Show Me My Opponent, 2023 Maui Invitational: #2 Purdue
ahhhhh it's YOU again
Sometimes the narratives build themselves. After staving off Syracuse on easily the worst shooting day this roster’s had together, Tennessee now finds themselves staring down an old foe at a neutral site. I wonder if anything has happened between these two at neutral sites…perhaps in multiple sports…perhaps involving unfathomable and wild things. Ah well, that certainly will not happen a 70th time in a row.
Spiritual brothers, these two, whether they like it or not. Tennessee has their own March demons everyone is already aware of, but Tennessee is presumably pretty thankful that Purdue has largely stolen their March demon thunder. Purdue has made eleven Sweet Sixteens since the field expanded to 64 teams in 1985, including six in the last 15 years. They’ve been a top 2 seed thrice. They have literally been one little second away from making the Final Four. They have not.
So, if nothing else, the team in black and/or gold has pretty much the same if not more March pain than you. And they have three straight years of truly horrific underperforming! They’re out with something to prove this year, which is surely different than when they were out with something to prove the last three years.
I jest. This is a banger of a game on a random November night and, at least at face value, it should be one of the best games of the regular season. #2 vs. #7, in a gym with far too many sideline logos and three-point lines, in primetime. That’s my college basketball, baby.
BELOW THE LINE ($): look it’s not the LARGEST drum but it is a pretty big drum
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Well, this is good. Such is the fun of playing a team that’s #2 in offense nationally and whose worst performance to date was last night, a game in which they still touched 1 PPP and shot 56% on twos. The issue with these guys has pretty much never been offense, as evidenced by going 2nd-4th-50th-26th-2nd-12th-2nd the last seven years. Frighteningly it appears they might be able to really shoot it for the first time since Jaden Ivey left campus? Buckle up.
As usual, any scouting report is going to center around the literal elephant in the room. Zach Edey (21.8 PPG, 11 RPG) looms pretty large here as the reigning National Player of the Year and as a guy who converted 72% of his shots at the rim last season. I feel like he actually makes the reports themselves pretty boring because you already know what you’re getting here. Purdue is going to force-feed the post. Tennessee either will go with single-coverage, likely with Aidoo, or double to get the ball out of Edey’s hands. I regret to inform you he is pretty good against both.
Here’s single coverage from last year against a tremendous Rutgers interior defense:
Followed by Edey getting doubled and spotting a wide-open shooter because Purdue is now playing 4-on-3.
Those were against the two best defenses in the Big Ten, by the way. I have a hard time taking too much into account from yesterday’s game against Gonzaga, where Edey went for 25 & 14 against a middling Gonzaga interior defense but also somehow came away with zero fouls committed. How Tennessee chooses to counter the single most impactful player in the entire sport will be fascinating to watch. I wouldn’t be surprised if some elements of the old Oscar Tshiebwe plan - draw him to the perimeter, force him away from the rim in the post - emerge from the dustbin.
There are two other Dude-like dudes on this offense, the best of which is an emerging talent in his sophomore season that is starting to resemble a borderline All-American. Braden Smith (12 PPG, 7.8 APG, 5.5 RPG) ended a very good freshman campaign for Purdue by completely melting down against Fairleigh Dickinson in that famous 16-seed upset, having as many points (7) as turnovers.
Smith has taken that performance to heart and has emerged as an actual second star-like figure alongside Edey. Think of it this way: last year’s #2 (Fletcher Loyer) averaged 11 PPG but on 41% 2PT/33% 3PT. Smith, admittedly in a four-game sample size, is posting 12/8/5 on an average night with 60% 2PT/45% 3PT shooting splits. I don’t imagine those will sustain, but the fact that he’s taken a serious step up pretty much across the board (including defensively) makes him the bigger matchup problem for Tennessee for me.
Smith is shooting 43% for his career on pull-up jumpers of any kind, so playing drop coverage here is not really something I’d like to see.
The third guy offensively, as of now, is Southern Illinois transfer Lance Jones (10.5 PPG). Jones is probably the guy I would be least afraid about here. This is a guy with a 28% career Usage Rate but a 91.6 Offensive Rating to go with it. In less-nerdy terms, there are 291 players with a 28% career USG% since 2008. Jones ranks 267th in efficiency because he adores turning the ball over.
Still, Jones is a threat from deep…at times. I like him a lot more as a defender. Jones sits at 32% from deep over his career but part of that is a fluke COVID season (43% on 119 attempts) covering up a career of otherwise shooting around 26-30% from deep. The rest of the guys here are all role players. Myles Colvin is shooting almost 70% from three. Fletcher Loyer is supremely okay at basketball. Freshman Camden Heide is high-efficiency, low-usage. Trey Kaufman-Renn and Caleb Furst are the rotational frontcourt guys. Furst is the better shooter, TKR is much better on the interior. Lastly, Mason Gillis is a very small-ball 4 that can’t create his own offense but is a terrific deep shooter.
