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Stats Study: Arkansas vs. Tennessee

How can the Hogs attack Tennessee’s tough defense?

NCAA Basketball: Alabama at Tennessee Randy Sartin-USA TODAY Sports

The Hogs are back at it Wednesday in Knoxville, trying to get the bad taste from their first loss out of their mouths. Top-10 Tennessee awaits in what figures to be a physical matchup.

Box Score Breakdown: Mizzou 81, Arkansas 68

(NOTE: Confused by any of these stats? Check out the advanced stats glossary.)

There’s not much point in spending a lot of time on this game. Arkansas had a disastrous shooting game (19 of 71 from the floor!) and lost because of that. Missing easy shots was the biggest issue, and Eric Musselman recognized that real time and has talked about little else in press conferences since the game ended. Everyone’s aware of the issue, now we’ll see if they can get it fixed.

Well, almost everyone’s aware. Some folks are still drawing the wrong conclusions (no offense to Tom as he’s an easy target because I follow him on Twitter):

It’s common to think that rebounding tells the story when, in reality, it rarely does. Yes, Missouri had a 51-36 rebounding advantage. Yes, in the 2018 NCAA Tournament, Butler had a 45-25 rebounding advantage in beating the Razorbacks. When I saw some folks trying to blame rebounding, I wrote this:

It’s simple: Butler got more defensive rebounds because Arkansas missed more shots. Even the best offensive rebounding teams only track down about 40% of their misses. The average is less than 30%. So when a shot goes up, the defense usually has about a 70% chance of clearing the board. Arkansas didn’t get many defensive rebounds because Butler didn’t miss many shots. Butler got a lot of defensive rebounds because Arkansas missed a lot of shots. What looks like a rebounding problem was, in fact, a shooting problem. This is why raw Total Rebounds numbers are really misleading. More often than not, they simply tell you which team missed more shots.

Here’s a simplest way I can put it: If Arkansas and Butler had shot their season averages from the floor, Arkansas would have won the game, despite the rebounding numbers.

It’s this again. Arkansas actually went +6 in offensive rebounds against Mizzou. Mizzou got 51 rebounds because Arkansas missed 52 shots. Arkansas only got 36 rebounds because Mizzou only missed 27 shots. I’m not really sure how you can look at a box score that shows your team shot 26.8% from the floor and react by saying, “Ah yes, we rebounded poorly.”

Anyway, here’s the advanced box score from hell:

Key stats are highlighted:

  • Scoring 0.79 points per scoring opportunity is horrifying. Shooting 28% from 2 might be the worst in modern school history. I’d have to look it up.
  • Mizzou getting 0.76 free throws per field goal attempt was a big part of this game as well. The Tigers shot okay but turned it over 21 times, so the free throws were essential to scoring 81 points.
  • Arkansas went +18 in shot opportunities and lost, which is just incredible.
  • Finally, I highlighted the rebounding numbers. Rebounding had nothing to do with it.

Okay, enough about this game.

Meet the Vols

The Rick Barnes Renaissance continues as Tennessee, the preseason favorite to win the SEC according to many, continues to look good. They took one on the chin to Alabama in their last outing, but this is a disciplined and well-coached team that’s a tough nut to crack.

Scouting Report

  • The Vols don’t shoot well, but like Arkansas, they get a lot of shots up. They are among the nation’s best teams at offensive rebounding and avoiding turnovers.
  • Tennessee doesn’t shoot many 3s, opting instead to pound the ball inside and score close.
  • Tennessee owns one of the best defenses in the country. They’re good at everything, with dominant shot blocking, solid rebounding, and lots of forced turnovers.

The Vols own the nation’s 2nd-best team, per our model. The Vols’ resume is 16th-best, which projects them as a 4 seed. The Hogs have fallen from a 4 to a 7 due to a loss plus a weak schedule coming back to bite them as conference play begins. In a few more games, Arkansas’ SOS will stop hurting it.

Once again, we have two score predictions. The traditional model gives Tennessee 74, Arkansas 65, but the more complex matchup model gives a very surprising result:

We’ll discuss why below, but you can probably figure it out by looking at the projected stats. Hint: it involves Connor Vanover and, unfortunately, Justin Smith, who will not play.

When Tennessee has the rock

The only comment I have before we look at the stats is that Arkansas is really going to miss Justin Smith in this game. Ugh.

Rick Barnes teams rarely shoot well (when they don’t have Kevin Durant, that is), and this one is no exception. But Barnes’ second act as a major college head coach has been impressive for how disciplined and well-coached his teams are. Still, the Vols have some serious weaknesses on the offensive end. If the Hogs can hold up in rebounding without Smith – a tough task, to be sure – they have a good shot at keeping Tennessee from scoring many points.

Offensively, Tennessee’s gameplan is to play fairly slow, pound the ball inside, score at the rim, draw fouls, crash the offensive glass, and not turn it over. They only shoot 3-pointers when they are wide open. This strategy will present an interesting matchup against Vanover as rim protector, since Tennessee is not actually very good at 2-point shooting (166th) and merely average at getting to the free throw line (93rd). Arkansas is pretty good at 2-point defense (35th) and at least average at avoiding fouls (120th).


