2023 Maui Invitational preview
Everyone, from Chaminade to Kansas, fully previewed and dissected for $0.00
Well, the Greatest Event in College Basketball History That Isn’t The NCAA Tournament has arrived. We are staring down the beginning of the 2023 Maui Invitational tomorrow, a tournament that will have five of the current AP Top 11 teams within its field. It is such a strong field that the sixth-best team is a UCLA team that’s a consensus top 25 team among metrics systems.
This offseason, when we discussed how good this field could be, it was couched in those could and might and maybe statements. Months out, we didn’t know how it would end up once we got there. The fabulous Marquette blog Paint Touches covered the strength of the field back in July:
However, no field before this one has ever included 4 top-10 teams. Only 2019, 2009, 2002, 2001, 1998 and 1989 ever had 3. With Purdue, Kansas, Marquette and Tennessee all in the top-9, we are seeing an unprecedented level of top end talent.
Similarly, no other field has ever had 5 top-20 teams, with 7 other seasons boasting 4 at most.
Here we are, under 24 hours out, and this has indeed come to fruition. Given Maui’s status as the primary preseason tournament among all preseason tournaments, we have reason to call this The Greatest Preseason Tournament Field Ever. And…is there a debate, really? Everywhere you turn, people are fawning over this field. Never before has there been a preseason tournament with four of the top seven teams in its field.
Given that the main team I cover here in Tennessee is in the field, I wanted to give the mega-preview I think this newsletter’s capable of giving. What you’re gonna get below is as follows:
An overview of all eight teams…including D-2 Chaminade.
Their biggest positive.
Their biggest negative.
The team they could best exploit in the field (Chaminade excluded, mostly)…
…and the team that could best exploit them.
Lastly, any other useful stats or insights I can find: lineups that serve as cheat codes, unique aspects of their systems, etc.
I do not deem it worth your time to waste any more time. Also, THIS IS A FREE POST, but if you like this and want to read more of my writing going forward, it costs just $30/year for a full season’s worth of writing. Self-promotion is not my thing, so I’ll leave it up to you, plus I think you can get a free trial of the paid subscription stuff.
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Alright! On with the show. These teams are listed from lowest to highest in terms of title odds for the Invitational, per Torvik. At the time of writing, using St. Francis (PA) (dead last in D-1 on Torvik, as Chaminade would be per Massey) as a stand-in, these are the Maui Invitational odds.
From Chaminade to Kansas, here you go.
Well, this one will be choppy because they’re non-D1, so bear with me.
Record: 1-2; 14-15 ‘22-23
Ranking via CBB Analytics: #172 (‘22-23); converts to #362 D-1 by…some margin.
Key players: G Isaac Amaral-Artharee (21.7 PPG), G Jamir Thomas (16.3 PPG), G Ross Reeves (10 PPG, 6.7 APG)
Unique aspects of system: are non-D1
These guys again! I’m always quite happy to see them. Back when the Great Alaska Shootout was on the same level as Maui, you would have their tournament host Alaska Anchorage as part of the field while Chaminade would be in Maui. It was rare that either would win a single game, but when they did, they would be huge, huge deals.
Now, Chaminade is 8-95 at Maui and last beat a D-1 team in 2017. Two of those have come against Rick Barnes, which isn’t great, but hey! It rarely happens. Chaminade is happy to host, particularly this year of all years when their home state needs the love more than ever. They’re part of the strongest preseason tournament field in history, though, and the odds they even come away with one win here are…uh, small. Real small. You never know, though.
Chaminade’s biggest positive is… Their offense in general. Watching a few clips on Synergy and going through their stats, I actually like some of their offensive actions. The Silverswords’ main lineup is what I’d call a 4.5 shooter lineup: four real shooters and a fifth that can but doesn’t want to fully go for it. They’ll spread the floor in half-court and run a ton of ball screens. 2-guard Amaral-Artharee is particularly unafraid to pull up off the dribble from basically wherever, and he’s the key to getting the Silverswords on the board early and often.
Chaminade’s biggest negative is… Well, aside from the utterly massive talent and athleticism deficit they will enter every game in, they’ve been awful on the defensive boards through three games this year and have allowed opponents to post a 39% OREB%. Very very bad!
The one team Chaminade might be able to exploit is… I think you have to go Syracuse by default here. They’ve looked atrocious defensively thus far, and opponents are converting at a 69% clip at the rim against them. Now, they’ll still have a giant roster advantage, but a team that allows a lot of threes and doesn’t protect the paint well at least gives you a vision to an upset.
Other useful stats: Chaminade is very good at not turning the ball over and sits at a +4.7 turnover margin per 100 this season. Of Chaminade’s eight-man rotation, one player (Wyatt Lowell) is taller than 6’7”. Last year’s team ranked in the 2nd-percentile in D-2 in points in the paint allowed per game, so, uh, good luck against Hunter Dickinson.