In summary: NPOY surrounded by a potential All-American and a roster full of role players. This is a roster with a heck of a floor, even if the ceiling may be in question.
Oh great! This is pretty good too. Now, someone who’s just boxscore searching might look at yesterday’s game as some sort of excellent performance, holding Gonzaga to their fourth-worst offensive performance of the last three seasons. That is indeed good! But you need the context of Gonzaga putting up an unrepeatable 6-32 (18%) three-point shooting performance on shots, the second-worst performance they’ve had since COVID. ShotQuality graded it as a 78-73 Gonzaga win; while you could take some qualms with that I am not convinced this is a God-level defense just yet.
Still, there are some obvious pluses to be found. Edey merely being on the court represents a gigantic obstacle for opponents to deal with, and predictably Edey’s been blocking shots left and right to start the season. Because he’s down there, opponents generally don’t even bother with the paint in the first place. Last year Purdue only gave up 26.2% of all shots at the rim (second-lowest in America) and forced the most midrange twos of anyone in the country. It is a very analytically-sound strategy, one that forces a remarkable amount of jumpers and runners.
The difference between the Painter system and what one would typically expect for from a team that wants to wall off the rim last year was an ability to run shooters off the three-point line. Purdue has largely the same roster this year but hasn’t experienced quite the same success, as teams have been bombing away from deep on them to the tune of 44% of all attempts. Like Tennessee last year, I’ve got doubts that the 21% 3PT% they’re allowing holds for very long, especially when Synergy has them as allowing a 9-56 (16%) hit rate on open threes. I mean…this is not great defense.
As Tennessee has already learned in this arena, sometimes the shots just don’t go in. Still, while Purdue is due for serious regression on the perimeter, their paint attack looks as good as it ever did. The four opponents thus far sit at just a 47% FG% at the rim, per Synergy, and while Gonzaga did manage a 14-22 hit rate down low, half of them came in transition off of Purdue’s turnovers. In the half-court, it’s extremely hard to get into the paint against Purdue.
An area of opportunity Tennessee and every team’s got here is how you choose to play the Edey matchup defensively. Unsurprisingly, going directly at him via post-ups has largely been a terrible idea, but whereas Purdue has done quite well at swallowing up guards in ball-screen sets they’ve really struggled against roll men. Edey is large, obviously, but he’s just not the quickest guy on the floor. That shows itself in three key ways in a ball screen:
If Edey drops, he cannot recover in time to alter a ball-handler’s shot or a potential pick-and-pop.
If Edey comes out of the paint, Purdue no longer has a dominant rebounder and rim-altering figure down low.
If Edey gets caught in space by a quicker 4 or 5, he might be able to recover at the rim but is also more prone to fouling.
We saw this in a variety of ways in last night’s Gonzaga game, particularly once new Gonzaga big Graham Ike hit a pair of first-half threes and it caused Edey to shift his strategy on ball-screens from #1 on that list to #2 and occasionally #3. If Jonas Aidoo even hits one three, that causes Purdue and Edey to think, which could be enough in a game where Tennessee is very likely to play 5-out in the first place.
I think the truth for Purdue is probably as follows: the defense is better than last year’s and a bit more well-rounded on the whole. The defense is probably not the dominant unit it has appears to be thus far. They do not force many turnovers and have allowed a shocking amount of open threes for such a veteran team. All it takes is one negative shooting variance night, and that top-5 ranking could be gone.
How Tennessee matches up
Up top, it’s worth noting an uncertain injury status for Tennessee that could particularly affect this game of games. Tobe Awaka is questionable after sustaining an ankle injury early against Syracuse, which could be a problem when Tennessee is facing an opponent that has an obvious height/potential rebounding advantage down low. Purdue hasn’t looked dominant whatsoever on the boards yet, but if Awaka can go, it obviously helps UT out a good bit.
Anyway, this is a pretty strange matchup where both teams run very similar offensive systems but have different advantages when they’ve got the ball. I don’t think yesterday’s struggles against a 7’4” guy are quite equivalent to today’s because McLeod of Syracuse was a bit more mobile than anticipated. Edey is Just Big, though he is obviously really freakin’ big. I do not anticipate that Tennessee gets as many open looks at the rim as they did yesterday, obviously, though I’ve learned to not count out Dalton Knecht.
So: you’re gonna have to take some threes. Sorry! But you might have to. Because Purdue is generally going to have a 5 that refrains from leaving the paint, Tennessee is probably going to spend a large chunk of this game playing 5-out with Aidoo setting screens and doing his thing on the perimeter. I don’t know if Tennessee has to have Aidoo shoot six threes in this one like Gonzaga had Ike, but Tennessee’s frontcourt could use a good one. It kind of feels like Josiah-Jordan James is a gigantic swing piece here?
