It’s a progressive opening run for Tennessee: after a D-II blowout win, the Vols will be tested up the ladder by Louisiana tonight (120th in KenPom), Georgia Tech (90th) on Tuesday, then Louisville (66th) in the preseason NIT with a chance to face #1 Kansas.
The Ragin’ Cajuns went 27-7 last year, easily winning the Sun Belt at 16-2 before a 71-68 loss in the conference tournament sent them to the NIT. They lost in the opening round to LSU 84-76, book-ending their season with losses to SEC teams with a 94-76 beat down from Ole Miss in the opener.
Their leading scorer graduated, but there are plenty of points left to go around: Louisiana dropped 121 on the University of the Virgin Islands in the opener, with six players in double figures. They scored 100+ six times last year, and they dominated the rest of the Sun Belt on the glass, leading the league in offensive and defensive rebounding percentage (via KenPom). Overall the Cajuns were sixth nationally in offensive rebounding percentage, but they also graduated Bryce Washington (6’6″ 255) who led those efforts.
Louisiana started a three-forward lineup that went 6’6″, 6’6″, and 6’8″ in the opener. None have the bulk of Washington, but they also didn’t need many offensive rebounds while shooting 14-of-24 from the arc. Last year these guys were just really good at taking advantage everywhere: 76.1% from the free throw line and 46.4% from the floor. Their defense also seemed to chase people away from the three point line, giving up the 52nd-fewest threes attempted on the season despite playing at such a fast pace and playing from in front so often in the Sun Belt.
Jakeenan Grant also excelled as a shot blocker, sending back 9.1% of the shots against him, 39th nationally. Point guard Marcus Stroman was 14th nationally in assist rate (10 assists in the season opener), 80th in steal rate, and fourth nationally in free throw rate. He clearly makes things go for the rest of their offense.
This is an experienced team that’s used to winning and each other. It’ll be interesting to see what Tennessee elects to do with a team that wants to score a bunch of points in an efficient manner. They were 55th nationally in KenPom offense last season, and could continue to excel even without their best scorer and rebounder from last season.
It’s a good early test for the Vols as they continue to build toward New York City. 7:00 PM, SEC Network.