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Hoops Preview: Tennessee comes to Columbia looking for answers

The Volunteers are heavy on upperclassmen and freshmen, and are on a bit of a skid heading into their second true road game of 2019-2020.

NCAA Basketball: Louisiana State at Tennessee Bryan Lynn-USA TODAY Sports

As I wrote in this morning’s links, Tennessee and Missouri both need wins... badly.

You’ll have a hard time finding two more similar stories than Missouri and Tennessee in the SEC this year. Both teams expecting to find themselves in March (albeit coming from different places in the past years); both teams that have struggled to find themselves on the right side of things headed into conference play.

It’s not as if either is bad. We know about Missouri’s good wins and one very bad loss. Tennessee doesn’t have any obvious bad losses, but hasn’t really made a name for itself outside of simply beating the teams they should. All of the Volunteers’ losses have been to Top 60 KenPom teams, but they’ve only played one game away from Knoxville, one which they lost by double digits.

Both teams lost their conference openers to established league favorites LSU and Kentucky. Tennessee is in a bit more of a slide than Missouri, having lost four of their last five, while the Tigers have won four of their last five.

Now the two teams meet in Columbia for a brief gaze in the mirror. They are alike in nature, but distinctly different in the way they’re looking to move up in the 2020 league hierarchy. In the soft middle of the SEC, these are the types of games that will separate the wheat from the chaff.

Tonight we’ll find out if Missouri is ready to make the move upward.

The Scout

The Starters

Position Missouri (8-5) Tennessee (8-5)
Position Missouri (8-5) Tennessee (8-5)
PG Dru Smith (Rs. Jr., 6'3", 203) Santiago Vescovi (Fr., 6'3", 188)
CG Mark Smith (Jr., 6'5", 220) Jordan Bowden (Sr., 6'5", 193)
WING Kobe Brown (Fr., 6'7", 240) Josiah-Jordan James (Fr., 6'6", 208)
PF Mitchell Smith (Jr., 6'10", 221) Yves Pons (Jr., 6'6", 215)
POST Jeremiah Tilmon (Jr., 6'10", 260) John Fulkerson (Jr., 6'9", 212)

Note: These starting lineups are projected.

We’ve spent a lot of time in this space (as well as Dive Cuts) dissecting rotations, and how different teams use them to their advantage. Matt’s piece on how Missouri is slightly different in its rotations is well worth a read.

Tennessee, unlike Missouri, does not lean heavily on its bench. Rick Barnes has five players who play over 70 percent of the available minutes (!!!), and the highest any one bench player (freshman Olivier Nkamhoua) gets is 38.5.

That is, of course, before you factor in mid-year enrollee Santiago Vescovi. The Uruguayan guard has only been with the program for a matter of weeks, and went on to start his very first game against LSU. It was a success in some ways — Vescovi shot 6-9 from three-point range and added six rebounds and four assists — and not as much in others, as he committed nine turnovers. It’s a tough situation for Barnes to be in after the loss of senior leader Lamonte Turner, but the Volunteers will have to make the best of it.

The Volunteers rely heavily on four players outside of Vescovi — senior Jordan Bowden (84 %min) junior Yves Pons (81.2 %min) freshman Josiah-Jordan James (71.5 %min) and junior John Fulkerson (71.2 (%min). Fulkerson is the prototypical big man down low; he’s efficient (67.1 TS%) and draws fouls, though his rebounding isn’t as high as you’d expect. Pons is the offensive spark plug, shooting a team-high 37.5 percent from deep while also hitting at above 60 percent from two-point range. He could also present a match up problem for Missouri’s guards — he’s 6’6” and has a nose for blocks on the defensive end. James is a willing shooter and good defensive rebounder, but still seems to be finding his sea legs amidst the heavy load of minutes. Bowden, one of Tennessee’s sturdy members throughout this incredible Barnes run, is struggling to find his shot (32.9 from deep), but is historically a better shooter and is steady with the ball — he should help carry the load with Vescovi.

Off the bench, Barnes will turn to a freshman duo: Nkamhoua to spell Fulkerson and Davonte Gaines for more offense. Gaines is particularly skilled at getting to the line, drawing nearly six fouls per 40 minutes and hitting 85 percent of his free throws. Fellow freshman Drew Pember will get steady minutes if Nkamhoua finds himself in foul trouble, and junior Jalen Johnson soaks up the rest of the minutes on the wing.

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 102.9 (120) 18 (262) 49.3 (178) 21.5 (284) 31.3 (80) 30.8 (199) 30.1 (289) 52.2 (82) 73.9 (71) 8.5 (149) 8.2 (86)
Tennessee 91.3 (42) 18 (304) 44.6 (36) 20 (143) 25.2 (68) 25.7 (55) 34.2 (229) 41.5 (12) 66.8 (64) 14 (29) 9.3 (152)
NCAA Basketball: Missouri at Kentucky
Mark Smith only had seven points against the Wildcats on Saturday. Can he bounce back at home against a vulnerable Tennessee?
Mark Zerof-USA TODAY Sports

What to Watch | A bounce back for Mark Smith or Torrence Watson?

Mark Smith has struggled with consistency at times this season, but he’s undoubtedly still Missouri’s biggest offensive weapon. Smith was 2-7 from deep against the Wildcats, as Calipari had his team hawking Smith and fellow shooter Torrence Watson wherever they went. Smith has always had big bounce backs, and Tennessee is vulnerable — they rank 229th in three-point defense. If Smith can find his groove, Missouri will be in good position to come away with the home win. If Smith can find his groove and Torrence Watson can find more open shots (only four against Kentucky), Missouri’s defense should be well-supported.

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 104.3 (93) 17.7 (218) 48.3 (216) 20 (207) 30.4 (102) 33.4 (141) 31.8 (227) 48.6 (189) 73.8 (77) 8.4 (146) 10.6 (297)
Missouri 89.7 (28) 18 (306) 41.4 (5) 23 (37) 24.8 (53) 38.2 (291) 25.9 (5) 43 (31) 76.2 (341) 9.8 (118) 11.3 (56)
NCAA Basketball: Missouri at Kentucky
Dru Smith has been stingy on defense, averaging 4.3 steals per 40 minutes. Will he have success against UT’s young ballhandlers?
Mark Zerof-USA TODAY Sports

What to Watch | Can Missouri fluster Tennessee’s young guards?

Tennessee isn’t exactly a young team — four of their rotation players are upperclassmen. However, the Volunteers give a lot of minutes to freshmen, and most of them (particularly James and Vescovi) are susceptible to turnovers. For as careless as the Tigers have been with the ball this year, they also rate in the top 40 for turnovers and top 60 for steals. If the Smiths, Kobe Brown and Missouri’s other back court players can hound Tennessee’s young ball handlers, it could help unsettle a Volunteer team that has only played one true road game this season.

KenPom predicts...

Missouri 62, Tennessee 59 | It seems foolish to be optimistic about Missouri’s chances tonight. Despite their struggles, Tennessee has just as many Quadrant 1 wins as Missouri, and was once three points off of defeating Top 10 ranked Florida State on a neutral court. However, the Volunteers’ heavy use of freshmen, combined with their lack of road experience so far, gives the Tigers an edge at Mizzou Arena. It helps that the Tigers have been playing their best basketball of the season — the Kentucky loss wasn’t great, but they’re also Kentucky. If at least one (preferably more) of Missouri’s shooters can get in rhythm and Jeremiah Tilmon can give the Tigers more than 20 minutes, it shouldn’t be too much to expect the Tigers to walk away 1-1 in conference play.