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One Game to Indy: Michigan State-Tennessee Preview

2:20 P.M. (ET), SUNDAY
TV: CBS (Verne Lundquist and Bill Raftery)
ENEMY BLOG: Rocky Top Talk

Volunteer bullets:

  • Overall record of 28-8; 11-5 in the SEC.
  • Beat San Diego State 62-59 (60 possessions), Ohio 83-68 (73 possessions), and Ohio State 76-73 (66 possessions) to get to this point.  Tennessee is making its first ever appearance in the Elite Eight.
  • Regular season quality wins: Memphis, Kansas, Mississippi (twice), Florida, Kentucky, Mississippi State.
  • Regular season bad losses: USC, Georgia (both on the road).  Quality loss: Lost to Purdue by 1 on a neutral court.
  • KenPom rating of #26.  #72 on offense; #10 on defense.
  • Eleven Tennessee players are averaging at least 10 minutes per game (not including the dismissed Tyler Smith and two other players who have appeared in less than half of the team's games).  Bruce Pearl has used a ten-man rotation in each of the first 3 NCAA games, with 8-9 players seeing 10+ minutes.

Statistical capsule for the Tennessee starters after the jump:

Player Height Weight Year Min/G Pts/G OffRtg Poss% 2pt% 3pt% FT% Oreb% Dreb% Ast/G TO/G Blk/G Stl/G
Bobby Maze 6'2" 195 Sr 25.0 9.4 106.9 20.9 .489 .252 .826 2.2 8.6 3.1 1.4 0.1 0.8
Scotty Hopson 6'7" 200 So 27.5 12.2 96.8 23.1 .517 .336 .595 3.8 9.6 1.3 2.2 0.2 1.0
J.P. Prince 6'7" 205 Sr 24.8 9.8 103.0 22.8 .552 .324 .624 5.5 11.1 3.0 2.4 0.5 1.6
Wayne Chism 6'9" 246 Sr 26.8 12.6 108.2 23.1 .528 .308 .758 8.5 21.3 1.1 1.7 1.3 1.1
Brian Williams 6'10" 278 Jr 18.5 5.4 102.9 18.1 .500 .000 .588 15.9 21.6 0.7 1.2 0.7 0.4


That's a long, athletic, balanced, and veteran starting lineup.  As indicated above, Bruce Bearl uses another 5 guys off the bench, although he doesn't get a ton of statistical production from the reserves.  6'6" sophomore Cameron Tatum provides some scoring punch (20 points on 16 FGA in the last two games); 5'11" junior Melvin Goins provides energy at the point guard spot (4 assists and a steal vs. Ohio State).

Offensively, the only thing that jumps off the statistical profile for Tennessee is their ability to use their length to score efficiently around the basket.  As a team, the Volunteers have converted 51.7% of their 2-point attempts this season.  Four of the five starters are at the .500 mark or better on 2-pointers, and Bobby Maze's .489 percentage is pretty good for a 6'2" player.  Hopson, Prince, and Chism are the most assertive scorers--with all three standing at least 6'7", they create a size mismatch at at least one position when they're all on the floor.

Despite the robust 55.6% offensive rebounding percentage Tennessee posted against Ohio State last night (the only of the four factors the Volunteers beat the Buckeyes on), they haven't excelled at crashing the offensive glass as a general rule, ranking just 163rd nationally.  Junior Brian Williams, whose playing time has picked up considerably since returning from a suspension stemming from the same arrest Tyler Smith was involved in, is the main threat to create second-chance opportunities.  Williams has grabbed 3 or more offensive rebounds in 8 of the last 11 games.

The Michigan State defenders will need to play good help defense tomorrow to prevent Tennessee's collection of 6'7"+ players from slashing to the basket for easy baskets.  The goal will be to get the Volunteer's to launch more 3-pointers than they'd like to, as Tennessee shoots just .317 from beyond the arc.  Tatum is the only player above .350 from 3-point range.  A relatively aggressive defensive approach doesn't have quite the same downside as it did against Northern Iowa, since Tennessee only shoots .671 from the free-throw line.

While the game against Ohio State was a battle in which the two offenses dominated, Bruce Pearl's team has found most of its success on the defensive side of the ball this year.  The Volunteers use zone looks on defense to force opponents to take 38.2% of their FG attempts from beyond the 3-point arc.  And the long shots they force have been difficult ones: Opponents are shooting under 30% (.296) from 3-point range.  Durrell Summers (12-24 on 3-pointers in the tournament) and Korie Lucious (6-15 in the tournament, 9-21 going back to the BTT game) are going to have to keep hitting outside shots.  Otherwise, the Volunteer defense will be able to collapse in the paint, taking away the space Raymar Morgan and Draymond Green need to operate in the low-post.

Tennessee's other defensive strength is forcing turnovers.  We didn't see much of it last night against OSU's taller ball-handlers, but I think Bruce Pearl utilizes a full-court press at times.  With the Volunteer's length and athleticism, that would be a tough obstacle for MSU to deal with in Kalin Lucas' presence.  It sure seems like Pearl will break out the press to take advantage of the depth issues MSU has at the moment.

With the faster tempo this game is likely to be played at (Tennessee's adjusted tempo is 69 possessions/game), it's very unlikely Lucious will be able to play as many minutes as he did last night (all but one of them).  Mike Kebler will have to come in and take care of the ball.  He and Austin Thornton won't be able to hesitate to shoot the ball, either, if the Volunteers leave them open in the half-court offense.  (To be fair, Thornton hasn't been hesitating to shoot, but he hasn't been making shots at a high rate, either: 2-8 from the field in the tournament.)

KenPom has MSU winning by 1 (68-67 in 68 possessions).  Accounting for Lucas' absence, the guys in Vegas have it at Tennessee by 2.  That's pretty close to a coin-flip game by the numbers.

Intuitively, though, it sure feels like this will be an uphill battle for MSU.  I have to think the quick turnaround is going to reduce the number of effective minutes Tom Izzo can get out of Delvon Roe and Chris Allen, meaning the offense will be even more reliant on the Lucious/Summers/Morgan/Green quartet.  As good as Lucious has been in Lucas' absence so far (3 turnovers in the last 60 minutes), I worry about him breaking down at some point if Tennessee applies consistent defensive pressure.  And Morgan and Green will need to be at their best to find ways to score around the basket against a team that ranks 19th in the country in average height.

On the positive side, the numbers point toward the Spartans dominating the glass on both ends of the court.  And the shooting performances of Summers and Lucious of late point toward the possibility of a couple 3-point-shooting-fueled runs at some point during the game.  The Volunteers also have a propensity to pick up fouls.  In all 8 of their losses this year, Tennessee's opponent got to the free throw line at least 24 times.  That'd be a way for MSU to scrape together enough points to keep the game close going into the final minutes.

Tennessee is a team that can play with anyone in the country.  They've beaten Kansas, Kentucky, and now Ohio State this year--arguably the three most talented teams in the nation.  MSU will not win this game by out-running or out-jumping the Volunteers.  They'll have to do it by playing free of mental mistakes on both ends for 40 minutes and competing with the same level of intensity that's gotten them this far into the tournament despite the far-from-ideal circumstances the team has found itself in.  If the Spartans make the trek down I-69 to Indianapolis for a 6th Tom Izzo Final Four appearance next week, the trip will have been fully earned.