While this isn't a matchup of two top-25 teams, this is one of those early-season showdowns that make college basketball so interesting. Both Texas and Vanderbilt, like so many teams at this time of year, are works in progress. And so Monday's game, as part of the Big 12/SEC Challenge, offers both Texas coach Rick Barnes and Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings a chance to gauge their team moving forward.
Despite one of the youngest teams in the country — KenPom ranks Texas 342nd in experience — the Longhorns sit at 6-1 through seven games, with the only loss coming in a close game on a neutral court to BYU, ranked 39th by KenPom. Like so many young teams, the Longhorns are somewhat guilty of playing to their competition, playing sublime ball at times against Mercer, BYU and DePaul, but also spending time playing down to teams like South Alabama and UT Arlington.
Vanderbilt, for its part, is no less a mystery. The Commodores are 4-2, losing to the two teams they've played that were ranked higher than they were and beating the four teams ranked below them. For their part, both teams that Vandy lost to were also ranked higher than Texas, with Butler (53rd) and Providence (58th) sitting a bit above the Longhorns (69th).
Breaking Down Vandy
Of the four factors that make up an efficient offense, Vandy does two of them well, though a third could almost be written off because the Commodores' lower performance in that area appears to be more a conscious decision.
Two things that Vanderbilt does very well are shoot and draw fouls. The Commodores rank 46th nationally in effective field goal percentage, shooting 53.9 percent on their two-point attempts (47th) and 37.2 percent on their threes (84th). They also draw free throws on 52.5 percent of their field goal attempts, a rate that is 36th in the nation, but one that isn't quite as good as it appears, given the fact that Vandy shoots a poor 60.0 percent from the free throw stripe once the Commodores get there (336th).
The factor that Vanderbilt gives up voluntarily? That's the offensive rebounding rate. Vandy appears to want a fairly slow tempo, ranking 190th nationally in adjusted tempo, and 191st in average possession length. To ensure that, Vanderbilt doesn't send players out on fast breaks, instead keeping opponents from second-chance opportunities with a 73.2 percent defensive rebounding rate (53rd). The flip side of that philosophy is that Vandy also doesn't allow opponents to generate as many fast-break chances themselves by getting back on defense, thus harming their own chances for offensive rebounds. That's demonstrated statistically: despite being a very good defensive rebounding team, Vandy gets just 30.2 percent of its offensive rebound chances, ranking it 215th in that category.
Slowing the tempo does allow Vandy to play strong defense, however. The 'Dores do a nice job of holding down opposing shooters and not fouling opponents in addition to their defensive rebounding rate. The one major weakness that they have defensively is that they don't force turnovers, an issue compounded by the fact that they turn the ball over too much on offense.
Point guard Eric McClellan (6-4 188) has been excellent after transferring to Vanderbilt from Tulsa, and he'll have a homecoming of sorts against the Longhorns, as he's an Austin native. He takes the lion's share of the Commodores' shots, using 30.9 percent of their possessions and taking 29.7 percent of their shots when he's on the floor. He isn't much of a distance shooter, making just 3-of-18 threes on the year, but he does an outstanding job of betting into the paint and creating contact for himself (7.1 fouls drawn per 40 minutes) or shots for his teammates (a 24.7 percent assist rate). It's an interesting combination, allowing McClellan to score 16 points and dish out about four assists per game.
Vanderbilt pairs him with two kinds of guards, seemingly depending on the game. Wing Dai-Jon Parker (6-3 190) has gotten that start four times this year, and while he doesn't take many shots, he's been hyper-efficient, making 60 percent of his twos and 50 percent of his threes. Vanderbilt will also roll out another point guard in Kyle Fuller (6-1 188), who boasts this team's highest assist rate and helps the team to take care of the ball better. While he's not as tall and long as Parker is, he also supplies some of the same shooting, making 50 percent of his twos and 4-of-9 threes.
James Siakam (6-7 215) is the team's most efficient offensive player, though he isn't a volume guy. He adds a highly effective offensive rebounder and has one of the team's top block rates. Rod Odom (6-9 212) has started every game in the frontcourt, actually leading the Commodores in three-point shooting, making an amazing 19-of-37 threes, which is astounding both for his volume (making more than three three-pointers per game) and for his efficiency (shooting 51.4 percent). As a matter of fact, he's' much better, and takes a much higher percentage of his shots from out there, making just 7-of-23 two-point attempts.
Vanderbilt has split its starts at center between Damian Jones (6-10 235) and Josh Henderson (6-11 231), with the freshman Jones coming on stronger of late. Jones has the best fouls drawn rate on the team and also serves as the squad's best defensive rebounder. Henderson is a better offensive rebounder and is steadier, not turning the ball over as much. But the team's ceiling might be a bit higher with Jones out there.
How Can Texas Win?
This is one of those matchups that is intriguing from a stylistic standpoint. Texas wants to get out and run, as evidenced by its top-100 adjusted tempo. The Longhorns also pound the offensive glass at an elite level, and protect their rim at an elite level, thanks to guys like Cameron Ridley, Prince Ibeh and Jonathan Holmes.
Can Vanderbilt put fouls on those guys? Texas has generally done a nice job of avoiding serious foul trouble this season, yet another way that these two teams will butt heads over their strengths. Vanderbilt will have more size on the wing, but Texas will have more athleticism out there, meaning that the tempo Texas is able to force will play a major role.
And last, but not least, Texas has been able to force more turnovers this year than last, a result of some quick-handed players and some schematic zoning by Barnes, including a zone trap that the Longhorns have used to generate some takeaways.
Texas wants to play fast, get out in transition, and pound the offensive glass. Vanderbilt wants to slow things down, slug away at Texas's depth by drawing fouls and keep Texas off the offensive boards. Keep an eye on the point guards: McClellan thrives in a half-court game, while Isaiah Taylor has struggled more in that setting.
Whichever guard, and by extension, whichever team, is best able to execute its gameplan will likely be the one that leaves Monday night's game with a victory.