Realistic number of wins: Zero. Sorry.
Key players: G Judah Mintz (23 PPG, 5 APG), G JJ Starling (13.3 PPG, 6.3 RPG, 4.3 APG), F Chris Bell (14 PPG)
Unique aspects: running a 2-3 zone around 20% of the time on defense, occasional press after made baskets
So: I’m of two minds about Syracuse. On one hand, I don’t think they had any real reason to play beautiful basketball over their first three games. They’re coming out of the late Boeheim era, where they were deeply committed to playing horrid defense while occasionally stringing together enough wins to scrap onto the bubble. New coach and longtime assistant Adrian Autry presumably wouldn’t fix everything overnight, and even starting 3-0 in three games they should have won certainly isn’t bad.
On the other, holy crap this defense stinks. Syracuse has played three teams - New Hampshire, Canisius, and Colgate. Colgate has a decent offense, but Canisius and New Hampshire are both mired well in the 200s on KenPom. All three have scored 72+ against this defense. The least efficient output at the rim was New Hampshire going 14-22, or 64%.
They’ve also yet to really play anyone of note, because neither of their exhibition games were against D-1 opponents. Their game against Tennessee tomorrow will be their first game against a team in the KenPom top 150, not just the top 10. It’s always plausible that they could overachieve greatly, obviously, but at the moment what I’m looking at is a fairly good offense with an awful defense. Given the competition in Maui, that’s a prime way to get exploited over and over. Unless it isn’t, and everything we’ve seen to date was fake. You never know!
Syracuse’s biggest positive is… Having Judah Mintz on the roster. Though it’s been against garbage competition, Mintz looks like the absolute real deal offensively. He was arguably the only guy worth caring about on last year’s roster, then grew an inch and added 15 pounds in the offseason. The result is a guy that I still don’t trust as a shooter - he’s ranked in the 24th-percentile in points per shot on jumpers for two seasons, per Synergy - but a guy who is extremely tough to deal with at the rim.
That is a dude. There’s other guys I can talk myself into liking but none on the level on Mintz.
Syracuse’s biggest negative is… A really obvious one: they have nothing whatsoever in terms of rim protection at the moment. Allowing a 69% hit rate at the rim to three sub-150 KenPom opponents is really bad news for these guys going forward once real competition hits the schedule. When Synergy grades you out in the 12th-percentile in FG% allowed at the rim against #264, #233, and #154 in KenPom…yeah, that’s not a good sign whatsoever.
The problem mostly lies in Syracuse’s current frontcourt options going 6’6”, 6’6”, and 6’8”. The one hope is 7’4” Naheem McLeod, who blocks shots and rebounds well but has made the defense somehow way worse (11 points worse per 100) with him on the floor thus far. That doesn’t 100% track with his career at FSU, where he made their offense way worse, but I don’t think he’s a winning player. Sorry!
The team Syracuse could best exploit is… I think you’re probably looking for a team that doesn’t have great rim protection and/or doesn’t really plan on threatening the paint much itself offensively. Aside from Chaminade, that team doesn’t really exist in Maui, but of the available options the least-bad matchup is perhaps UCLA, just because their offense has looked extremely buggy so far this season. I would also submit Gonzaga here just because I’m far from convinced they’ve suddenly fixed their paint protection issues in one offseason.
The team that could best exploit Syracuse is… Aside from most of them, Kansas would probably leave these guys in a smoldering heap. I also don’t think they match up particularly well with Tennessee, but again, easy target and such.
Other useful stats: Against admittedly very poor competition, Syracuse is sitting in the 97th-percentile nationally in transition efficiency, per Synergy. All three opponents have posted a 29% OREB% or better against Syracuse. The Orange aren’t bleeding 3PAs quite like they usually do, but ShotQuality ranks them an alarming 326th in terms of percentage of threes allowed that are open.
Realistic number of wins: One. Even if Syracuse goes 0-2 on Monday and Tuesday, which is the most likely outcome, they would presumably draw Chaminade in the 7th-place game. Even this Syracuse team would rate out as around a 22-point favorite against Chaminade, which is roughly reflective of a ~97% chance at a win.
Prediction: 1-2, 7th place.
Key players: C Adem Bona (18 PPG, 8.7 RPG, 2.3 BPG), G Sebastian Mack (12.7 PPG), G Dylan Andrews (11 PPG), G Lazar Stefanovic (9.7 PPG, 6 RPG)
Unique aspects: 98th-percentile in pick-and-roll defense, #10 in America in FG% allowed at the rim, #252 offense excluding all preseason priors per Torvik, fifth-biggest gap between offensive and defensive 3PA in the nation
This is where the fun begins. This team - 34th in KenPom, consensus top 25 on Massey, 3-0, top-15 defense - is a clear sixth-best in this tournament. In years past, they likely would have been among the upper half of the field here and a potential darkhorse to win the whole thing. That is how crazy competitive this particular edition of Maui is.
