Some fun facts about Samford University:
- It is a private school located in Birmingham, Alabama.
- They’ve made the NCAA Tournament twice ever, in 1999 and 2000 (lost in first round both times).
- Correction: it’s Homewood, Alabama.
And that completes today’s list of Things I Know About (Insert Opponent).
Samford and Tennessee have played once, back on November 28, 1977. Back then, you started your season after Thanksgiving (!), and this would be the home opener for the Volunteers. Neither team was any good; Samford would finish the season 8-19, while Tennessee had just lost Bernard King and Ernie Grunfeld to the NBA and Ray Mears to health issues (interim Cliff Wettig served as head coach for the season, and Mears would officially retire at the season’s conclusion). Tennessee won the game, 83-79, but they’d never play Samford again.
Well, until now, I guess. That Tennessee team had three future NBA players on it (Reggie Johnson, Terry Crosby, Howard Wood) plus Bert Bertelkamp and Kevin Nash; this one probably has at least two and several lovable white dudes as well. While Tennessee enters this game #3 nationally and top ten in essentially every computer metric, Samford’s quietly in the midst of their own resurgence. After winning 10 games in 2017-18, they’re already at 10-2, with their second-highest KenPom ranking (#181) of the last 13 years.
The Bulldogs have yet to beat anyone of serious note (Jacksonville State, a decent OVC team, is their best win), but they led #15 Ohio State at halftime and took OVC co-favorite Belmont to overtime. They’ve already pocketed seven double-digit wins, two fewer than the entirety of 2017-18. All of this comes after losing three starters to graduation and a fourth starter to a transfer (Justin Coleman, Arizona). (Sixth man Triston Chambers transferred to Alabama-Huntsville for reasons unexplained.) Samford ranks 333rd in Minutes Continuity on KenPom, and only 20% of their minutes are going to players who played for the Bulldogs in 2017-18.
And yet, they come to town 10-2, undefeated against teams not in the KenPom top 100. For a Southern Conference also-ran, this represents impressive progress. It may not look like that against the #3 team in America, but this won’t be a cakewalk like their name and history suggest.
WHAT THEY BRING
Weird zone press thing that turns into a 2-3
KenPom has Samford’s Defensive Fingerprint as “inconclusive,” and Synergy backs that up. Samford presses on around 11% of opponent possessions – not that often – but their press almost always evolves into this weird amorphous 2-3 look:
Samford runs this stretchy zone on 32% of possessions; in a 70-possession game (KenPom’s projection), Tennessee can expect to face a zone around 20-25 times. This is good practice going forward, but I saw a lot of open looks in this zone, especially when teams used their man in the middle (usually Grant Williams for Tennessee) as a screener. We’ll see if Tennessee uses much of that tonight.
Pick-and-rolls on loop
Last year, Tennessee’s strength was its pick-and-roll defense. Few teams were better at forcing ball handlers into turnovers (23.4% of possessions), and when they did get shots off, only 35.5% went in. They were significantly less successful at handling the roll man because of their aggressive approach to the ball handler (59th-percentile versus 85th), but it was still fine. This year, it’s been kind of disastrous; Tennessee’s been just as good on ball handlers (84th-percentile), but awful on rolls (54.5% FG% allowed, 1.27 PPP). Memphis shredded Tennessee on this:
I had Memphis at 23 points on 19 pick-and-roll possessions (1.21 PPP), which is pretty disastrous; they weren’t nearly as good at anything else on Saturday. Samford PG Josh Sharkey loves running P&R and spends nearly 70% of his time on the court in P&R sets; he’s unafraid to shoot it:
And will obviously pass out of it frequently:
I think Tennessee’s handled cuts to the basket well for the most part, but they’ve struggled way more with pick-and-roll this year than they did at any point under Barnes in 2017-18. This must be rectified to avoid defensive collapses against better teams. Some of this will regress to the mean – Tennessee’s guarded 26 of 38 catch-and-shoot threes off of P&R, and opponents are 16 of 26 on those – but protecting the basket should be of utmost importance going forward.
