Scouting Report: Nicholls State
Jenkins. Taylor. Ezeli. Goulbourne. Tinsley. The five men who brought home the SEC Tournament championship, won an NCAA tournament game, and made Vanderbilt a player on college basketball's ultimate Dance floor are gone. One of the more productive starting fives in school history will not be able to grace the Memorial Gym floor this winter. The majority of that quintet (Jenkins, Taylor, Ezeli) will probably stick around in the NBA, a testament to the talent and quality coach Kevin Stallings assembled in recent years. The lack of a single returning starter for this 2012-2013 campaign means that the bar will be lowered in the short run… and a new attitude must take root on the court.
The foremost point of emphasis for this Vanderbilt team has to be gruntwork. Without the copious supply of NBA-ready talent that graced last season's roster, these new-look Commodores have to defend and rebound with tenacity and consistency. Stallings's reputation as an X-and-O master at the offensive end of the floor is richly deserved, but that reality only underscores the need for the Commodores to guard the paint and the rim with doggedness and determination. Offensive execution is something that will develop and improve with time. What needs to emerge in Saturday afternoon's season opener against the Nicholls State Colonels is a hunger… a hunger that won't diminish or dissipate as the autumn blends into the winter and the arrival of Southeastern Conference competition in January.
Vanderbilt looked pretty the past few seasons when it played up to its potential. The silky-smooth skill so richly apparent in a Jenkins three or a Taylor drive enabled the Dores to make ample amounts of artful plays in pressure-packed situations. Now that a brand-new starting five is tasked with carrying the torch for VU, the Dores need to make sure that their minds are right… and ready. Attitude is what will carry this team through rocky patches in a season that looks very daunting.
NICHOLLS STATE AT-A-GLANCE
The Colonels reside in the Southland Conference, a league that has undergone a number of changes due to conference realignment. Texas-Arlington, Texas-San Antonio, and Texas State have left the Southland and migrated to the Western Athletic Conference. Those three departures trimmed the Southland's 12-school membership to nine. The league needed a tenth school, and Oral Roberts – one of the more prosperous programs in the Summit League – stepped through the door.
Last season, coach J.P. Piper was powerless to stop the tidal wave of misfortune that washed over his team. Starting shooting guard Ben Martin was injured in the fifth game of the season, ending not just his season but his career – the injury was that severe. Three other core members of Piper's main rotation missed appreciable amounts of time due to injuries. Guard Fred Hunter sat out the year as a medical redshirt after sustaining a knee injury. The Colonels just weren't equipped to play at their best. They finished with a 10-20 overall record and a 6-10 mark in the Southland. Nicholls State placed fourth in the Southland's East division, eighth in the 12-team conference but behind two of the three departing schools (Texas-Arlington and Texas-San Antonio; the Colonels finished ahead of Texas State). Nicholls State returns four starters this season and should be able to finish in the upper half of the 10-team Southland… as long as it is not hit hard by the injury bug.
From a statistical perspective, two details jump off the printed page when looking at Nicholls State's 2011-2012 season: First, the Colonels won only two games when shooting under 50 percent from the floor. This team needed a reliable offense to win games; it was not able to win ugly defensive grinders with any regularity. That reality flows into the second particularly revealing fact about the Colonels: They finished 11th or 12th (dead last) in the Southland in several metrics connected to rebounding and defense. The Colonels were 11th in the Southland in field goal percentage defense (48.2 percent). They were last in two-point defense (52.8), three-point defense (39.2), rebounds per game (26.8), rebounding percentage (44.6), and blocked shots per game (1.8). As you'll soon see, there's a very simple reason for these rankings and the numbers attached to them.
Forward – Lachlan Prest – Sophomore, 6-7, 209 2011-12 STATISTICS: 6.1 points per game, 2.5 rebounds per game, 1.3 assists per game
Prest needs to find a way to become more of a banger near the rim for Nicholls State. He has more bulk than anyone else on the Colonels, save for Hunter, a strongly-built guard. Prest will occasionally step out and hit a three-pointer; he converted 35 percent of his treys last year. However, Prest's attention must remain focused on his low-post defense. Nicholls State is a guard-oriented team to begin with. Vanderbilt will want to impose itself on NSU by attacking the lane and forcing Prest to defend the six feet closest to the basket.