Anyway, this is one of the youngest and newest teams that college basketball will offer this year. It’s loaded with intriguing young guys, so much so that there’s just one senior in the rotation (PF Kenneth Nwuba) and just one junior (Lazar Stefanovic). The rest: all freshmen and sophomores. The twist here is that few of the freshmen/sophomores are Americans. Five members of UCLA’s nine-man rotation are international recruits, with guys like Aday Mara (Spain) and Jan Vide (Slovenia) being the headliners of that particular group.
For me, which we’ll get to, it all centers around sophomore Adem Bona, who looks like he’s taking the leap into being a genuine All-American candidate. The good is that Bona is doing that; the bad is that UCLA’s offense may only be saved by Chaminade in terms of clearly being the worst in the entire field. I assume that may not be what one wants to hear when your first two games could be against Marquette and Kansas.
UCLA’s biggest positive is… Aside from the entire defense, it’s most specifically Bona. We’re staring down a season where Bona may legitimately be the best defender in the nation to go with a pretty solid offensive piece. Bona is very much Not A Shooter but is drawing a ton of fouls and sits at 59% 2PT/78% FT. Plus: very dominant force on the boards.
I like all of that, but I love Bona on the other end of the court. With Bona on the court this year, against admittedly very poor competition, UCLA’s opponents are shooting 32.1% at the rim. 32.1% at the rim. Do you realize how insane that is? Like, it was a huge deal when we discussed Tennessee in their season preview and noted that Jonas Aidoo held opponents to 49.5% at the rim while out there.
Even if you add a full 10% to that figure for Bona, that’s still some of the most elite rim protection we have seen at the college level in many years. If you have that guy centering your defense, all while you rank #22 in defensive TO% and dominate the defensive boards, you have at worst one of the 15 best defenses in the nation. Personally, I think it’s firmly inside the top ten. You do not want to go to war in the paint with these guys.
UCLA’s biggest negative is… Well, watch a game and tell me what you see. If you make it 7+ minutes into the first half before seeing a single three-point attempt from UCLA’s offense, congrats! You are watching 2023-24 UCLA basketball. Here are some brief stats for you via Synergy:
16th-percentile in jumpers attempted.
25th-percentile in jumper efficiency.
6th-percentile in catch-and-shoot efficiency.
9th-percentile in 3PT%.
Now, if you like midrange jumpers, these might be your guys. For whatever reason, UCLA is hitting 44% on midrange twos thus far, so perhaps they might have a little more here than I’m giving them credit for. But in the games I’ve watched UCLA I’ve seen one thing: a team that is absolutely terrified to take a jumper.
No team in the nation has gotten fewer points from three than UCLA this year. Their main starting frontcourt of Nwuba and Bona has exactly one three-point attempt between them, a Bona bomb that barely grazed the rim. UCLA has been able to grit out enough points at the rim and in midrange against undersized and overwhelmed opponents, and they may even be able to do that against a Marquette defense I’m still not sold on. But if they play Kansas, or Tennessee, or Purdue…oh boy.
The team UCLA could best exploit is… One that struggles with size on the interior and is prone to poor nights from three. This describes two teams in the field: Syracuse and Tennessee. Syracuse is a pretty easy one to convince yourself of because they don’t have a player on their roster that could contain Bona whatsoever. Tennessee is the more difficult call, because both teams are elite rim protection units, but at least with Tennessee you could squint and see a path to a nasty 57-54 type game that UCLA squeaks out.
The team that could best exploit UCLA is… Assuming that it is currently really easy to exploit UCLA’s offense, you’re then looking for whoever would have the most advantages on them with the ball in their hands. I kinda think this is Marquette? When I look at this matchup, I think that if Oso Ighodaro finds himself in foul trouble early, UCLA probably has the advantage. But in an average one-off game, this is a Marquette team happy to fire away on jumpers that hits a high percentage of them. I don’t know that UCLA would be able to keep up. (Honorable mention here is Gonzaga.)
Other useful stats: UCLA has posted a +26 PPG advantage in points in the paint thus far. Per ShotQuality, UCLA sits 22nd-best in terms of open threes allowed this year, which is probably a good sign for them going forward. UCLA also sits 334th-best in their Spacing metric offensively, which sounds accurate.
Realistic number of wins: Let’s go with an over/under of 1.5. This begins the territory of teams that could pop up and have a great week in Hawaii. All it would take is a minor quarterfinal upset for UCLA to be playing Kansas in the semis. Even if you lose that, you draw the loser of presumably Tennessee vs. the Purdue/Gonzaga winner for the third-place match. It’s not at all impossible to see a scenario where UCLA just has a good shooting week for once and goes 2-1.
