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Show Me My Basketball Opponent: Eastern Kentucky

Show Me My Basketball Opponent: Eastern Kentucky

Here’s all I knew about Eastern Kentucky University heading into this post:

  • Its football team is coached by former Tennessee special teams coach Mark Elder. At 14-19 through three years, he has the worst winning percentage of a coach there in nearly 90 years, so that’s good.
  • They are located in Richmond, Kentucky.
  • They were in the NCAA Tournament a few years ago and made Kansas sweat for about 35 minutes.

That’s it! Let’s learn about the Eastern Kentucky…Colonels? together.


Prior to this post, I can say with safety that I hadn’t watched a single Eastern Kentucky basketball game since that Kansas game. But, with safety, I remember being bizarrely excited to watch that game, because EKU rolled in with one of the funniest splits I’ve ever seen in my life. 2014 Eastern Kentucky:

  • Offense EFG%: 4th of 351
  • Defensive EFG%: 342nd
  • 3 Point Attempt Rate: 9th
  • Defensive Turnover Rate: 3rd
  • Offensive Rebound Rate: 346th
  • Opponent Free Throw Rate: 343rd

They had literally no backup plan if they couldn’t force turnovers or hit threes. The goal was to two specific things as well as humanly possible and hope for the best, and it worked: they won the Ohio Valley Conference as a 3 seed, waltzed into Kansas City on a Friday afternoon, and darn near beat a team with Andrew Wiggins, Perry Ellis, Tarik Black, and (injured) Joel Embiid on it. They hit 12 threes, forced 14 turnovers, and led 56-53 with 9 minutes to go. Even in the craziest NCAA Tournament of all-time, they weren’t able to pull it off, but it was fun, and that’s what matters.

The architect of their madness, Jeff Neubauer, left a year later for Fordham. The Colonels wasted three years under replacement Dan McHale (16-34 in OVC play), but first-time head coach A.W. Hamilton wants to replicate Neubauer’s brief magic.

EKU comes to town with a 3-3 record and not a single win over a KenPom top 300 team. They’re not going to be very good, but they’re going to be very fun, and that’s because they’re averaging an astounding 83.5 possessions per game right now. Their slowest game, a 100-81 win over Northern Iowa, grabbed a measly 79 possessions. It took Tennessee and Kansas 45 minutes to get to 83 possessions. There will not be a team in 2018-19 that comes to town willing to play Tennessee to a faster pace. This means that, yes, they’ll score points, and it may look mildly alarming to someone who doesn’t watch the game. This also means that Tennessee will score many, many points.


WHAT THEY BRING

A halfcourt trap

No, Eastern Kentucky isn’t going to press on every possession – they’ve done it on about 30% of possessions so far, mostly after made baskets or free throws. Of course, that’s way more than any Tennessee opponent has offered to date. Tennessee has only faced 16 possessions against opponent presses, seven of which came in opponent desperation mode. Georgia Tech did throw out a man press a couple of times against the Vols, but the one good possession worth looking at was promptly ignored by ESPN’s coverage in place of showing off the Bernard King banner. (Acceptable.) Anyway, EKU is still learning how to run this thing after tinkering with it sparingly last season under McHale. They’ve forced 28 turnovers on 125 possessions, which is great:

But if you break it quickly, the odds are on your side.

Even the misses they’ve allowed are generally good-looking shots.

If nothing else, it should serve as good practice for Tennessee, in the event that a future opponent throws a press at them. In particular, Memphis (32.5% of possessions), West Virginia (32.1%, AKA Press Virginia), Arkansas (27%), and Florida (25.2%) feature presses of various natures. Learning how to break a simple trap can do wonders for your offense going forward, and it can lead to happy possessions like this:

Shooters that shoot

I mean, I didn’t say they were hitting them:

EKU takes nearly 43% of their shots from deep, which is a good ratio to have in 2018…as long as you’re hitting those shots. EKU isn’t. They’ve hit just 29.8% of their threes this year. Considering the types of shots they’re getting – almost 69% of them are guarded, per Synergy – this isn’t a surprise.

Dujuanta Weaver, who does make the shot below, is the worst offender: 10 of 40 (25%) on the season!

