A name so long that KenPom can’t fit the whole thing into the database:
You are forgiven for knowing little, if anything, about Texas A&M-Corpus Christi, beyond the fact that they are indeed located in Corpus Christi, Texas. (Home of the Labonte brothers!) Here’s a quick rundown to catch you up to speed:
- They made the NCAA Tournament in 2007, their first year of eligibility to do so, where they lost to 2 seed Wisconsin 76-63 in the first round.
- In that game, they led the Badgers 25-7 with five minutes left in the first half. Wisconsin didn’t lead until the 9:35 mark of the second half.
- The coach at the time, Ronnie Arrow (last seen at South Alabama in 2012), correctly called his shot that Wisconsin would lose in the next round to UNLV.
- They haven’t made the NCAA Tournament since.
Part of this is due to the unfortunate fact that they share a conference with Stephen F. Austin. From 2013-14 to 2016-17, the Islanders went 54-18 in Southland Conference play. They finished second or third each year in the conference and won fewer than 20 games just once in this stretch. They didn’t make the NCAA Tournament even once, because Stephen F. Austin went 53-1 (still amazing, honestly) in Southland play from 2013-14 to 2015-16 and Corpus Christi blew a double-digit lead to New Orleans in the 2016-17 Southland Conference Championship.
The coach of those teams, Willis Wilson, is still here. He followed up that four-year run with a turd of a 2017-18 (11-18, 8-10 Southland), mostly due to a starting lineup that had four freshmen and sophomores. By default, this year’s team is more experienced, but they rank about the same in KenPom’s Minutes Continuity (how many of your minutes are going to the same players from last year) statistic (240th versus 221st). Why? Because two of the starters are JUCO transfers and the third is a guy who’s missed nearly all of the last two seasons with injuries.
This team is fairly unknown despite their class experience, which might be why they’re 1-3 against D-I competition despite all four games coming against KenPom 200-299 ranked teams. More annoying to me is the fact they’ve played three non-D-I games with a fourth to come, including a 61-58 squeaker over Division II St. Mary’s (TX) where the Islanders trailed for most of the game. Four games of data have moved them from their preseason projection of 313th in KenPom to…313th. In short: they aren’t good.
WHAT THEY BRING
Big Tony Lewis
I do mean big: Lewis is A&M-CC’s tallest starter by a full five inches at 6’10” and 45 pounds heavier than anyone on the roster at 260. This will be a more physical matchup than Kyle Alexander is used to, so I wouldn’t be surprised to see Rick Barnes switch Grant Williams or even Admiral Schofield onto Lewis. Lewis didn’t start A&M-CC’s first three games, but he’s started three of the last four and is clearly their best option at center. Lewis is averaging 10.3 PPG, 5.7 RPG, and over a block a game despite averaging just 22 minutes per game over the first seven. He’s not terribly efficient (85.4 Offensive Rating), but he does draw 5.5 fouls per 40 minutes and has kept his own fouls down remarkably well (no more than 3 fouls in any game).
Lewis has been good at finding open shooters out of his post-ups, though A&M-CC doesn’t shoot many threes:
But, when doubled, he’s struggled massively. He’s been double teamed on 20 possessions so far; seven of them have ended in turnovers:
Lewis also can’t shoot well at all beyond about 10 feet despite ill-advised three-point attempts (1 of 12 so far), so it might be okay to leave him open out there.
Good three-point defense, though probably deceiving
You can look at it one of two ways: through seven games, opponents are hitting just 31.1% of three-point attempts against the Islanders, and around 59% of their catch-and-shoot threes are guarded. Not great, but not bad by any means. Then again, this is the part where I tell you they’ve played three non-D-I teams and four teams that are in the 200-299 range in KenPom. Like, goodness, come on:
You shoot like that on purpose?
Anyway, yeah, they’ve played a lot of bad teams. I don’t anticipate a ton of it against Tennessee because the Vols have been excellent at shredding zone defenses for the most part, but Corpus Christi has run a zone on about 10% of possessions so far. They’ve somehow managed to “force” opponents into an absurd 5-of-35 (14.3%) streak on these zone possessions, despite most of the ones I watched looking like this:
On their unguarded catch-and-shoots, opponents are hitting 35.6% of shots – not great, obviously, but a much better rate than the 26.7% rate on guarded threes. Both of those will even out, and this could be a sneaky good game for Tennessee to get back on track from three after playing an Eastern Kentucky team that did a quality job of forcing fairly well-guarded threes.
Quality offensive rebounding
This could simply be a by-product of missing a lot of shots, but whatever, they’re good at it. The Islanders have gotten offensive boards on 31.9% of opportunities, which ranks 92nd nationally. That’s above-average! Jashawn Talton, their 6’5″ PF, is a legitimately good rebounder for his size:
Tony Lewis ends up with the credit here, but again, it’s Talton who gets the second chance prior to Lewis’s third:
Tennessee’s been pretty good about limiting opponent shot volume so far, but it would behoove Kyle Alexander and Grant Williams to stay glued to the boards, as it would Derrick Walker if he gets playing time.
