Ok, so here we are. Feast week has consumed all of us (or at least me), and the Butler Bulldogs have joined the party, taking on the #22 ranked Tennessee Volunteers in the Battle for Atlantis.
But, what do we really know about Tennessee? How good are they? KenPom and BartTorvik both have them Top-Seven nationally. Why? What more is there to know about this Tennessee team? Well, as your local/regional/national/non-existent college basketball expert, it is my job to answer these questions and show you what I see, followed by a game preview.
Tennessee: What We Know
There are really two main notes. Let’s start way back in what we like to call the “offseason.” In a charity scrimmage, Tennessee was able to knock off Gonzaga, 99-80.
Is there anything meaningful to take away from this? Nah, not really. It’s preseason. Coaches still testing out lineups, some guys are not fully in the groove, stuff like that. Now, this is 100% something to overreact to before the season, but as soon as November 7 hits, all this goes straight out the window. Unless, of course, you are poor Louisville.
After a buy game against Tennessee Tech (future Butler opponent) Tennessee fell victim to the incredibly bipolar nature of the Colorado Buffaloes.
So, for this game we can actually get into some Tennessee takeaways, then look into some of the changes they made against FGCU (yep, that FGCU) before their trip down to Atlantis.
So, for one, it doesn’t take a genius to look at that Tennessee box score and realize their offense wasn't good. They shot an absolutely disgusting 25.4% from the field and 27% from three. Truly abhorrent numbers.
This has been a problem for Tennessee under Rick Barnes, there are just some games where they absolutely can’t score. In their third game last year, they got absolutely thrashed by Villanova 71-53 and shot a disgusting 18% from three-point range. Same thing against Texas Tech, where they shot 19/71 from the field and 6/39 from three. I threw up in my mouth just looking at those numbers. They’re not above putting up complete duds offensively.
There are times when Tennessee teams will just continue to settle for bad three-point looks, as they did in this Colorado game (58% of their shot attempts were from three), and it makes their opponents' lives so much easier. Tennessee currently ranks T232 in three-point percentage nationally, granted that is a very small sample size. However, they shoot a ton of them.
Only IPFW is averaging more three-point attempts than Tennessee per game. Tennessee is averaging 33.7 three-point attempts per game this season, much higher than their numbers last season, where they averaged 24.2.
They’ve taken 57% of their shots from beyond the three-point line this season. Josiah Jordan-James leads the way, shooting 10/19 from three on the season, an incredibly impressive clip. In fact, four of their top five scorers take over 66% of their shot attempts from the three-point line. Jordan-James (I’m going to refer to him as JJJ for the rest of this preview) takes 76% of his shots from deep, both Tyreke Key and Zakai Ziegler take two-thirds of their shots from beyond the arc, and Santiago Vescovi has taken 22 of his 26 shots from beyond three-point range, good for nearly 85% of his attempts.
As for their defense, it’s nationally elite. Both KenPom and BartTorvik have their defense ranked inside the top 5. With all of the long, physical and elite athletes Tennessee has, it shouldn’t surprise anyone that their defense is legit. It’s what they’ve defined themselves by recently, having a top-five defense in each of the last two seasons.
Colorado put up 46 in the second half, but Tennessee’s half-court defense didn’t look all that bad. They got beat on drives a couple of times, but there were a ton of late-game gambles that didn’t pay off and a ton of missed threes to runouts to transition buckets for Colorado. The half-court defense looked alright, as it should.
Against Colorado, there were multiple problems that the team addressed in the following game. Arguably the most notable one, sophomore guard Zakai Ziegler had started the first two games, but coach Barnes and Ziegler both agreed that he was “out of control” in this game and agreed that he was better suited coming off of the bench. Indiana State transfer Tyreke Key took the starting spot, though Ziegler still did play 32 minutes in that game. They used him in that Lou Williams-type sixth man who plays starter minutes role, so I’m interested to see how they proceed with him in this one.
Senior Center Uros Plavsic didn’t play a ton of minutes, but he has started both games he’s played in. He played 11 minutes against Tennessee Tech, then played three against Colorado before getting injured, and then missing the FGCU game. He’s expected to play in this game. When the 7’1” Plavsic isn’t on the floor, Tennessee often runs 6’9” forward Olivier Nkamhoua at the center spot, and chooses to go small ball.