Prediction: 1-2, 6th place.
(Note: the below stats are very goofy because they’ve played one D-1 game.)
Key players: C Braden Huff (21 PPG), F Graham Ike (18 PPG), F Anton Watson (15.5 PPG), G Nolan Hickman (13.5 PPG), G Ryan Nembhard (11 PPG)
Unique aspects: #5 nationally in transition offense usage per Synergy, lowest 3PA/FGA since 2010-11, averaging 15.5 OREBs a game, opponents getting just 24% of all shots at the rim per Synergy
Again: this is, at the time of writing, the AP Poll’s #11 team in the country. None of the Big Four sites (Ken, Torvik, Haslametrics, EvanMiya) have these guys outside of their individual top 15s. It may be the very best offense in the field. It has three forwards averaging 15+ PPG through their first two games. Also, they’re a semi-distant fifth in Maui title odds even by the Vegas numbers. Greatest preseason tournament ever, etc. etc.
We have so little 2023-24 data on these guys that it’s hardly useful, but I would take it as a pretty good sign that they somewhat easily dismantled a Yale team tracking directly towards a 12 seed in March. Across two games, they’ve posted 1.23 PPP on a Yale defense (the second-worst allowed by Yale in four years) and shot 75% on twos against something called Eastern Oregon, which I would have to assume is a militia and not a basketball team. Still! Pretty good that you’re averaging 1.37 PPP so far this season.
Now, the schedule functionally begins. Yale is really good, but if you replaced Chaminade with them in this tournament the only team they would be superior to is Syracuse. We think we know what this team has in the bag, but I’m not sure we do. For instance, Gonzaga’s backcourt played the entire game against Yale without a single sub, minus Nolan Hickman getting a single 1:27 break at the end of the first half. The only thing I know is that they have an utterly stuffed frontcourt, two elite guards, and apparently, the greatest freshman big in America?
Gonzaga’s best positive is… Well, for the millionth year in a row, these guys have an awesome frontcourt. I like almost all of their options here. The ones you have heard of are Graham Ike (formerly of Wyoming) or Anton Watson, but the team as a whole is shooting an insane 78% at the rim through all of two games. Last year’s group finished at 65% at the rim and ripped off a streak of 27 times in 28 games where they shot 50% or better on all twos.
The guy that everyone assumed would make The Leap this year was center Ben Gregg, who’s been good, but who may have been usurped. Here is redshirt freshman Braden Huff, who has come out of nowhere to be a truly dominant option at the 5 so far for the Bulldogs. A 6’10” 240 pound guy who shoots it really well and is dominant down low is a rare breed.
Huff has been relegated to bench duty thus far because it seems that he doesn’t have a ton going on defensively, but he is the biggest X-factor in perhaps this entire tournament. No other team in this group has a player who’s scoring over a point per minute and is shooting 60% from three and 79% from two. You can do the small sample size thing obviously, but Synergy had this guy as a 43% (!) shooter from deep in high school and an excellent finisher. He might just be that good.
Gonzaga’s biggest negative is… Well, aside from the depth concerns in the backcourt, I think the biggest 2022-23 negative is pretty much the biggest 2023-24 negative: a team without much in the way of notable rim protection. Last year’s team ranked #197 in 2PT% allowed, the worst 2PT% given up in the 24-year Mark Few era. Now, we have next to no useful data on how they’ll hang around this year, but giving up a 55% hit rate to a Yale team with far less athleticism isn’t a great sign.
It’s also worth noting that Gonzaga went just 2-3 against the only top-50 2PT% offenses they played last year, all of which saw them allow 1.08 PPP or greater. When you have Purdue up next, that isn’t the greatest thing to think about.
The team Gonzaga could best exploit is… Well, Syracuse. I think that’s an obvious one. But if you restrict it to the main six here that have real title hopes, I think it might be Marquette. This is not a Marquette defense that I really love, and Gonzaga would project to have a serious rebounding edge on both offense and defense. That would require Marquette to really shoot the lights out, which is always possible but isn’t something you want to count on every single night.
I’d also like to note a potential hot take here: I think that Gonzaga could exploit Purdue. Purdue would have more than a few advantages offensively, especially in the paint, but this is a Purdue team still struggling with turnovers against competition that will play a Gonzaga team who protects the boards well and forces turnovers when needed. At worst, if you were to rank the starting backcourts for each, Gonzaga would have two of the three best players and possibly the two best depending on your views on Braden Smith.
The team that could best exploit Gonzaga is… Kansas. I just really do not like the matchup of Hunter Dickinson against Gonzaga’s pretty middling interior defense, and while Gonzaga could easily get Dickinson in trouble on the other end it’s not yet readily apparent that Gonzaga has the same shooting horses from deep that they had in 2022-23.
