WE MEET AGAIN. Thank God we meet again, because for about four seconds during Tennessee’s game against Louisville on Wednesday, I was concerned this wouldn’t be so. Louisville hit 11 of their first 24 threes, nearly all of them guarded in some way, before not hitting a three over the final 7+ minutes of the game and falling 92-81. Likewise, Marquette made 11 of their 21 first-half attempts before going just 3 of 10 in the second half, losing to Kansas 77-68.
This Kansas group comes in with the most preseason hype (#1 ranking, #1 on KenPom, #1 on Bart Torvik) since the 2009-10 team that came to Knoxville on a Sunday afternoon in January. Like that team, this team will have stretches of play that make you ask yourself: “can anyone beat this team?” They will also play stretches of games where you wonder what in the world they do during practice.
Against Michigan State, by all rights one of the ten best teams in America, Kansas firmly controlled the game for all 40 minutes. They led by 14 at halftime, by double digits for most of the second half, and only won by 5 because of late game free throw issues. (MSU got it to 90-87 with a few seconds left after trailing 87-75 with four minutes left.)
In their other three games, they’ve yet to figure it out for the full 40. Vermont led Kansas for all but a minute of the first half. Louisiana-Lafayette led the Jayhawks by 12 in the first half and trailed 72-67 with 4:24 to play. Marquette also led Kansas by 12 late in the first half, led by 9 at halftime, and only an epic second-half cold spell (didn’t score until 9:15 had elapsed) kept them from competing further. This sounds like every other Kansas team so far: they’ll get a 1 or 2 seed, either lose in the second round or blow their opponent out, and, if the latter, lose to a rising program in the Elite Eight.
Who is it? What Kansas team is really there? Is it the team that thoroughly dominated Michigan State and then dominated Marquette for one half? Do they have a switch to flip? Does Tennessee have as good of a chance as you’d expect? Also, why is everyone hitting a ton of threes on them?
WHAT THEY BRING
Shooters, of course
LaGerald Vick, seen above hitting a three, is white hot through four games. He’s 18 of 29 from three and went a perfect 8 of 8 (!!) against Vermont. Vick is the only senior in the Kansas rotation, meaning he is the new Perry Ellis in your brain. Vick isn’t the highest-usage guy, but he’s deadly from deep. This is Jordan Bowden’s matchup, so it may as well be a shooting contest.
Quentin Grimes, true freshman, is the other premier shooter:
Grimes is 9 of 17 from three and serves as the starting 3 that moonlights as a 4, meaning Schofield will match up with him. He doesn’t do much else, though he does have the highest assist rate on the team so far. Kansas actually hasn’t shot very many threes – just a 29% 3PT rate with 10 attempts against Marquette – but you’d generally prefer to cover shooters. Devon Dotson (point guard) also shoots (4 of 9 from three), but much prefers to drive to the rim (10 of 14).
Large adult Azubuike
lol what do you do?
The defense on this play seems to be to tackle Udoka Azubuike mid-air. Azubuike is a carbon copy of DeAndre Jordan, a hyper-efficient vertical alien that blocks tons of shots, dunks a lot, and is pretty reliable down low. It would be less scary if he was a blunt bully with few interesting moves, but:
An issue: he is an awful free throw shooter (40.1% in his career, 7 of 20 this season), he can’t shoot anything past the rim (28 of 35 at the rim, 0 of 7 everywhere else), and he’s unreliable in terms of playing big minutes (four fouls against MSU and Marquette, playing 20 and 15 minutes in both). But, man, it’s so fun to watch him in the post:
Memphis transfer Dedric Lawson, who is great
Lawson may not be the guy that immediately jumps off the page to you, but anyone who can hit this shot is pretty talented:
Lawson’s had one horrid game (0 points, 7 rebounds, 4 fouls vs. Vermont) and three outstanding games (20, 19, and 26 points, plus 14, 6, and 12 rebounds). He’s been able to shoot from pretty much anywhere inside the arc, and he’s an especially prolific offensive rebounder. He starts at the 4, so this is Grant Williams’ matchup. It’s funny, as they take pretty similar shots. Notably, Lawson has been pretty bad defensively (allowing 1.172 points per possession), especially on any shot that requires him to leave the paint. Tennessee would be wise to focus on this.
A fierce, fun point guard
Devon Dotson, the other freshman starter, is pretty fearless:
Dotson hasn’t shot much, but he’s been instrumental in running the offense, and when he does shoot, he’s done well – 10 of 14 at the rim, 4 of 9 from three. He’s also been Kansas’s best non-Azubuike defender by a mile, per Synergy Sports (93rd-percentile nationally). It won’t be like covering Louisville’s Darius Perry, a pretty fearless shooter, but it’ll be a similarly tough challenge for Jordan Bone.