Forward – Sam McBeath – Sophomore, 6-7, 190; 2011-12: 8 ppg, 4.8 rpg, 1.6 apg
As you can see, Nicholls State does not have a player taller than the 6-foot-7 McBeath. Despite being 19 pounds lighter than Prest, his fellow forward, McBeath proved to be twice as good a rebounder as his teammate. McBeath's nose for the ball helped him to provide more contributions to the Colonels' roster last season. Vanderbilt will get a decent opening-day test from McBeath, whose savvy and instincts will require a worthy counterpart in the painted area.
Guard – Fred Hunter – Senior, 6-5, 240; 2011-12: No stats (injured and redshirted) – NOTE: Averaged 15.4 points per game and shot 57.8 percent from the field in 2010-11.
Hunter, though a guard, is Nicholls State's most powerful and imposing player. If ever the position of "power forward" could give way to a "power guard," Hunter would epitomize that position; his picture would accompany the "power guard" entry in a basketball encyclopedia. The biggest thing Kevin Stallings would like to see from his team this Saturday is a willingness on the part of his defense to stay in front of Hunter so that he will have to work hard for every point. Given his knee injury last season, Hunter might not know exactly how much he can do on the court. Vanderbilt must force Hunter to test the limits of that knee; allowing easy drives to the basket – thereby enabling an uncertain player to promptly remove all doubts about the extent of his physical capabilities – would give Hunter and NSU a genuine foothold in this contest.
Guard – Shane Rillieux – Sophomore, 6-2, 190; 2011-12: 7.8 ppg, 3.1 rpg, 2.6 apg
Rillieux is a fearless player. Though small in stature, he averaged just over three rebounds per game last season, which is more than Prest (a 6-7 forward) could claim. Rillieux is not a particularly good shooter, however, so Vanderbilt will want to start this game by cheating off him so that it can briefly hedge on screens and make other defensive maneuvers designed to contain Hunter.
Guard – T.J. Carpenter – Freshman, 6-4, 200; 2011-12: No stats
Keep this point in mind about Carpenter: He is starting at guard ahead of Dantrell Thomas, who averaged 12.1 points per game last season. He is starting ahead of guard Jeremy Smith, who averaged 7.8 points per game last season. Piper and the rest of the NSU coaching staff are obviously sold on Carpenter's skills. Vanderbilt needs to make sure that – as is the case with Hunter – Carpenter gets very few free rides to the basket and a minimum of cheap buckets.
The main members of the bench – rounding out Piper's rotation – have already been mentioned. Dantrell Thomas and Jeremy Smith will provide legitimate scoring punch for the Colonels when they step off the pine and onto the hardwood. What will be a mystery in this game is NSU's frontcourt rotation. Piper will, at some point, need to get minutes at the forward spot from two of four players: Piers Carroll, Travis Julien, Ja'Dante' Frye (yes, with two apostrophes in the first name…), and Drew Caillouet. This team has proven depth in the backcourt, but its frontline reserves are question marks. This only reinforces the main key for Vanderbilt in this game: pound the interior of the Colonels' defense and make NSU defend the rim.
Keys to the Game
1) Pound the paint. This is not complicated. Rod Odom and Shelby Moats need to acquire a combative mindset, one that will bring forth determined, high-energy post play and give this team the confidence needed to attack the tin all season long. Nicholls State is undersized and thin. Vanderbilt's straightest path to victory – and an efficient first-game performance – lies near the rim… and above the 6-foot-7 mark, the tallest height of any Colonel on the court. the rugged defense and aggressive rebounding this team will need in 2012.
2) Make Hunter and Carpenter push their limits. As long as Nicholls State's two most talented players are not given easy looks at the basket, the Colonels should struggle at the offensive end of the floor. Vanderbilt lacks the offensive firepower it owned the past few years, so this team needs to realize, right off the bat, that it will have to win games – especially in the SEC – with rugged defense. Last year's Dores owned an abundance of white-collar skill. As this season begins, blue-collar grit at the defensive end of the floor must set the tone for everything else Vanderbilt basketball might hope to achieve.