Despite spending so much time shooting, none of EKU’s most prolific shooters are any good at it. On spot-ups, the most common form of threes, the top four Eastern Kentucky shooters are combining for a 16 of 68 rate (23.5%), which is truly wretched. No D-I team can go for very long being that awful from deep, but Tennessee’s defense – one of the best nationally in three-point defense due to their ability to guard most threes – likely isn’t the team to fix that.

One good player

His name is Nick Mayo. Yes, seriously.

It’s not much, but he’s pretty clearly the best player on the team by far. He averages 22 points, 9.2 rebounds, and 1.7 blocks per game. He is a 6’9″ center that has hit 39 of 41 free throws. He’s a career 42% three-point shooter. He is a legitimately very good player at any level, and it really is too bad that he’s toiled away on three bad EKU teams and a likely fourth bad one. Mayo will try to draw Kyle Alexander out of the paint to defend threes, which Alexander has been pretty good at. This could also be a deal where you switch Grant Williams onto him in such scenarios.

Mayo will get at least 18 and 6 on some level of efficiency, but it would require a heroic effort like his 40/12 performance against Chattanooga to get EKU within upset range. Look for him to pop frequently on pick-and-rolls; he almost never rolls to the basket:

A variety of defensive maladies

Imagine Kyle Alexander, Derrick Walker, or even John Fulkerson on this possession:

EKU has actually been around the national average for opponent rebounds, but this is with playing two sub-300 KenPom teams and NAIA Midway. Marshall got 16 offensive rebounds on the Colonels, Kansas State 11. (Northern Iowa is the third of these, but UNI has been averse to offensive rebounding as long as I’ve followed college basketball.) Nick Mayo is about the only serious force they’ve had on defensive rebounding; Peyton Broughton, starting 3, was beaten to the rim frequently in the pair of games I watched, as was starting 4 Lachlan Anderson to a lesser extent.

They’ve been horrific at defending spot-up shots, though some of that is bad luck (65% of opponent catch-and-shoots are guarded, per Synergy). This is a turd of a closeout from Nick Mayo:

Tennessee isn’t as pick-and-roll dominant as a lot of teams, but EKU struggled with it mightily against Marshall:

Of Marshall’s 23 field goal attempts on pick-and-roll plays, 15 came within 5 feet of the rim. As such, EKU had to foul pretty frequently, and that’s (partially) how Marshall ended up with 32 free throw attempts in a game where they already had 76 field goal attempts. (Basketball on crack.) The pick-and-roll is far from Rick Barnes’ first choice (last year, Tennessee ranked last in the SEC in P&R possessions), but it wouldn’t be a terrible idea to get Jordan Bone a few possessions in it and use both Alexander and Williams as roll men. EKU had a whale of a time defending Marshall’s CJ Burks (a combo 2/3 with Bowden’s size), who had 9 layups or dunks against the Colonels (!). They also couldn’t defend Kansas State big man Dean Wade, who had four layups or dunks but is an excellent shooter in his own right (38% from three for his career) and whipped EKU in the mid-range all night. This could be an excellent back-on-track night for Admiral Schofield in particular.


HOW TENNESSEE BEATS IT

Showing up

Eastern Kentucky’s best win is over Chattanooga, the #325 team in KenPom that’s 1-5 against D-I competition this season. (They will fire Lamont Paris after this season, surely.) They have one win over a Top 50 team in the KenPom era (their 72-44 blowout of Miami in 2014). Against the two NCAA Tournament teams they’ve played, they gave up 200 points and lost by a total of 55. It’s not a good team, but it’s a good opportunity for Tennessee to right the ship after a tough loss to Kansas. Sorry, but no one on EKU is stopping this:

Get the right shots

Rick Barnes was right in his postgame dissection of Tennessee’s guard play: indeed, the Vols aren’t driving to the basket well enough. Tennessee took 75 shots from the floor against Kansas last Friday. 28 of those shots were layups, dunks, or tips, per Synergy. That’s a fine ratio (37.3% of total shots) when used out of context. Now, think about this: 18 of those shots came from three players – Schofield, Williams, and Alexander. None of those are guards. In fact, just 7 of those 28 shots were from guards (three from Bone, three from Bowden, one from Turner). Even worse: only one of these counted as a drive to the basket. See the Jordan Bone miss below? That’s the only time a Tennessee guard drove to the basket and got a shot attempt.