  • Victor Bailey, 6’4, 22% usage, 127.8 offensive rating, 54% EFG, 10% assist rate, 5% turnover rate
  • Jaden Springer, 6’4, 25% usage, 123.3 offensive rating, 61% EFG, 16% assist rate, 13% turnover rate
  • Santiago Vescovi, 6’3, 17% usage, 121.6 offensive rating, 58% EFG, 23% assist rate, 17% turnover rate
  • Josiah-Jordan James, 6’6, 17% usage, 122.7 offensive rating, 50% EFG, 12% offensive rebound rate, 19% assist rate, 16% turnover rate
  • Keon Johnson, 6’5, 26% usage, 104.7 offensive rating, 45% EFG, 19% assist rate, 22% turnover rate

Bailey (13.0 points per game) is the engine of the whole offensive operation. He’s a decent shooter and never turns the ball over, which is good enough to give him the highest offensive rating on the team. He’s not quite as dangerous as Auburn’s dynamic guards, which is a problem for Eric Musselman, who likes to focus his defensive strategy on taking away an opponent’s top offensive threat. That’s not really a big concern for Tennessee, which is very balanced in terms of production.

Springer comes off the bench and is very high-usage when he’s in the game (that means he shoots a lot when he’s on the floor). He leads the team in true shooting because he gets to the free throw line at an eye-popping rate (more than 25% of his shot opportunities end in free throws). He won’t shoot many 3s as his main goal is to get the rim and draw contact.

Vescovi is the three-point specialist and 72% of his field goal attempts are triples. He’s hitting 44% from downtown but struggles at shots inside the arc. Like most three-point threats (Isaiah Joe last year, for example) he has a high assist rate because he can take advantage of defenses over-rotating to stop him on the perimeter. He does turn it over at the highest rate among starters, although 17% isn’t horrible.

James and Johnson are less polished shooters but contribute in other ways. James is a better offensive rebounder than either starting forward and has the second-highest assist rate on the team. Johnson has the third-best assist rate and gets to the free throw line at a decent rate.


  • John Fulkerson, 6’9, 20% usage, 122.2 offensive rating, 49% EFG, 9% offensive rebound rate, 9% turnover rate
  • Yves Pons, 6’6, 18% usage, 99.5 offensive rating, 44% EFG, 6% offensive rebound rate, 12% turnover rate
  • EJ Anosike, 6’7, 17% usage, 115.4 offensive rating, 38% EFG, 18% offensive rebound rate, 8% turnover rate
  • Olivier Nkamhoua, 6’8, 22% usage, 115.4 offensive rating, 67% EFG, 4% offensive rebound rate, 15% turnover rate

The Vols’ lack of size should jump out here, especially considering that they are a top-10 rebounding team. They rebound because of discipline, not size advantage.

Another thing that jumps out is how little Tennessee uses its forwards on offense. Only Nkamhoua – who averages less than 10 minutes per game – is even shooting 50% EFG. Fulkerson is a foul-drawing machine who never turns it over. Pons is a pure defensive specialist who doesn’t shoot well or get to the free throw line. Anosike and Nkamhoua don’t get a ton of minutes, but Anosike is an offensive rebounding specialist while Nkamhoua actually has good shooting stats but doesn’t do much else.

If the Hogs had Justin Smith, he would deal with Fulkerson, freeing up Vanover to be a rim protector against Tennessee’s penetrating guards (the model that picked the Hogs to win liked that idea). Since they don’t, I’m not sure what the strategy will be. This could be a game where Jaylin Williams gets significant minutes as a defense and rebounding specialist. As long as the Hogs don’t foul like crazy and do at least a decent job on the boards, I don’t think Tennessee’s offense will run wild.

When Arkansas has the rock

Arkansas shot less than 30% from the floor against Mizzou and now has to face an even better defense.

As we saw above, Tennessee ranks 2nd in Adjusted Defensive Efficiency. The Vols limit shot attempts and then defend well against the shots they do give up.

To score, you have to first not turn it over. Tennessee ends a quarter of their opponents’ possessions with turnovers. There’s a little bit of luck involved here, as Tennessee’s opponents turn it over without a steal on 13% of possessions, which is quite a bit higher than the Division I average. Arkansas only gives it up without a steal on 7% of possessions, one of the best rates in the country. This is why the projected box score above thinks Arkansas will only turn it over 14 times and the Vols will actually turn it over more.

If you can get a shot up, good luck. Led by Pons, the Vols are 7th in Division I in shot blocking. They reject 9.9% of opponent two-point attempts. That’s helped them rank 19th in the country in two-point defense. It’s also why opponents generally don’t bother: fully 41% of field goal attempts against Tennessee this year have been three-pointers.

However, allowing a lot of three-pointers is a weakness in and of itself. Teams that allow a lot of three-point attempts subject themselves to a high degree of risk. If an opponent gets hot from downtown, there might not be much you can do about it. The ultimate example of this was UMBC going 12 of 24 from downtown in their upset win over 1-seed Virginia a few years ago. Virginia’s pack-line defense allows a lot of three-point attempts, which creates volatility. The Hogs are capable of putting five legitimate three-point threats on the floor. If a couple guys get hot, then Tennessee can’t keep Pons under the basket as a rim protector and will have to change up their defense.

Keys to the Game

  • Get hot from downtown. Tennessee’s defense is absolutely stifling, so its primary weakness is someone catching fire from beyond the arc. Then the Hogs can space the Vol defense out and take away their shot blocking advantage.
  • Defend at the 4. Again, it’s tough to see Smith miss this game. Somebody’s gotta step up to defend and rebound, freeing up Vanover to block shots.