point and Presbyterian). Okay! Just getting that out of the way up front.
It’s gonna run through Loudon Love
NOW THAT’S A HOSS. Loudon Love is 6’9″ and 275 pounds, which seems like enough…until you find out he entered college at 320. He went from bowling pin to bowling ball over the last couple of years, and the results are pretty solid: 12.9 PPG, 9.8 RPG, and the third-best player in the Horizon League per both KenPom and Bart Torvik. Obviously, a 275 pound bowling ball is going to spend his entire season inside the paint. Just 10 of Love’s 341 shots on the year can be described as jumpers, and his range is more or less 6 feet, 9 inches from the rim.
Post-ups represent almost 77% of Love’s possessions this year, but what matters most is how he reacts to pressure. Uh, it matters: Love goes from converting 54.1% of his post-up attempts on one-on-one possessions to 40.4% when there’s a second defender. Tennessee may choose to exploit this by matching him up man-on-man with Kyle Alexander and sending a second roving defender – likely Grant Williams or Admiral Schofield – to give him trouble, because…
The other big dude can’t shoot
His name’s Parker Ernsthausen. He’s probably a good kid. He’s certainly big (6’11”) and a good passer for his size. He’s also pretty solid when he plays around the basket. The problem: he doesn’t really love playing around the basket. For some reason, nearly half of Ernsthausen’s attempts this year were jump shots, and a further (slightly less than) half of those were three-pointers. This is noble, but ineffective; Ernsthausen is 6 for 29 from three on the year. When he and Love are on the court together, spacing is a nightmare, and no one’s able to drive the ball to the rim. As I noted, he converts exceptionally well at the rim, but he takes just over one shot per game at the net. Williams or Schofield should be able to sag off here and give attention to Love.
They got shooters, kinda
That’s #31 Zach Gentry, who assumed the starting point guard role just prior to two-year starter and #3 leading scorer Justin Mitchell leaving the team due to personal reasons after 17 games in January. I find him pretty interesting because he’s not afraid at all to take shots and do things with the ball, like this:
Since Mitchell’s departure, he’s been the third-best player on the team despite having the lowest usage rate of any rotation regular at 15.6%. He likes creating his own shot from three – 35.9% on the year – and running a ton of pick & roll (65.2% of his possessions). Prior to his departure, Mitchell easily ran the most pick & roll plays on the team. Because Gentry has taken that role, he now runs those…but he isn’t as effective as Mitchell was (2.7 points lower per 100 possessions). Plus, Mitchell could do something that no other guard on the team has been able to since:
Mitchell went to the rim on over 40% of his attempts; last year, when he was a full-time starter, it was 66%. No other guard on the 2018 edition of Wright State is higher than 28.4%, and the three starting guards all spend more than 52% of their time shooting from deep. That may be a large part of why they’ve struggled to score this year (in 14 of 34 games, they’ve tossed up less than one point per possession). The other part is that the guards are hit or miss:
The top is Gentry, but the bottom, finally, is Grant Benzinger. Benzinger serves as the Raiders’ chief deep threat, hitting 85 of them this year and making 37.4% of them. He’s probably the best offensive threat the Raiders have, but he can be limited with fair ease. 87.5% of his three point makes are assisted, meaning he very rarely creates his own shot – it’s all about rotating to cover him when he pops open. Loyola failed to do that above; Tennessee has very rangy perimeter guys who can extend the defense all over the floor and have been lights out at defending the deep ball for three months. (Jordan Bowden is especially useful here.)
Plus, if you can make Benzinger try to create his own shot, it’s ideal:
At 6’3″ and not too quick, he’s probably not going to beat anyone other than a post player or perhaps Daniel. It’s going to be predominantly catch-and-shoots for him and Mark Hughes, the third deep shooting starter on the team (57 threes, 33.5% 3PT), which makes it pertinent for Tennessee to continue their excellence in rotating to and guarding shooters as of late. Basically: the only guys who can create their own shots are Love, Gentry, and occasionally Hughes on the rare nights he decides to drive to the rim. Defend them properly and it’ll be a good day.
No, seriously! They rank 54th defensively on KenPom. They’re 48th in opponent eFG%, 33rd-best at making you turn the ball over, and 38th in defensive rebounding rate. All of that’s really good. They also don’t foul much. The issues with it are pretty tough to find, but we found them. I WORK HARD FOR YOU.
