Vols

Show Me My Basketball Opponent: Mississippi State

Show Me My Basketball Opponent: Mississippi State

Fun fact for your Tuesday: Tennessee owns two of Kentucky’s five largest losses of the Calipari era. More fun fact: that was the second-fewest points a Calipari Kentucky team has scored in a game. More fun fun fact: that’s one of just three games in the Calipari Kentucky era where Kentucky had a TO% above 25% and an OREB% below 25%. More more fun fun fact fact: Tennessee’s seniors will graduate 4-0 at home against Kentucky.

Wait! There’s a game after Kentucky. Forgot about that. Mississippi State comes to town tonight, and for the first time in a decade, they’re a legitimately very good team. Barring a late-season collapse, Mississippi State should fall somewhere around the 5-7 seed line in the NCAA Tournament. They’ve ranked between 19th and 29th in KenPom for the entire season. They’re just good enough to spring something of mild interest (a home win over Auburn in late January, an overtime loss to LSU, an 8-5 record against Quadrant 1 teams), but not good enough to be of serious interest (three Q2 losses, 0-3 against Kentucky/LSU, best win is….at Ole Miss?).

A quick summary: Mississippi State has one guaranteed first-team All-SEC player in Quinndary Weatherspoon. They have around five solid players to back him up. There’s no shortage of good shooters on the roster. However, they also don’t play good defense, have turnover issues, and have bad shooting defense despite sky-high block rates. Basically, this is a better version of about four teams Tennessee has played already. Good thing there’s Senior Night to spice up some serious interest.


WHAT THEY BRING

An all-around excellent offense, especially from three

This serves as a quality test for Tennessee’s defense that’s made a sudden turn for the better. Mississippi State’s shot the ball well for the entire season, and the offense as a whole only has a couple of weak spots. They’ve been held below 1 PPP just four times this season while posting 1.2+ PPP efforts eight times. It helps when four members of your seven-man rotation can shoot threes at a 36.3% or better rate. In order of made threes:

Lamar Peters (69 of 183, 37.7%):

Tyson Carter (49 of 135, 36.3%):

Quinndary Weatherspoon (48 of 115, 41.7%):

Aric Holman (36 of 90, 40%):

In non-conference play, these shooters carried Mississippi State on nights when they weren’t quite as good at other areas of the game. They ran off three quality wins in December over Clemson, Cincinnati, and Wofford because they shot 45 of 84 from three in games where they allowed 1.08 PPP. The Auburn and Mississippi State wins in SEC play, which are their only two locked-in Quadrant 1 wins, came because they shot 23 of 47 from three. It’s a fairly simple equation: in wins, Mississippi State has shot 40.2% from three; in losses, 30.4%. Limit their attack from the perimeter and they become quite a bit easier to beat.

Rim offense matters much more in transition than in half-court; half-court predominantly jumper-centered

Mississippi State has one of the largest splits I’ve ever seen between transition and half-court offense, but only in one specific area. In transition, 51.2% of their field goal attempts come at the rim:

However, in half-court, only 25.8% – almost exactly half that of transition – of attempts are at the rim.

How is this possible??? How can a team become that much more non-rim oriented? Understandably, Mississippi State takes a lot of threes in half-court (40.1% of their attempts), but it doesn’t necessarily explain why they’d want to take so many non-rim twos when they have such success at the rim in transition. They do still get a few half-court rim attempts:

But as mentioned, it’s not nearly as often. Another interesting note here is that Mississippi State takes more jumpers off the dribble than any other team in the SEC. A player to watch here is Lamar Peters, as he’s the dribble jumper king:

He misses that one, but he’s dangerous in space, as is Weatherspoon. Other Weatherspoon Nick was injured, then suspended, but he took some of these jumpers, too. I thought Tennessee did a phenomenal job in defending pull-up attempts by Kentucky; they’ll need to do the same here.

Lots of OREBs, a good amount of turnovers

Well, to be fair, you should get a lot of offensive rebounds when nearly every lineup you run out has at least two players that are 6’10” or taller. Rarely (AKA, only about 5 minutes a game) will Mississippi State run out a lineup without Reggie Perry (6’10”, 245), Aric Holman (6’10”, 225), or Abdul Ado (6’11”, 255) somewhere in the mix. All three rank in the 87th-percentile or greater at offensive rebounding, and, well, it’s pretty easy to figure out why:

Must be nice! The good news for Tennessee is that there’s almost no correlation for a better offensive outing; Mississippi State may be 10-3 in games where they post a 35% OREB% or higher, but they’re also 9-2 in games where they have a 31% OREB% or lower. Maybe you hold them to a very specific 31-35% range (where they’re 2-3) and feel okay about it?

