clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Hoops Preview: Tennessee and Missouri both look to state their case as the SEC’s best

Both teams are undefeated. Both teams are ranked within the Top 15. Both teams want to claim the conference’s top spot.

NCAA Basketball: St. Joseph at Tennessee Randy Sartin-USA TODAY Sports

The near disaster against Bradley last week may have slowed the downhill momentum Missouri spent the first few weeks building up. But as SEC play kicks off in Columbia, Mo., tonight, it bears remembering — no one in the conference has done what Missouri has.

Looking at the other contenders at the top of the SEC, here’s what you get.

— Tennessee, which is undefeated, hasn’t played a Top 100 KenPom team in two and a half weeks.

LSU, at 6-1, boasts its best win at home over a no-good Texas A&M.

— Alabama has three Tier B wins per KenPom, but has yet to play a true road game.

— Arkansas has yet to play a Top 100 KenPom team.

Ole Miss has played two Top 100 KenPom teams and lost to both.

— Kentucky... well, we won’t kick them while they’re down.

Missouri, on the other hand, has a resume we’ve covered extensively. To not at least consider them a top-tier contender in the SEC would be to flat out admit that you don’t believe (a) in the talent of their opponents (b) in the sustainability of Missouri’s success. Both arguments could be made (though weakly, in this writer’s opinion), so until the Tigers hit a skid, they have to be taken seriously.

Tonight could give everyone who’s still doubting plenty of fuel as well. Illinois and Oregon were good, but they’re no Tennessee, who is firmly ensconced within the top 10 of the country by almost any metric or eye test. A loss would mean that Missouri still probably has some ground to make up before they can be considered one of the SEC’s very best.

However, Cuonzo Martin has repeatedly stated his squad is capable of winning the conference for the first time in school history. A win over Tennessee would give him a great starting point to back that claim up.

The Scout

The Starters

Position Missouri (6-0) Tennessee (6-0)
Position Missouri (6-0) Tennessee (6-0)
PG Xavier Pinson (Jr., 6'2", 170) Santiago Vescovi (So., 6'3", 188)
CG Dru Smith (Rs. Sr., 6'3", 203) Victor Bailey (Jr., 6'4", 179)
WING Mark Smith (Sr., 6'5", 220) Yves Pons (Sr., 6'6", 215)
PF Kobe Brown (So., 6'7", 240) Josiah-Jordan James (So. 6'6", 207)
POST Jeremiah Tilmon (Sr., 6'10", 260) John Fulkerson (Sr., 6'9", 215)

Note: These starting lineups are projected.

After a relative down year for Rick Barnes’ revived Tennessee program, the Volunteers are back once again and vying for a Final Four berth and beyond. Barnes loses Jordan Bowden and Lamonte Turner from last year’s team, but returns almost everyone else of importance — plus a few extra pieces.

Missouri fans should be familiar with Volunteer seniors Yves Pons and Justin Fulkerson. They’re once again up to their old tricks down low. Fulkerson is a house down low, drawing fouls, crashing the boards and taking care of the ball better than most big men his size. Meanwhile, Pons continues the recent Volunteer tradition of undersized big men who use their brick-like bodies to push around everyone, bigger or smaller. Over the offseason, Barnes also added senior transfer EJ Anosike from Sacred Heart, who has slotted in nicely as a reserve big, especially on the offensive glass.

The greatest offensive threat, however, may come from Tennessee’s pair of starting sophomores. Santiago Vescovi runs the show for the offense, and is five times more likely to find his own shot beyond the arc, where he hits at 41.4 percent. And while he shoots far more often than Josiah-Jordan James, it’s the latter who leads the team in three-point shooting percentage, along with overall offensive rating. James is likely Tennesse’s best overall player (and a future pro), and he does a little bit of everything from jump-shooting to rebounding on both ends, to creating for others.