Other useful stats: Against top 50 teams over the last year-plus, Gonzaga has held opponents to just a 24.1% DREB%, 18th-best nationally. With Huff and Watson on the court together versus Yale, Gonzaga outscored Yale by 17 points in 27 possessions. They won that game by 15.
Realistic number of wins: Another over/under of 1.5 applies here. If Gonzaga gets to the final that’s quite the achievement, given that you would likely have to beat both Purdue (#1 in KenPom) and Tennessee (#8) back-to-back. As such, a situation where Gonzaga goes 1-1 between their first two games and then faces a likely coin-flip game in their third against probably Marquette or UCLA.
Prediction: 1-2, 4th place.
Key players: G Kam Jones (19.3 PPG, 4.7 RPG), G Tyler Kolek (14.7 PPG, 5.3 RPG, 4.7 APG), C Oso Ighodaro (13 PPG, 8.7 RPG)
Unique aspects: #15 nationally in Rim and Three Rate per ShotQuality, +5 or better turnover margin advantage in all three games, -2 or worse OREB margin in all three games
Fun as they ever were. Marquette’s mission is to play some of the most watchable basketball one will see at the college level all year long, with an offense that prioritizes pushing the pace in transition and using paint pressure to open up the perimeter. Everything they do on the offensive end is pretty sound, and whenever they take a shot that’s not analytically sound it feels like a real surprise.
What’s perhaps the best aspect of this team is that the defense does genuinely appear to be getting a little better. Last year’s team was held back by a group that forced turnovers but offered nothing in the way of quality shot defense and struggled mightily to contain the defensive boards. This year’s team has only had one real test - Illinois - but by holding the Illini to 10-27 on twos and a 0.923 PPP they passed it with flying colors. This might just be a very balanced basketball team!
Now, on the balance part…perhaps we should hold our horses. A little. ShotQuality has Marquette’s defense as being in line for an astounding 11 points per 100 possessions worth of regression, which I don’t personally see but I’m still yet to be fully convinced here. They’re still allowing a lot of open threes and still struggling heavily to protect the defensive boards, as all three opponents have put up a 30% OREB% or better. I like these guys a lot, but it might be worth checking back on Wednesday to see how they’ve held up.
Marquette’s best positive is… Their backcourt. Tyler Kolek and Kam Jones are simply two of the best offensive players in the nation and are the straw(s) that stir the Marquette drink. Jones is up to a 37% hit rate from three, while Kolek has shot over 40% from deep the last season-plus. With both on the court together last year (about 60% of all possessions), Marquette’s offense performed at the level of the best in the nation, ranking 3rd in eFG% and 8th in offensive TO%. Also: 59% on twos.
Kolek is more of the pass-first type and Jones the lead scorer, but Jones’ own passing abilities have grown this year. This is a dangerous, dangerous offense to pretty much everyone who encounters it, one that rarely takes poor shots of any kind.
Marquette’s biggest negative is… Well, nothing new here: it’s the interior defense and the defensive rebounding. Marquette has only allowed a 51.6% hit rate at the rim so far, certainly not terrible, but in terms of actual rim protection - i.e., blocking shots - there’s just about none of it. Against two inferior opponents and one good one, Marquette has posted a 5.9% Block%, good enough for 283rd-best in the nation and on the same level as something called Stonehill.
I could at least be talked into that being fine eventually, though. I don’t think I can get there with the rebounding breakdowns, which remains the biggest Achilles heel of the entire Shaka Smart tenure. Smart is a great coach who’s done a great job, but both of his teams have ranked in the 310s nationally in DREB% so far. I’m scared to say that this unit might be the worst yet.
Look at that: that’s one against four, and the one won. It is probably not a coincidence, then, that Marquette went 4-4 against the top 25 OREB% teams they played last year and 25-3 against everyone else. The good news for Marquette in this field, at least, is that only two teams they could feasibly face might be able to exploit that.
The team Marquette could best exploit is… A team that isn’t overwhelming on the offensive boards and struggles to guard ball screens. Other than the obvious submissions of Chaminade and Syracuse, the best matchup for Marquette among the remaining six is likely UCLA. The Bruins are tremendous defensively but I covered earlier how Marquette’s specific mix could be a real problem for UCLA to deal with on both ends of the court. (Honorable mention: Tennessee.)
The team that could best exploit Marquette is… Gonzaga as covered above. I also think a potential matchup with Kansas could be a bad one for them, as I struggle to find the obvious advantages for Marquette on the offensive end while they would likely get demolished on the boards. It would’ve been to their benefit, actually, to be on Tennessee’s half of the bracket and draw Syracuse/Purdue instead.