A healthy amount of spot-up shooting
Strangely, Corpus Christi hasn’t shot a ton of threes just yet – only 26.7% of their shots have come from three, a very low rate. However, to even contend with Tennessee, they’ll have to shoot them. The guy with the most three-point attempts is Kareem South, who’s hitting just 31.3% of his attempts:
He does the Jordan Bone pull-up thing too:
Behind him, Myles Smith, who’s hitting a far better 31.8% of his threes as the starting 2:
And finally, at point guard, Emmanuel Toney. Toney hasn’t played a full season since 2015-16 and hasn’t been a serious rotation player since 2014-15, but here he is as their starter. Toney has hit 8 of his 20 threes because he’s better at getting open:
And he’s unafraid to drive to the basket:
I don’t think any of these guys are particularly brutal challenges for Tennessee, but they do exist and it’s worth noting that these are players Tennessee must defend.
Worse in transition defense than in half-court
Great effort all-around! Now, a note: the Islanders are giving up 0.135 more points per possession in transition, but they’re still forcing turnovers on 20.5% of possessions. That’s because they do appear to be good at getting bodies back when needed:
(What a terrible pass, by the way.) They’ve given up a lot of points in transition right at the basket. Similar to Eastern Kentucky, you could see some dunk theatrics in this one from Pons/Schofield/etc.
HOW TENNESSEE BEATS IT
Make it to the arena in time for tip-off
I mean, yeah. KenPom has Tennessee as a 27-point favorite, as does Bart Torvik. Showing up and beating the Islanders by 20 points is what a top ~25 team does; beating them by 30 shows me you’re the top five team everyone wants you to be.
In all seriousness: quality post defense
Tony Lewis is going to take a lot of shots down low, whether they go in or not. He hasn’t faced a defender in the same universe as Grant Williams or Kyle Alexander, so this could be a pretty gross game for him. I’m sharing this because this was flawless post defense by Williams against Eastern Kentucky’s Nick Mayo:
Expect more of that against a lesser player.
Defend the perimeter
Tennessee did a fine job of this against Eastern Kentucky; 18 of EKU’s 23 catch-and-shoot threes were guarded, and EKU hitting 7 of those 18 was probably a bit unlucky. This was an excellent closeout by Schofield:
On this one, though, Jordan Bone gets swallowed up in a double-team that ends up being a triple-team in a matchup zone. EKU had their pick of three open shooters here.
Avoid doing this ever again, please.
If the Islanders run zone, shoot threes
Remember how literally every Louisville defensive zone possession ended with an open Tennessee shot? This is because the Vols are pretty excellent at shredding zones. If A&M-CC runs one, get ready:
Work out the three-point kinks
What should scare opposing teams about Tennessee is that nearly every part of the offense has made the leap necessary to make Tennessee a legitimate top five team. The Vols are shooting 56.7% from two, 9.4% higher than last year. They’re getting to the line more often (36.8% FT rate versus 35.5%). They’re turning it over slightly less, getting slightly more rebounds for a higher shot volume. And yet: the threes simply aren’t falling.
Jordan Bowden is perhaps the first person you’re thinking of here, and that’s fair. At this time last year, nearly everything he shot looked like this:
He’s got good stats on the year – 8 of 21 from three – but he’s hit just 2 of his last 11. This against EKU was particularly tough to see rattle out:
I maintain that Bowden should keep shooting, and that Rick Barnes is right in calling him too tentative. Bowden’s usage rate being at 11.0% is astoundingly low and qualifies as “invisible” on KenPom. It certainly has felt that way, and his work on the defensive end hasn’t quite been on the same level it was last season (in particular, his work on pick-and-rolls). He needs a confidence boost badly.
Someone who never needs a confidence boost is Lamonte Turner, but he’s been absurdly frustrating:
Lost in the EKU outing was Turner’s turd of a performance. He shot 2 of 11 from the field, turned it over twice, and hit zero of his eight three-point attempts. A turnaround there would solve most of Tennessee’s issues, as would Jordan Bone hitting these shots (zero of six on Wednesday):
Tennessee’s Perimeter Defense versus Open Shots. Tennessee has a weird reverse-LOOGY split going on threes: opponents are hitting around 35% of their guarded threes but 26% of the unguarded ones. This should be the exact reverse, but to be safe, Tennessee’s guards should stick to shooters like glue.
Kyle Alexander/Grant Williams versus Tony Lewis. Two deceptively athletic big men versus a high-usage/low-efficiency deceptively athletic big man.
Tennessee’s Guards versus Themselves. If Jacob Fleschman is hitting as many threes as Bone, Bowden, and Turner on 17 fewer attempts, something needs to change.
Tennessee 81, Texas A&M-Corpus Christi 54.