The Volunteers round out their rotation with a pair of blue-chip freshman and a rotational junior. Combo guard Jaden Springer has seen slightly more floor time, and the freshman excels at getting to the rim and the charity stripe. His jump-shooting numbers are also outstanding, but perhaps a bit unsustainable. Keon Johnson takes up a little more of the ball when he’s on the court, and he’s not nearly as efficient. He is, however, a pest on the defensive end, averaging about 5 steals and blocks per 40 minutes. Not bad for a 6’5” guard. Victor Bailey rounds out the rotation — if you count a 63.8 minutes percentage “rounding out” — and he does a little bit of everything for Barnes. He’s a respectable jump shooter, excellent around the rim, takes great care of the ball and defends well.

When Missouri has the ball...

Missouri Offense vs. Tennessee Defense

Team Adj. Eff. Poss. Length eFG% TO% OR% FTA/FGA 3P% 2P% FT% Blk% Stl%
Team Adj. Eff. Poss. Length eFG% TO% OR% FTA/FGA 3P% 2P% FT% Blk% Stl%
Missouri 108.6 (55) 16.4 (119) 50.3 (146) 17.9 (90) 32.4 (73) 39 (66) 28.4 (278) 55.2 (49) 75.6 (46) 9.9 (219) 7.9 (89)
Tennessee 87.2 (3) 18.3 (317) 42.3 (13) 25.9 (13) 21 (13) 21.4 (12) 28.1 (44) 42.5 (24) 69.1 (144) 16.8 (5) 12.9 (16)
NCAA Basketball: Bradley at Missouri Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

What to Watch | Who’s getting hot?

When Missouri needed buckets down the stretch against Bradley, Jeremiah Tilmon answered the call. Against Illinois, it was Xavier Pinson. Against Oregon, Mark Smith stoked Missouri to an insurmountable lead. In Tennessee, Missouri will be facing its toughest defensive challenge yet, a team that ranks top 5 in adjusted defensive efficiency. Oh, and they’re coming off of their worst offensive performance of the season. It’s likely the Tigers will struggle to put the ball in the hoop at some point against the Volunteers. They won’t force a track meet if Tennessee doesn’t want it. With that in mind, someone will have to grease the wheels when they get squeaky.

When Tennessee has the ball...

Tennessee Offense vs. Missouri Defense

Team Adj. Eff. Poss. Length eFG% TO% OR% FTA/FGA 3P% 2P% FT% Blk% Stl%
Team Adj. Eff. Poss. Length eFG% TO% OR% FTA/FGA 3P% 2P% FT% Blk% Stl%
Tennessee 110.3 (33) 16.8 (155) 52.8 (81) 14.9 (12) 38.2 (13) 35.3 (133) 36.1 (87) 52.2 (109) 79.7 (12) 2.7 (4) 7.3 (57)
Missouri 91.7 (27) 17.5 (258) 43.4 (23) 16.7 (278) 28 (164) 30.6 (122) 24.1 (15) 47.8 (112) 69.4 (152) 5.8 (269) 7.4 (252)
NCAA Basketball: Auburn at Tennessee Randy Sartin-USA TODAY Sports

What to Watch | Who’s hitting the boards harder?

Before Missouri faced Bradley, I was a little worried about the size Bradley could throw at Missouri and how it might affect the Tigers success getting to the basket. I should have also been focused on the rebounding. Bradley won the rebounding battle by a plus-5 margin, gathering up 14 offensive boards in the process. Tennessee isn’t incredibly efficient on their end of the court, but they make up for it by almost never coughing the ball up and generating second chances. Unless Missouri plans on shooting the lights out, they’ll need to keep Tennessee going one-and-done.

KenPom predicts...

Tennessee 67, Missouri 65 | Missouri can beat borderline top 10 teams without playing their best game. They’ve proven that not everything needs to go right — only most things. Against Tennessee, they’ll need that and a bit of luck to keep their seasonal sheet clean. Whether that’s some extra threes falling or a few balls (and calls) bouncing their way, the Tigers can’t afford much wiggle room if they plan on stating their case as the squad to beat in the SEC.