Realistic number of wins: Well…this is another 1.5 win over/under, even though that really feels like a punt. I think if Marquette went 1-2 here as a top-five AP team their fans would probably be a little disappointed, understandably so. The most likely outcome here is that they beat UCLA, lose to Kansas, and play a coin-flip third-place game with Gonzaga. I’m going to say the same thing I would say for literally all of the six teams that matter here: if you go 2-1 or better, that’s a good trip you can be satisfied with. If you go 1-2, then it’s not disastrous but also not ideal.
Prediction: 2-1, 3rd place.
Key players: G Dalton Knecht (19.7 PPG), G Jordan Gainey (13.3 PPG), G/F Josiah-Jordan James (11.3 PPG, 6.7 RPG), G Santiago Vescovi (6.7 PPG, is Santiago Vescovi)
Unique aspects: Ranked #1 in off-ball screen usage in 2022-23 per Synergy, shooting 45% on open threes per Synergy, holding opponents to 43.9% FG% at rim (12th-best), top 40 in both offensive spacing and shot-making per ShotQuality
Well, hey, here’s a breath of fresh air. Tennessee! Offense-first Tennessee! Scoring 80+ in all of its first three games for the first time since 2009-10 Tennessee! It seems unbelievable, but perhaps it isn’t. After all, various writers (hi) preached all offseason long that this Tennessee offense would be much, much improved from the terrible unit that permeated the 2022-23 season.
So far, this offense has shown a remarkable lack of stupid. I don’t mean this in a derogatory or rude way, but rather in a “I can count on two hands the number of mental implosions on offense” way. That used to happen 10+ times in a game at some points last season. This group appears more with it, is pushing the pace a little more than you may remember, and actually appears to have shooters to make all of the open shots this offense produces.
All it’s taken is sacrificing a bit of defense. Scoring leader and now potential first-round draft pick Dalton Knecht has been such a revelation that people have just been tweeting out whenever the next game is during UT football games on Saturdays now. That did not happen last year or the year before it, for what it’s worth, even though both of those teams were very good.
Tennessee still looks the part all around and genuinely should have a top-20 offense to go with its usual top-10 defense. If so, people are going to be a bit rosier on Tennessee come March than usual. And then the expectations, already high, will be ramped up to a new and quite scary level. But: gotta go to Hawaii first.
Tennessee’s best positive is… Having Dalton Knecht on the roster, obviously. Everything else one could mention pales in comparison to that. But! Let me mention a different thing that I think is getting far less publicity: Jonas Aidoo’s defense.
Aidoo flies under the radar because he is a relatively low-usage offensive piece that has struggled to find his shooting stroke and doesn’t really get to the line very often. Nothing to hate about him on offense, but nothing to really love, necessarily. He could still grow into something but for now he’s just a defender. And man, what a defender he is.
Already mentioned was last year’s 49% FG% allowed at the rim, which would have been #2 nationally on its own with Aidoo at center. Now, this year, Aidoo is centering what currently sits as the #12 unit nationally in FG% allowed at the rim and held Wisconsin to a 50% conversion rate on 20 down-low attempts. It’s obviously early, but with Aidoo on the court, Tennessee’s opponents are shooting 39.5% at the rim and 40.6% on all twos. A tremendous, tremendous piece to have on one’s team.
Tennessee’s biggest negative is… I mean, I think the rebounding might be a bit of a problem. Tennessee did play Wisconsin, who I still think is good if not great, but otherwise played two fairly pedestrian squads in Tennessee Tech and Wofford. They sit at just a +2.8 OREB margin per 100 possessions, which is…like, several OREBs off of where I would want it to be. This is partially because Tennessee has downsized and has finally stopped playing two bigs together for the first time ever, but it’s also due to guys like Knecht struggling to hold their own down low. Everything falls on Tobe Awaka and Aidoo to protect the boards, which is a problem because they cannot play at the same time.
The team Tennessee can best exploit is… Well, I think Tennessee could really work Syracuse’s defense to bits. Any defense that allows a ton of open threes and cannot protect the rim at all might be in for a really long day against the new-look Vols. Beyond the first round, though, can I submit both Gonzaga and Purdue as teams Tennessee might quietly match up well with?
We know so little about 2023-24 Gonzaga that it may be unwise to declare it a positive matchup, but a couple of things we do know about Tennessee is that they’re shooting the ball very well and rarely turn it over. Gonzaga went 2-3 against top-50 shooting teams last year and 6-4 against teams inside the top 75 in 2PT% allowed; they were 29-3 and 25-2 otherwise, respectively. This is a rare opponent where Gonzaga would genuinely have to really work to score at the rim against.