If Edey stays in the paint all day Tennessee could use James in a wide variety of ways. He can pop to the free throw line and hit a jumper. He can have a screen set for him on the perimeter and hit a jumper. He could receive a pass as a cutter from Aidoo and hit a key layup. I do not think that either of Purdue’s options - Trey Kaufman-Renn (good, but not agile) and Mason Gillis (agile, but not good) - can hang with him for very long.
I also wouldn’t be that stunned to see Tennessee run more ball screens than usual. Purdue had trouble last year not with the ball-handler getting downhill, but rather with what would happen after that. Teams figured out very quickly that Edey is exclusively going to play drop coverage and started asking their bigs to pop rather than roll. If Aidoo can hit any jumpers at all here it’s going to open up so much for Tennessee offensively. Also worth noting that Purdue has struggled significantly to cover off-ball screens thus far, which is sort of Tennessee’s whole thing.
On the defensive side, Tennessee has been far better at forcing guarded threes than Purdue has, but Purdue appears to have unlocked a couple of extra shooters in the offseason. Can’t count on the opponent shooting 30% or worse from three every time after all. So this becomes a game of two things:
How well Tennessee manages Edey in the post;
How well Tennessee handles the Purdue ball-screens that offer an equal threat of Edey rolling and Braden Smith shooting.
Tennessee has been roughly equal against both so far, but I think Purdue’s gonna have a better chance of going bully-ball down low and getting Aidoo in foul trouble instead of hoping that a super-lengthy Tennessee team cedes open jumpers all over the place. This is going to be Aidoo’s most important game of the season thus far by a mile and could be a huge proving ground for him. I did not love Aidoo as an actual post-up defender last year (as a rim protector, obviously, yes) but he’s looked much better this season; his positioning in general is more solid.
The two things we know about Edey in the post are pretty obvious ones: he wants to receive it on the left block and go over his left shoulder. Most of these end up as hook shots, which he does convert pretty well but not as frequently as an actual layup. You have to play the percentages here and force as many hooks as possible.
The other aspect is the ball screens. I think everyone largely prefers the opponent taking midrange twos, which is correct…but at the same time, giving up a wide-open jumper is not anyone’s favorite thing. Tennessee has generally been really aggressive on ball screens, and we’ve seen Purdue’s guards struggle quite a bit in the past with ball pressure.
This figures to be a fascinating 40-minute battle of tactics between two great coaches and two similar-yet-different rosters. Your old pal shooting variance probably determines the winner here…unless the thing that always happens between these two schools happens and this goes to double overtime. Buckle up.
Starters + rotations
Zach Edey vs. Jonas Aidoo. Well, obviously. Edey’s counting stats don’t matter that much to me here if I am Tennessee; this is more about seeing if you can turn his efficiency down a tad and exploit him on D.
Braden Smith vs. Variety Package. All of Zakai Zeigler, Jordan Gainey, Jahmai Mashack, and Santiago Vescovi figure to get some time here. Zeigler actually makes sense as a matchup here, much more so than he would have against Mintz yesterday.
Josiah-Jordan James vs. Mason Gillis. Through three-plus years of Gillis I’ve yet to be meaningfully shaken from my view of him as Just A Shooter and the worst defender by a serious margin in Purdue’s rotation. Huge opportunity for NBA JJJ here.
Three things to watch for
The amount of threes taken by whoever is playing the 5 for Tennessee. So: it would be silly on its face to have JJJ play the 5 much here, unless it’s as a two-minute changeup thing. But let’s say it’s Aidoo and some mix of JP Estrella/Cade Phillips after that. I know Phillips cannot shoot but Aidoo/Estrella can. If either hits a three, and particularly if either hits two, Edey is going to have to respect that and vacate the paint somewhat. It’s exactly what Gonzaga did yesterday to build a halftime lead.
The shot volume battle. If you’re looking at this game and thinking “this is kind of a classic Tennessee slop-fest” then yeah? Sorta. Purdue has quietly done very little on the offensive boards despite a massive height advantage in every game they’ve played so far, while they’re barely above water in TO margin. Could Tennessee do a 2020-2023 style Tennessee here?
Shooting variance. Duh. Our friends at ShotQuality have Purdue headed for a gigantic regression to the mean on both offense (42% → 32%) and defense (21% → 32%), while Tennessee’s defense allows a lot of jumpers and is open to some bad days here and there.
Tennessee wins the eFG% battle;
There are no fewer than four mentions of the fact that Zakai Zeigler is 5’9” while Zach Edey is 7’4”, and oh boy isn’t that just so funny wow how crazy;
Tennessee 67, Purdue 66. Why not.