Getting out in transition offensively
Samford’s not as fast-paced as Memphis or Gonzaga, but they’ll run it up-court after missed shots from time to time:
Sharkey himself will take it to the rim often:
I like this group’s aggression, though I definitely don’t like the turnovers they’re committing with frequency:
Various defensive maladies
Look: it’s a good defense. It’s largely been the reason they’ve succeeded so far (84th in Defensive Efficiency through 12 games, 182nd in Offensive). But it’s probably unsustainable. It’s unlikely that Samford will continue to hold opponents to making just 29.8% of threes, 41.8% of twos, or 66.4% of free throws (which they have no control over). Samford’s been fairly mediocre at guarding catch-and-shoots thus far – 59% are guarded, of which opponents are making just 26.6% of attempts – and opponents are shooting 21.9% on mid-range jumpers. No other team in the Southern Conference is holding opponents below 33.6% on those shots.
As such, they’ve struggled on defending cuts to the rim:
They’re not good in transition:
And they’re 301st nationally in defensive rebound rate:
I like this team, and I like the idea of them succeeding. It’s clearly a better group than they’ve had at Samford in years, and the mere fact they’ve gotten to 10-2 marks an excellent coaching job by Scott Padgett. I also understand that regression is real, and that no team is going to hold opponents to 0.44 PPP on mid-range shots this season.
HOW TENNESSEE BEATS IT
The Alpha personality on this team has emerged from an early-season slump to become a greater version of his 2017-18 self. He’s hit the point where even bounces like these seem to be on purpose:
He was particularly potent attacking the rim against Memphis, and it would be in Tennessee’s best interests to get a lot of this going forward:
Cuts to the rim
Remember the parts above about how bad Samford’s rim defense has been? Seems like all three of these plays, especially that wonderful third, would be great to replicate:
Actual quality pick-and-roll defense
Force these type of shots from Sharkey and this will be a quick, easy night. Allow him to find his shot in mid-range form or seek out favored target Ruben Guerrero (7-footer!) and it’ll be uncomfortable.
Kyle Alexander’s outside shooting prowess
Alexander has attempted one fewer three this season (5) than he did in the three prior seasons combined (6); he’s hit 2 of these. No, that’s not a crazy high percentage, but when you look at the GIF of his three above and of the one he hit against Purdue last year, he’s got a beautiful shooting stroke. Coaches everywhere would be thrilled to see their big man perfectly embody the BEEF technique like Alexander’s.
If Alexander can commit to a three-point attempt every other game (preferably one per game, but I’m starting small), Tennessee will start every game with at least four capable outside shooters in the lineup. If Jordan Bone ever gets it together (7 of 34 on the season) or Yves Pons becomes more consistent (4 of 14, but missed his first four three-point attempts of the season), Tennessee’s offense will be as tough as anyone’s to defend. Then, the Villanova comparisons from last year will finally make sense.
Jordan Bone vs. Josh Sharkey. Bone played very good defense on Tyler Harris last week, holding him to 10 points on 12 attempts and a 1 of 9 outing from three. Most of Harris’ attempts were well-guarded by Bone or someone else, and Harris fouled Bone tons either out of frustration or as a recommendation by his head coach. Sharkey isn’t quite on the same level as Harris, but he’s a great passer and is potent defensively. He also gets to the line frequently. It’s a different type of challenge that Bone needs to win to continue his step(s) forward.
Tennessee Big Guys vs. Defensive Rebounds. Memphis got 18 offensive rebounds on Tennessee. Samford is unlikely to give Tennessee that type of an issue, but a good outing here is needed badly.
Kyle Alexander vs. Ruben Guerrero. An odd one, maybe, but Guerrero is Samford’s most efficient offensive player and a good challenge on interior defense. Alexander would do well to take one of his every-other-game threes, as Guerrero is guarding just 25% of opponent catch-and-shoots.
Tennessee 83, Samford 63.