The Purdue one will sound strange because Purdue is either #1 or #2 on KenPom depending on when you look, but hear me out. Purdue really hasn’t done very much on the offensive boards at all this year, a surprising step back after years of utter domination in both directions under Matt Painter. They could snap out of it in Maui, but I’ve been underwhelmed on that front. They are also shooting an astounding 46% from three, which is a figure that has very little chance of holding.
Tennessee’s ball screen defense is also elite yet again. While Purdue certainly could exploit Tennessee in post-ups and generates a lot of free throw attempts, this is simultaneously a Purdue defense that greatly struggled to defend off-ball screens with largely the same roster last season. Guess what Tennessee runs approximately a billion of every game.
The team that could best exploit Tennessee is… I really do not like that Marquette matchup for Tennessee if it happens, but I’ve seen worse. I guess since I’m technically picking it here I don’t really love the matchup with Kansas because I think Tennessee could get in foul trouble real quickly there.
Realistic number of wins: This is the first team where I’m setting the over/under at a hard 2. Tennessee will likely be a small underdog against whoever they draw in the semifinals, and if they escape that they’ll likely be an underdog to Kansas. Even losing in the semifinal doesn’t guarantee a win in the third-place game, as you’re likely to play one of Marquette or UCLA. Still, I think Tennessee really needs to go 2-1 or better here to sustain the good vibes of that Wisconsin win.
Prediction: 2-1, runner-up.
Key players: C Zach Edey (20.7 PPG, 10 RPG), G Braden Smith (11.7 PPG, 8.3 APG, 6 RPG), G Lance Jones (9.7 PPG, 3.7 APG)
Unique aspects: Consensus #1 team in America per metrics sites, #1 in post-up usage in 2022-23
On one hand, this looks like the best offense in America with a defense that might be improving and the reigning National Player of the Year on its roster. They are shooting 46% from three after having issues with deep shooting all of last year. They’ve toned down their turnover rate on offense. They allow almost nothing easy in the paint whatsoever. Also, their conference is melting down around them and they might go 18-2 in the Big Ten this year.
The problem is that everyone is just waiting until March.
Can you blame them, after everything that’s happened over the last three NCAA Tournaments? Could you blame anyone for thinking that at all?
Purdue’s biggest positive is… Well, you might have heard of a guy named Zach Edey. Presumably you have, at least. Have you heard of this character named Braden Smith? I think you might need to hear about this guy at some point.
After a terrific freshman year as Purdue’s starting point, Smith looks like he might be taking The Leap. A player who shot 38% from three last year but struggled with turnovers has nearly doubled his Assist Rate to an insane 49%. He’s shooting 50% on midrange twos and 48% on jumpers as a whole. He’s tossed up no fewer than seven assists in every single game so far. He’s also turned into a genuinely solid perimeter defender, which is not what I expected to happen.
Basically, you go into every game expecting a baseline of Edey putting up 22 & 12. That is assumed, and anything less is generally a moral victory for your team. The difference-maker this season is this potential Smith breakout. If Purdue has another All-American level player on its roster, that’s going to open up a ton of space for the other three players on the floor. Edey already draws plenty of double teams, but even if you assume that it’s at best a 4-on-3.5 for Purdue, you can’t also double Smith. You can’t play 1-on-3. You can’t even play 2-on-3. If Smith is going to be That Guy, Purdue really may be the best team in America.
Purdue’s biggest negative is… In general, I still do not trust these guys as a perimeter defense unit. Purdue rarely forces many turnovers, which opens them up to the whims of the opponent’s shooting on any given day. When the shots don’t go in, it’s usually a Purdue blowout. When they do it becomes a very sweaty affair for all involved.
More specifically, I don’t really trust these guys just yet on perimeter actions, period. Teams would try and draw Edey out to the perimeter on dribble-handoffs as well as off-ball screens, to the tune of Purdue opponents ranking in the 100th and 94th-percentile of usage on those plays. Purdue did not defend those well at all, ranking in the 44th and 65th-percentile, respectively. That feels like a really bad thing to hear about if they draw Tennessee or Marquette, for example.
The team Purdue could best exploit is… Unfortunately, not one on their half of the bracket. Kansas would be a powerhouse matchup, but given how well Dickinson played against Edey while at Michigan, it would then fall to the rest of the roster. I don’t think that Kansas would do a particularly good job at exploiting the flaws of the Purdue roster, and it would be such a huge win for Purdue this early in the season. I also think they’d match up really well with UCLA. It’s just that their potential matchups on their half of the bracket - Gonzaga and Tennessee, mostly - seem like they’re quite well-built to take them down.
The team that could best exploit Purdue is… Arguably Tennessee, to be honest. But I would hear out a case for Gonzaga or even Marquette here too.
Realistic number of wins: Purdue really, really needs to go 2-1 or better here. I would argue that they kind of need to win Maui to assuage some fears, but considering everyone is just staring these guys down waiting to see what they do when the field of 68 drops, just get out of here with your two wins and get home.