In the FGCU game, Tennessee took under 50 shots, for the only time all season. Against both Tenn. Tech and Colorado, they took over 63 shots in each, leading me to question if they chose to slow down the tempo after their game against Colorado. Colorado is in the top 25 nationally in tempo according to KenPom, but both Tennessee Tech and FGCU rank similarly in tempo, with FGCU actually placing 60 spots higher. So, is this an adjustment Tennessee made just for one game, or is this something they’ll look to continue in Atlantis?
Their offense has looked legit in the two non-Colorado games. The question is how will it look against high-major-level athletes?
There are three factors that I think play a massive role in this game and likely determine the winner.
Butler’s Three-Point Defense
Penn State was able to effectively get the ball into the lane and dish it out around the perimeter, to their great shooters (everyone they play, pretty much) and hit their open looks. They shot over 40% from deep in that game. I thought the key for Penn State was Jalen Pickett, who was able to effectively get the ball in the lane and find open shooters. He had 11 assists in that game and controlled every aspect of it. The good news for Butler is that Tennessee doesn’t have Jalen Pickett.
Nobody on the Tennessee roster averages over 4 assists per game, and in fact one of the areas they’ve struggled most with is point guard play. They’ve got good guards, but don’t have a legit point guard. Nobody takes over and runs their offense. It’s why they’ve had double-digit turnovers in all three of their games. The battle here could determine this game. Stay on shooters and don’t allow easy dribble penetration.
Tennessee will most likely start seven-footer Uros Plavsic, and play him next to 6’9” big man Olivier Nkamhoua. JJJ is a very long 6’7”. Five-star freshman Julian Phillips is 6’8” and is another one of those long, freak athlete wings that are just destined to annoy defensively. How are the smaller Dogs going to deal with their length? Especially in a four-guard lineup? Will Tennessee look to post up these matchups? Will their length provide trouble for Butler, or will Butler be able to effectively space the floor attack mismatches?
What also happens when Tennessee goes small, with Nkamhoua running the five spot? Does Butler stick with Bates, or do we see more DJ Hughes? I can’t recall a time when Hughes and Bates shared the floor this season. Will we see both to counter the length of Tennessee?
Butler’s Jump Shooting
In both exhibitions, followed by the first two games of the season the jump shooting looked incredibly ugly. The next two games it was nothing short of absolutely marvelous. What version do we see against a legit Tennessee defense?
You aren’t getting many easy looks against Tennessee, when you get a good look from deep, you have to capitalize. Tennessee’s opponents are shooting just under 27% from three this season, good for the Top 60 nationally. Only one opponent, Colorado, eclipsed the 30% mark, and just barely did so at 30.8%. It’s not easy to hit jumpers on this Tennessee squad, but if Butler is shooting like they have the last couple of games, this game could get very interesting.
Spread: Tennessee -7
I think, in this spot, Tennessee is an excellent test for this Bulldog squad. Both teams are very talented and well-coached, with both suffering a tough loss in the early season schedule. Tennessee came into this season with top 10/15 expectations for a reason. They’re a really talented team.
At the same time, Butler has looked very good and still isn’t at full strength. Happy Valley is no easy place to play. Colorado was able to effectively score against Tennessee, too, which shows they can be beaten. It’s early in the season, and I think this game will be closer than the odds indicate. I would’ve set the game closer to Tennessee -6/5.5.
But, I just think the length of Tennessee will be a bit too much for this Butler squad. A healthy Ali Ali would make a really big difference in this one. With a depleted frontcourt, I just think Tennessee will be too long and physical in this one. I didn’t think Butler looked great in the Penn State game and I think Tennessee presents a ton of similar problems. The added variable of their length, combined with Butler’s injuries makes this a really tough matchup.
Not saying Butler can’t win, of course, if they can hit a couple of outside shots, or Tennessee goes on a bit of a cold stretch, which they’re prone to do, and this game is really close. Butler will have to pick up the pace and attack in transition, beating Tennessee before they can get set. The odds say Butler wins about 27% of the time, and I’d say that number should be closer to 30/35%. But in the end, my pick is still Tennessee and I hope I'm wrong.
Prediction: Tennessee 72, Butler 68