This surely isn’t what they’re looking for:
Nothing like a pair of 6’9″ and 7’0″ defenders covering a guard. Kansas’s defense was at its best against MSU, too. They’ve been getting lost pretty frequently on threes:
Part of that is the fact Kansas is still finding chemistry together as a new lineup after replacing three of the five 2017-18 starters. After all, it’s a true freshman getting lost in space here:
Marquette roasted Kansas in the first half, not least because Kansas couldn’t stop themselves from letting the Howard/Hauser combo get open over and over again:
Kansas’s non-Azubuike/Dotson defensive rotation players rank in these percentiles on Synergy: 31st, 46th, 9th, 19th, 23rd. Azubuike can cover the paint and Dotson can cover Bone, but this should be a game where Bowden/Schofield can light it up.
HOW TENNESSEE BEATS IT
Tennessee has five players with at least three made threes through four games. Kansas has allowed at least nine made threes in every game so far and has given up 12 or more threes in three of those. This seems obvious. Considering Azubuike’s interior presence, I think there’s serious worth in throwing up a five-shooter lineup: Bone/Turner/Bowden/Schofield/Williams. Is it kind of insane? Sure. Then again, so’s the idea that Azubuike would vacate the paint to cover Grant Williams at 21 feet. This didn’t go in, but this is the exact type of shot we’re both thinking about:
Push the ball
This may sound silly – Kansas loves to push it in transition – but it makes sense because Kansas themselves have been pretty gross in transition defense. Opponents are tossing up 1.25 PPP (3rd percentile nationally!) on transition possessions against the Jayhawks defense. Like, it’s not hard or fancy, this works fine:
Stick to the perimeter like glue
After looking through the Synergy data, my initial feelings during Wednesday’s Louisville game were confirmed: Louisville was insanely lucky to have been in that game for so long. Of Louisville’s 21 catch-and-shoot threes, 17 were guarded by Tennessee, or 81% of the shots. You’re normally doing very well if you guard 70%, so Tennessee wasn’t failing to get a hand in someone’s face. I mean, explain this from a career 32.8% shooter:
While later, that exact same shot from a career 41.2% shooter isn’t close:
Of Louisville’s 17 guarded threes, they hit 8 (47.1%). The average efficiency on guarded threes is around 32%, meaning Louisville hit about 2.6 more than you’d expect. Extrapolate that as it is, and Tennessee should’ve won the game by 19 points. That would feel a little different, wouldn’t it?
Get back in transition
As I mentioned, Kansas loves to push the ball down the court. Getting back quickly and communicating properly is the difference between this:
I promise you want more of the former. Don’t get caught on the other end of the court, because Kansas will take advantage just like that.
Avoid foul trouble
Smart post defense like this from Kyle Alexander is how Tennessee forced Louisville to stay in the game entirely by shooting threes:
Alexander was brutal offensively, but he was very, very good on the other end. John Fulkerson had a great first half, but this summed up why he’s not quite fully reliable off the bench just yet:
Azubuike can take massive advantage of these, and it’s on Tennessee to avoid dumb fouls on easy layups and dunks. If Azubuike gets two cleanly, let him get two. Of course, if there’s any doubt, foul, because he’s a terrible free throw shooter. Just make sure you’ve got the foul count updating in the forefront of your brain.
Zone isn’t for cowards
It’s hard to do this in 2018, but Kansas has managed to make it through four games only playing a single game against any form of a zone defense. Even then, Louisiana-Lafayette only ran it for about a quarter of the game against Kansas; the Jayhawks managed 0.905 PPP against it. Most notably, the zone forced five of Kansas’s 16 turnovers,
They’re only running it for about 9-10 possessions a game, but Tennessee’s zone defense has been fuego to date. Opponents have shot 10 of 32 against the zone and have turned it over on 18.2% of possessions. Louisville played 14 possessions against it; they scored on just five of them and tossed up a 0.64 PPP effort. I would be surprised if they ran this the entire game, obviously, but running this is absolutely worth the experiment against a seven-man rotation with two freshmen and two sophomores.
Kyle Alexander and ??? vs. Udoka Azubuike. Tennessee has to win this matchup, or at least battle it to a draw, to win this game. Alexander’s an excellent defender, but he can’t get vertical in the way Azubuike does. This comes down to standard post-up defense. If Alexander’s forcing Azubuike to go to his right where he’s a little less comfortable or forcing him to pass it back out, that’s great for Tennessee. Same goes for Walker, Williams, etc.
Jordan Bowden vs. LaGerald Vick. Two shooters in a shoot-off. I love it!
Rick Barnes vs. Bill Self. Well, yeah, but it’s deeper than that: when will Barnes go to the zone? At what point does he consider doubling Azubuike? Likewise, when will Self double Williams and force the rest of the team to score? Can he find a way to tighten Kansas’s perimeter defense considerably?
Kansas 77, Tennessee 74.