Prediction: 2-1, 5th-place.
Key players: C Hunter Dickinson (22 PPG, 12.3 RPG), Kevin McCullar Jr. (16.3 PPG, 7.7 RPG, 6.3 APG), KJ Adams Jr. (14 PPG, 4.7 RPG)
Unique aspects: Third-largest 2PT% gap in the nation at +29.3%, #1 nationally in assists per game at 27, playing at fastest pace in the nation
Well, here’s what I wrote in the Big 12 preview.
Even on the worst Michigan offense since 2014-15, Dickinson still shined. Fans grew a bit impatient with his coming-and-going effort level on defense, but even that took a step up in conference play as Michigan needed it more. In B1G play, Dickinson posted a +5.7 PRPG! on Torvik and a +10.6 Box Plus-Minus on both high volume (27% Usage) and efficiency (119 ORtg). The number of Big Ten players who’d hit all those numbers in conference play post-2007 is very, very thin.
That’s the type of player you’re adding to a yearly top-10 program: a guy who was no worse than one of the 15 best players in America a year ago and a top-four player in a top-four conference. Those type of guys not only rarely come back, they never, ever transfer. If Dickinson is fully committed to the bit for five straight months, he absolutely could pull a surprise upset for National Player of the Year.
Basically: I like this roster a ton. It’s crazy talented. No roster is even close to perfect this year, but these guys have a top-end that is truly scary and if they answer a few questions appropriately, they have as good a shot at the national title as anyone.
And nothing has happened to move me from my priors. Kansas appears to have come in a bit above expectation as a shooting roster, but I still think that’s going to settle itself out. More notable is how much faster they’re playing offensively, how scary it all looks when they’re clicking, how they came back from a double-digit deficit against Kentucky in perhaps Kentucky’s most well-played game since February 2022. This is a frightening team if it all clicks from start to finish, which is frankly not what I was hoping to hear.
Kansas’s biggest positive is… I’m gonna need you to go check out the roster and let me know when you see Hunter Dickinson on it. Oh, right, he is the first player on the roster. Interesting stuff!
The #1 team in the nation at the moment has a 7’1” behemoth on it who is a career 38% 3PT shooter that attempts at least two a game. He’s nearing 60% for his career on twos. He is one of the best rebounders in the nation. He rarely turns the ball over. Aside from his defense, which has never been very good, he is the perfect college basketball player. It is of no surprise whatsoever that at the moment in KenPom’s Player of the Year rankings, Dickinson sits #2….one spot behind Zach Edey, who he might play in the title game of this tournament. Again, greatest preseason tournament ever constructed.
Kansas’s biggest negative is… Uh…well…I mean…
It’s hard to produce a ton of complaints about a team that’s scored 89+ all three times out, looks awesome offensively, and is probably going to be very good defensively. Kentucky barely cracked 33% on twos against these guys, which used to be Kentucky’s whole thing. I still don’t believe in Kansas as a top-end shooting roster, but they should be good. I don’t think of them as an elite defense, but they should be good. They don’t force many turnovers, but it’s probably fine. Their rebounding edge isn’t quite as pronounced as I would’ve hoped but it’s acceptable.
The problem might be that Kansas is more or less good at everything, but outside of Dickinson it would be hard to name the thing they are great at. In a one-off tournament like this, the fact that Kansas allows a ton of three-point attempts, doesn’t have a huge impact yet on the offensive boards, and doesn’t force a ton of turnovers could potentially get them in one game. But you can see why these guys are so hyped: there is no overly obvious flaw that I can point out to you at this moment in time. It’s a tremendous group.
The team Kansas could best exploit is… I really do not need to see these guys play Syracuse, so hopefully that doesn’t come to fruition. UCLA would be a blowout in all likelihood, too. Of the more realistic ones on the books, I don’t think Marquette or Gonzaga match up well with these guys at all. Dickinson would have a field day against the interior of both teams, and it would then be reliant on Marquette or Gonzaga having a huge shooting day to keep up. Not always recommended when you’re at an unfamiliar arena.
The team that could best exploit Kansas is… Strangely enough, it’s probably Purdue. Kansas is largely going to go with drop coverage as long as Dickinson is at center, and if so, that opens up a 2-on-2 game where Smith and Edey are on one end and Dajuan Harris/Dickinson are on the other. Dickinson has held up okay in the past versus Edey offensively, but not much on defense. If it turns into 2-on-1 and Smith gets open jumper after jumper as it looks like he’s taking the leap into being a great shooter, that’s a loss on the way.
Realistic number of wins: This is the only team in the field that probably deserves an over/under of 2.5. It would be a real surprise if they don’t make it to the Maui final, and if they haven’t something has gone horribly wrong in that semifinal.
Prediction: 3-0, Maui champs.
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