Vanderbilt is one of the NCAA Tournament’s most underachieving teams, based on preseason picks (No. 18 in the Associated Press poll, No. 2 in SEC) and the potential for two Commodores to go in the first round of the NBA Draft.
For four months, that made the Commodores disappointing. Now, in the view of an assistant coach whose team played against Vandy, it makes the Commodores dangerous. The coach agreed to speak on the condition neither his name nor school were revealed.
“The fact they’re in the tournament gives them new life,” he said. “They could easily get it going and end up in the Final Four or Sweet 16.”
▪ Vanderbilt’s defensive numbers — it ranks No. 34 in kenpom.com’s defensive efficiency ranking — are impressive. However, they may also be a bit misleading. Damian Jones and Luke Kornet are great shot-blockers, if an offense allows that skill to play a role. The Commodores rarely force turnovers.
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“They’re big and they can block shots,” our assistant coach said. “If you let their big guys stay in the paint, they’re tough. When you want to beat size, you have to move it.”
Teams that can draw Kornet and Jones away from the hoop can dent Vandy’s defense. Like most bigs, they are vulnerable if asked to guard players in open spaces. Jones is foul-prone and the Shockers can be counted on to do everything possible to get him on the bench. He has fouled out of seven games and averages 26.3 minutes a game.
WSU guard Fred VanVleet is expert running the pick and roll and exposing big men on the perimeter. Go back and watch watch what the Shockers did to UNLV’s Stephen Zimmerman. The pick and roll could lure Vandy’s bigs away from the lane and get them in foul trouble.
“If you’re playing against them in the half-court, it’s tough,” the anonymous coach said. “You want to spread them out and put them in awkward positions. Jones is always in foul trouble. If you’ve got a (forward or center) who can drive and make them move their feet …”
While that versatility isn’t overflowing on WSU’s roster, their may be some players who can attack that area.
Centers Shaq Morris and Anton Grady are solid mid-range shooters (Grady more than that many games) who could operate from 12-15 feet and be effective. Neither drive to the basket much, but Grady may possess the capability. At power forward, none of the Shockers make driving baskets a big part of their game. Sophomore Rashard Kelly and freshman Markis McDuffie might be able to hurt the Commodores, but it’s not something either has shown consistent skills with.
Creating turnovers and moving the ball quickly could be a great help for the Shockers. If they can’t break up Vandy’s half-court defense, they may be forced to survive on jump shots. Vanderbilt turned the ball over on 17.4 percent of its possessions in 16 SEC games, No. 8 in the 14-team conference.
▪ Point guard Wade Baldwin will be a tough matchup for the Shockers. He is an excellent three-point shooter (41.4 percent) who is also skilled at scoring around the basket. He is a possible first-round pick.
“He’s going to get by your point guard and he’s going to make plays at the rim,” the anonymous coach said.
Jones made 62.8 percent of his shots in SEC play. Kornet is a pick-and-pop big.
“If (Jones) can catch it around the rim, you can’t stop him,” our assistant coach said. “(Kornet) spaces the floor. He might be their MVP. He passes the ball at a high level.”
▪ Getting into Vandy’s bench could be crucial. Six players average 24 minutes or more. The talent and production drops from there.
“Their first seven is really good,” our assistant said. “When you drive them, it puts fouls on them. Less talent makes them human. The 8-9-10 (players) are not as good.”
▪ Vandy shoots 46.1 percent from the field and 38.8 percent from three-point range. Its kenpom.com offensive efficiency ranks No. 3 in the SEC and No. 32 nationally. With Baldwin, Matthew Fisher-Davis, Jeff Roberson and Riley LaChance, it can put several accurate outside shooters on the court.
The Commodores run a lot of screening and cutting action, so much so that many teams switch on defense.
“Then you can crowd the paint and contest every three,” our assistant said. “They’re very, very balanced. Incredible shooting.”
▪ While I didn’t address this with the assistant, it is worth pointing out: The Shockers feel they are tough to guard in quick-turnaround games because of the 100 or so plays they can call. Their belief is that teams that aren’t familliar with those sets will give up three or four baskets a game, baskets that are rare in MVC play where opponents know what’s coming.
It doesn’t always play out that way — WSU shot 41 percent, 49 percent, 40 percent in last season’s NCAA Tournament. But it’s worth nothing it scored 81, 78 and 70 points after passing 70 points in seven of their previous 20 MVC games. Some of that is pace, some of may be scouting.
That advantage, however, may be somewhat diminished because of Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings’ friendship with Illinois State’s Dan Muller. While there’s only so much a person can do in two days, you can bet Stallings will feel more prepared than most. The Redbirds had success with a zone defense against the Shockers.