The three-point defense leaves a bit to be desired
Sure, that sounds silly for a team that still ranks among the national average in three-point defense, but it legitimately could be much better. Wright State ranks 45th in the field at three-point percentage allowed and 52nd (!) in 3PA/FGA (the number of three-point attempts for each field goal attempt). They got roasted pretty often from deep this year: 10 times they gave up 10+ threes (still 6-4 in these games!) and 14 times they allowed opponents to shoot 37% or better from deep (6-8 in these games, 19-1 in all others). Against Murray State, Terrell Miller (think Admiral, but bigger, somehow) couldn’t stop getting open from 3. He hit five that night; he’d hit 57 in 28 other games the rest of the year. They aren’t bad, really, just not all that good.
Stout interior defense, in theory
We’ll get it out of the way first: Loudon Love is a legitimately very good defender, from what I’ve seen. This is why, despite playing the second-most minutes on the team, only the fourth-most possessions ended against him. The stats back this theory up: Wright State’s interior FG% allowed is 58th-best, but they allow the fewest attempts at the rim of anyone in the field. Most opponents just simply didn’t want to bother with it. Of course, most opponents don’t have the SEC Player of the Year, an All-SEC Second Teamer, and Kyle Alexander. When Wright State did play an opponent determined to get to the rim regardless of who was in front of it, it didn’t always go well:
Against the four other Top 100 offenses on their schedule (five games against Toledo, Northern Kentucky, Western Kentucky, and Murray State), Wright State allowed 75.6 points per game, or a full ten points more than their average. The shooting percentage allowed wasn’t that much lower than normal – 45.4% vs. 41.4% – but more importantly, these opponents (who aren’t exactly the most rim-oriented offenses, minus Western Kentucky) shot 4.5% better at the rim than average and 2.5% better from three. (Carson Williams of NKU especially tore up Wright State inside, and his per-possession stats are pretty similar to his long-lost brother, Grant Williams.)
The two offenses that are more rim-oriented (WKU and somewhat NKU) shot 64.5% at the rim. Why? Because they’re good offenses, and Wright State often got sucked into help defense that left a man open. (I will note that Wright State still went 3-2 in these games, mostly because none of the four teams were good defensively.) Tennessee’s is insanely frustrating at times, but it’s helpful to remember that the Vols played an astounding 12 Top 50 defenses this year. Wright State, at 54th, is only Tennessee’s 13th-most-difficult defensive opponent this season. That’s wild. Tennessee is battle-tested with opposing defenses; I’m not quite sure Wright State is with other offenses.
How often can the Vols get to the line?
It’s something they like doing and something they’re good at, but Wright State is among the top 100 nationally in opponent free throw rate. Five of Tennessee’s eight losses this year came against opponents ranked in the top 100, and in games where Tennessee doesn’t get the calls they’re looking for, they’re prone to frustration and a little sloppiness on offense – think the first Georgia game or even the Missouri game, to some extent. I don’t think this will be a huge deal, but they probably won’t shoot a ton of free throws unless the interior defense caves and Love has to slap around to avoid giving up easy layups.
Wright State actually has the best defensive turnover rate of any Tennessee opponent this year – though, again, it isn’t opponent-adjusted and they played just two offenses in the top 100 of offensive turnover rate. (Those two offenses combined for 32 turnovers and Wright State went 1-1.) You could boil down some of their success to this: in games where the opponent loses the ball 16 times or more, Wright State is 12-1. When they don’t? 13-8. When they lose the turnover battle in general? 6-6; all other games, they’re 19-3. Holding on to the ball and not goofing it away: probably a good idea.
All NCAA Tournament opponents are worth respecting and fearing in some regards. They’ve worked like heck to get there and they deserve their moment in the sun. Wright State does some things pretty well – the turnover rate is awesome, Loudon Love looks pretty nasty, and they have shooters from time to time. It isn’t the worst possible matchup at the 14 for Tennessee – that would be Montana, and it’s not particularly close. It’s probably the best possible matchup for Tennessee at this seed line, because all the other teams actually hit shots on a somewhat consistent basis. Wright State can and has, but it isn’t likely.
One last note that I haven’t seen covered by many around here: the Justin Mitchell departure robbed the Raiders of easily their best perimeter defender and the second-best defender overall on the team. The offense has improved quite a bit since he left, but the defense averaged a 100.4 Adjusted Defensive Efficiency over the final 17 games. That isn’t top 60; that ranks 82nd on the season. If that’s the team they’re bringing, it’ll be closer in efficiency to the Arkansas defense Tennessee just shredded into bits than it will be, say, the Mississippi State defense that gave Tennessee fits in the first round. I like Wright State’s ideas, generally, and I’m glad they’re here. They should absolutely be thrilled to have made it. Doing anything more than making it is simply a very tall task. 3 seeds that enter their Round of 64 game with an 85% Win Expectancy or greater are 24-0 in the KenPom era; Tennessee sits at 88.1% and I have no reason to expect something different. Tennessee, 71-55.