Likewise, there’s not any serious correlation on turnovers and offensive efficiency for Mississippi State. The Bulldogs are 9-4 in games where they’ve got a TO% of 20% or worse and 12-4 in all other games. However, they do turn it over more than the average team does nationally, and Tennessee just got done forcing 17 Kentucky turnovers. In particular, Lamar Peters has had some issues:

And even though this is a comical example, Abdul Ado has a 24.2% TO% on the season:

Close up that Shot Volume, boys!

A very, very okay defense

It’s funny that you can call a 21-8 SEC team that’s looking at a 5-7 seed in the NCAA Tournament a boring scout, but, well…they are. Mississippi State isn’t particularly bad at anything defensively, but outside of blocking shots, they’re not good at anything, either. I guess they’re at least strange: in games where they’ve allowed a 50-59.9% eFG%, they’re 5-7. In all other games – including three games where they’ve allowed a 64.3% eFG% or worse – they’re 16-1. They even survived their worst defensive outing of the season, where they allowed 1.228 PPP to Wofford in a 98-87 win.

In order…

A mediocre rim defense, despite a good block rate

Opponents are hitting 61.1% of rim attempts against Mississippi State, which is the 233rd-best rate in America. Not terrible, I guess, but when you’re blocking 13.4% of attempts at the rim, it should be better. Only William & Mary is worse among the 82 teams nationally that block 12.5% or more of rim attempts. I’d imagine this has to be pretty frustrating if you’re a Mississippi State fan. You get to see great blocks like this:

While also getting to see this:

And, woof, this:

Mississippi State actually holds a top 100 two-point defense on KenPom, but I’m choosing to attribute this more to the fact that opponents have taken just 29.8% of attempts at the rim than anything of serious note. In transition, that rate obviously worsens, and MSU hasn’t had much luck in slowing teams down:

They’re giving up a 70.6% hit rate on unblocked attempts, which seems less than ideal. (For reference, Tennessee’s number is 63.5%, and Kentucky’s is 62.7%.) This can’t be helped by the rebounds they give up:

Tennessee really should be able to get their offense rolling in this one.

A mediocre mid-range defense, despite a great block rate

Here’s the one that couldn’t make less sense to me. Mississippi State ranks sixth nationally in terms of percentage of non-rim two-point attempts that are blocked. Heck, they block more non-rim twos per possession than they do layup/dunk attempts. And yet, here they are with the 211th-best mid-range shot defense in America. I know this has got to be incredibly frustrating for Mississippi State fans. Again, you get this:

With a side of this:

Understandably, teams don’t take as many mid-range twos as they used to, so this stat could just be a sample size thing. I know that Tennessee hit quite a few mid-range twos against what was one of the best mid-range defenses in Ole Miss. Plus, it’s not like the Arkansas game, where Arkansas had an incredible mid-range defense paired with an awful rim defense. They’re just…similarly average.

A mediocre three-point defense, despite an above-average guarding rate

I *think* you’re sensing a theme here. Mississippi State doesn’t block a ton of threes, obviously – no team does – but they do guard around 61% of catch-and-shoot threes, which puts them at about 126th on Synergy of 353 teams. Not bad! So why are opponents making 35.4% of threes (229th-best)? Because that guard rate still isn’t very good, especially when their average opponent hits 34.5% of their threes and shoot fewer threes than average. I do think they’ve suffered from some bad luck:

But some of it’s just plain bad defense:

At this point, it’s like, meh, Tennessee’s played worse three-point defenses and better ones. Mississippi State’s just thoroughly average all the way through here.

Quality post-up defense, bad pass-out/cut defense

I figured they’d have a good post-up defense because, again, they are very tall. Reid Travis, of “Kentucky wouldn’t have lost by 19 with him” fame, got smashed multiple times on post-ups by the Mississippi State bigs:

The way to adjust to this is to draw attention from the bigs and find an open shooter or cutter. Both Ole Miss and Kentucky exploited this well:

Tennessee’s done both of those things very well before, and it wouldn’t surprise anyone if they did so in this game.