Yep! It was with two seconds left in the freaking game.

In that sense, I entirely get why Barnes is upset. Tennessee’s guards are too talented and too smart not to drive to the hoop, because now, everyone but Fulkerson and Pons in the current eight-man rotation has shown the ability to hit threes. These aren’t drives, but keeping the ball down low/feeding Grant Williams will lead to plenty of open shots from the outside.

Turner is about two feet too deep for my comfort, but most fans seem to be fine with him taking that shot. Look at what happens when Williams controls the ball and gets doubled. These are the exact same play, just with different results:

Those are shots Barnes is happy with. The contested 17-footers, the general lack of basket attack by guards…those aren’t good. Tennessee can fix those going forward, and Eastern Kentucky would be a good team to try it against.

Crash the boards

Remember the GIF of Eastern Kentucky flailing on a Marshall offensive rebound showcase earlier? Well,

There isn’t a player on EKU that can prevent Alexander from doing that. Grant Williams is just in the right place in the right time here, but taking advantage of others’ mistakes and not leaving the basket is never a bad thing.

Tweak and perfect the defense

Tennessee’s been pretty darn good defensively thus far. Louisville and Kansas both topped a point per possession, but Louisville stayed in the game as long as they did by hitting an outsized amount of guarded threes (8 of 18; normal expectation would be about 5-6 of 18) and Kansas struggled with anything that wasn’t a Dedric Lawson or Udoka Azubuike post possession. (On shots further than 4 feet from the rim, Kansas went 10 of 31, including 5 of 17 from three.) Tennessee fouled more than most would’ve liked against Kansas, but that’s credit to KU – their guards drove, Tennessee’s didn’t. (Of course, this is where I note that Tennessee had 27 attempts within four feet of the rim, while Kansas had 29. However, Kansas shot twice as many free throws. Very interesting!) Kansas shot 5 of 17 from three because most of Tennessee’s perimeter defense looked like this:

Even though Louisville hit said guarded threes, a lot of Tennessee’s defensive possessions looked like this:

Against an Eastern Kentucky team that struggled heavily to generate open shots from the outside against Kansas State (20 of their 23 catch-and-shoots were guarded, per Synergy), Tennessee should feast. I’d also like to see Tennessee’s P&R defense in action, which was their best feature in 2017-18. This from Jordan Bone against Kansas was beautiful:

Because life isn’t fair, Kansas ended up getting two points on this possession, but Bone did everything correctly. More of that going forward, please.

Break the press

Because Tennessee has so little usable footage against opposing presses, this game should give us a lot of to work with. However, you do get to watch the longest clip I’ve created, an entire possession where Tennessee beats a non-trapping press from Louisiana-Lafayette and bleeds the clock out.

In a game where Eastern Kentucky will be happy to shoot the ball before the shot clock hits 20, Tennessee may be happy to spend their possession like this.


KEY MATCHUPS

Tennessee’s Offense versus the Eastern Kentucky Press. Kansas State, the only other Top 20 team on the EKU schedule, got as many attempts at the rim as they wanted because they broke the press with ease. Tennessee would be wise to follow their path.

Kyle Alexander (or Grant Williams or Derrick Walker) versus Nick Mayo. It’s okay if Mayo gets 25 points in this game if it takes 20+ shots to get him there. The ideal scenario is the Tennessee defender forcing Mayo into guarded, tough threes, where he’s been least effective. Forcing him into post possessions, where he’s less comfortable, isn’t a bad idea either. Basically: don’t foul him, don’t leave him open.

Tennessee’s Guards versus An Allergy to Driving. Take some Zicam, clear the snot out, go to the rim, make their weaker defenders (Robinson and Mayo are especially bad) clear out of the way. While Turner and Bowden are more perimeter-oriented in general, this really should be a Jordan Bone showcase. (It would be nice for Turner/Bowden to take their chances as well, obviously.)


PREDICTION

Tennessee 95, Eastern Kentucky 67.

Give us your Take...
Vols

Will Warren is a contributor to FOX Sports Knoxville. He loves Popeyes, computers, the Nashville Predators, and melatonin.

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