Individual matchup to target

Again, it’s just kind of a boring defense; no defender other than Tyson Carter is agreed-upon bad, and while Holman and Perry seem to be pretty solid, Lamar Peters has a bizarre split. Value Add Basketball and Box Plus-Minus said he’s one of the two worst defenders on the team; Synergy says he’s MSU’s best. Therefore, we stick to Carter only, who is a poor jump shot defender:

Not that exciting, sorry.


HOW TENNESSEE BEATS IT

Tennessee ran an absurd amount of P&R against Kentucky. Will they do it again?

This is pretty wild to me:

Like, this is an entirely new thing for Tennessee. No team in the SEC had used fewer of their possessions this year in the pick-and-roll. Prior to Saturday, only nine teams in the nation had run less P&R. And yet, here was Tennessee, running it on half of their offensive sets and completely befuddling a Kentucky defense that everyone agrees is excellent:

It helps when Jordan Bone is having the game of his life, obviously. Rarely does he hit a shot like this:

But even rarer is the use of Grant Williams in the pick-and-roll. Williams had just 27 possessions as the roll man all season, or barely more than one per game. It’s not usually something you can find him running, and yet:

It just looks so natural. I think this is Barnes’ response to teams with multiple bigs in the game, as Kentucky had Saturday. Using Alexander, Williams, or even Schofield in a small-ball lineup as the roll man forces a frontcourt player to come out to the perimeter if they’re in man. Considering Mississippi State has played literally one possession of zone this season – I’m not joking, this is what Synergy reports – I think Tennessee may have a new feature.

Post pass-outs could be very useful, as could the Grant Williams ISO

As noted, it might be hard for Tennessee to get a ton going in normal post-ups. Mississippi State does play pretty good post-up defense, and a similar/less-experienced version of MSU last year held Williams to 10 points on 12 shots. Considering how rare it was to see Williams go further out than 15 feet last season, I don’t think that same performance happens a second time. Plus, Williams doesn’t even have to shoot the ball to be a lethal offensive player:

I think a quality solution for Williams is to get him the ball at the top of the key and let him do his thing. It’s worked against, well, just about everyone. Why wouldn’t it work when he gets a 6’10” player 18 feet from the rim, especially when his likely matchup, Reggie Perry, commits 4.9 fouls per 40 minutes?

Seems ideal to me.

Get out in transition and head to the rim

It’s a strong transition offense against a 29th-percentile transition defense that already doesn’t play very good rim defense to begin with. I mean, yeah.

Also, while we’re here, opponents are taking about as many threes in transition as they are in half-court. They’re not as efficient (32.2% versus 36.2%), but it sure seems like they’re getting good looks to me. I think this Williams shot is worth repeating, even if it’s with Schofield or Turner taking it instead:

Screens and hand-offs will create open looks

Same as it’s been all season. Tennessee runs these pretty often and pretty well, and Mississippi State already has some issues defending the perimeter. Might as well force their guards to come around screens like these:

Another important game from a perimeter defense perspective

Tennessee’s basically on four straight games of awesome perimeter defense, minus a small blip at Ole Miss where the Rebels hit several well-guarded shots. I wasn’t mad about that performance, and I sure wasn’t mad when Tennessee guarded so many of Kentucky’s perimeter attempts well. Of Kentucky’s 20 three-point attempts, I’d estimate 12-13 were well-guarded, and the Synergy catch-and-shoot numbers back that up: 9 Guarded, 7 Open, with that number being 9/4 prior to the final three minutes. Tennessee was relentless defensively; this Herro shot may look open, but look how he’s forced off-balance and how quickly Jordan Bone recovers:

I won’t lie in saying that Tennessee did get away with a couple; Yves Pons, man:

Regardless, the catch-and-shoot numbers from the last four games are backing up the perimeter defense turnaround: 44 guarded, 17 unguarded (72.1%). That’s an elite number, one that would rank fifth-best nationally over a full season. (If you remove the garbage time attempts from this game, it rises to 75.9%/third-best, but I left them in for fairness purposes.) Tennessee’s got to keep this run going against a very good shooting team in Mississippi State.

Get back in transition and defend the rim

Mississippi State doesn’t get out in transition a ton, but when they do, I’ve made it obvious that they love going straight to the rim. Tennessee cannot allow this to happen, and, as such, should get back:

Defend off the dribble in half-court, force bad looks

This was the most remarkable part of the game to me Saturday. It seemed like Kentucky took a lot of shots off the dribble, which is less ideal than a catch-and-shoot attempt. Even the open ones were taken by awful shooters like Ashton Hagans:

When they were well-guarded, it was over before it even started:

Along with that, I thought Williams/Schofield did excellent work in forcing PJ Washington and his friends away from the rim. Kentucky was forced to take 24 non-rim twos Saturday out of 44 shots, and they hit just 8. You’d take 0.667 PPP every single day; what work they did:

If Tennessee plays defense even close to this level the rest of the way, they will make the Final Four.

Win the turnover battle, at least draw the rebound battle

Buddy, it ain’t rocket science. Tennessee won the turnover battle by 12 on Saturday, the largest turnover deficit Kentucky’s taken in the Calipari era. It was positively thrilling to see Tennessee finally limit an opponent’s shot volume to this level:

And that’s before we get into them holding Kentucky off of their boards so well. Tennessee didn’t get a ton of OREBs on their end, but it seemed like every one they got counted:

If Tennessee’s going to win the Shot Volume battle to the extent they did Saturday – 113.5 to 98.4 – they are impossible to beat, because very few teams in America can outshoot the Vols on an average night. I’m excited! I hope you’re excited!


LINEUP NOTES

Mississippi State:

  • Stay with me here: this is their sixth different starting lineup of the year, but technically lineup #5, as the sixth happened from February 6-12. Okay? Okay. It’s Peters/Carter/Q. Weatherspoon/Perry/Ado.
  • I know it says Nick Weatherspoon, but he’s been out for a while. I think KenPom’s depth chart thing has a bug that’s counting all Quinndary Weatherspoon minutes under Nick Weatherspoon. Either way, you can tell he plays three different positions all the time, so expect him to guard any of Bone, Turner, Bowden, and possibly even Schofield.
  • With Nick Weatherspoon’s suspension, the rotation is down to seven players. Only Robert Woodard and Aric Holman get time off the bench; Holman is getting around 17-18 minutes a game post-Weatherspoon deletion, while Woodard gets 22-23.
  • All of Weatherspoon, Carter, Perry, and Peters will likely play 30+ minutes.

Tennessee:

  • Bone/Turner/Schofield/Williams/Alexander.
  • I was surprised that Jalen Johnson got zero run against Kentucky; it seemed to me that his offense would’ve provided a small boost. On a day when it was all defense, though, I do get it.
  • Derrick Walker has now played in five straight games and is starting to solidify his spot as a 3-4 minute per game guy. He comes in, commits a couple fouls, and leaves. I guess that’s okay.
  • Kyle Alexander has played only one 21+ minute game since Missouri on February 5. While he has been sick in the meantime, he’s gotta stop fouling out at every opportunity. However, I do agree with Kyle himself that he’s getting an insanely raw whistle in SEC play.

KEY MATCHUPS

Basically the Entire Backcourt Plus Admiral Schofield vs. Quinndary Weatherspoon. Considering Weatherspoon spends serious amounts of time at three different positions, I didn’t want to type out four separate names. (I mean, Yves Pons could even end up guarding him, which…) Weatherspoon is the best non-Williams/Washington player in the conference, but Kentucky held him to 33 points on 30 shots across two games. Split that in two and it seems perfect; Tennessee’s perimeter defense needs a fifth straight quality outing.

Grant Williams vs. Aric Holman. “But Will,” you honk, “doesn’t Reggie Perry play more minutes at the 4?” Yes, and Reggie Perry’s a considerably less-interesting defender than Holman. I cannot figure out why Holman doesn’t start anymore, as it doesn’t seem like he was playing poorly prior to his February benching, but whatever. No one on MSU blocks shots like he can, and he blocked five of Tennessee’s across two games last year. He was the primary reason why Williams was held to 18 points on 15 shots last year; it can’t happen in this game.

Jordan Bone vs. Lamar Peters. Bone crushed the supposed “best perimeter defender PG in the SEC” last week, and I really do think he relishes challenges like that. I’m curious to see what happens in this game. I’ve never seen a Synergy/analytics split like Peters, who Synergy calls the team’s best defender but analytics call the worst. We’ll find out for sure tonight, but a good benchmark for Bone would be 15 points + 6 assists.


PREDICTION

Tennessee 81, Mississippi State 69.

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

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