Commodore fans need no reminder of Danero Thomas' jump shot last season that gave No. 13 seed Murray State a 66-65 upset win over the No. 4 seed Vanderbilt. Vandy's last tournament memory prior to that was its 2008 fall at the hands of Siena. That game was also a No. 4 vs. a No. 13.
Vanderbilt enters the NCAA having lost four of its last seven games. This does not appear to be a precursor of tournament success, but when one considers three of those losses were to Florida twice, and Kentucky, two teams playing their best basketball of the season, that seven game stretch does not appear so bad.
There are two characteristics that are almost always seen in quality NCAA Tournament teams – excellent point guard play and a solid inside presence. Now Brad Tinsley will never confuse anyone for Raymond Felton or Matean Cleaves. The most important thing a good point guard does though is get his team into the offense by protecting the basketball. In Tinsley's last nine games, he has only turned the ball over seven times, and that is playing more than 30 minutes in all but one game where he played 29. Five games Tinsley has not even turned the ball over once, including his nine assist performance on the road at Kentucky on March 1. Yes, he may not hit as many shots as Commodore fans would like, and he is not greatest at creating shots off the dribble penetration, but, despite what I thought at the beginning of the season, Brad Tinsley has turned into a pretty decent point guard, at least offensively.
Point guard play means little in the Tournament though if a team does not have an inside presence. No offense to A.J. Ogilvy, but the Commodores have an inside presence going into the NCAA's this year in Festus Ezeli. Ogilvy was often absent defensively, where Ezeli blocks nearly three shots a game and is more physical in the block. Vanderbilt often forgets Ezeli in the half court offense however. A strong player on the block like Ezeli who is shooting 58 percent from the field should needs to get 10 shots a game, not to mention trips to the foul line (where his shooting has gone up almost 30 percent from last year.) Ezeli has only had 10 shots once in the ‘Dores last eight games.
The Commodores best showing in the past three weeks may have been a game it lost, 68-66 in Lexington, Kentucky where the Wildcats were unbeatable. It is not a coincidence that it was Tinsley's best game and Ezeli took 13 shots, making eight, and was six of nine from the charity stripe.
The X-factor this season, as everyone who has remotely followed the Commodores, is Jeffery Taylor. VU is 17-3 in games where Taylor scores 15 points or more. He still settles for too many 3-pointers, not having made more than ONE in a game going back to February 10 when he made 4 of 5 against Alabama. (Since that game Taylor has gone 6 for 31 beyond the arc.) In the SEC Tournament Taylor did something that was missing from his game earlier in the season – he began attacking the basket off the dribble. Not surprisingly, he averaged 21.7 points per game over the three games Vanderbilt played and should have been on the all-tournament team. If Taylor keeps up that aggressiveness in the NCAA Tournament, it bodes for success for the Black and Gold.
Two interesting notes for Vanderbilt fans should be aware of. If John Jenkins scores 28 points in whatever remaining games the ‘Dores have, he will move into Vanderbilt's top five for points scored in a season. An even greater achievement may await Festus Ezeli. If he blocks seven more shots, he will pass Will Perdue and have the record for the most career blocked shots in Vanderbilt history.
Given Vanderbilt's recent NCAA Tournament history, when this opponent was announced and the teams were seeded in the No. 5 vs. No. 12 slot, analysts immediately jumped on this as the upset to pick. And it's a trend that is growing in Las Vegas. ESPN's Joe Lunardi even said to "think of Richmond as this year's Cornell," referring to last year's Big Red who upset Temple and Wisconsin before falling to Kentucky in the Sweet Sixteen. (On a side note, I happen to think this year's Cornell could be Vandy's Nashville neighbor Belmont that gets to face Wisconsin.)
The Spiders (27-7, 13-3 conference) were the third place team in the Atlantic 10 but enter the NCAA Tournament having won the Atlantic 10 Conference Tournament. Head Coach Chris Mooney is in his sixth season and has a record at Richmond of 110-86, despite an 8-22 record in his second year at helm. The only time these two programs have faced each other was in 1978, a 70-59 Commodore victory. Richmond comes into the game riding a seven game winning streak and has a 3-3 record against RPI top 50 teams. Its quality wins are Purdue, Temple, Virginia Commonwealth, and Dayton.
Mooney is a former player at Princeton, and like many of Coach Pete Carril's disciples (Think John Thompson III at Georgetown and Craig Robinson at Oregon State) runs a modified Princeton High-Post offense. For those unfamiliar with this style, it involves playing the center near the foul line or top of the key, frequent backdoor cuts (Think UCLA vs. Princeton 1996,) and on-ball action (Think ball screens and handoffs.) Don't confuse Mooney's style of Carril's offense though with the slow-down version he played in at Princeton. The Spiders will shoot early in the clock if open and Mooney's point guard, Kevin Anderson, can take most defenders off the dribble.
Defensively, the Spiders like to employ a matchup zone defense. Should the ‘Dores advance to the second weekend of the Tournament, it is possible they could get there and rarely face a man-to-man defense. The zone will change fronts between a one-man and two-man front and has similar characteristics to a switching man-to-man defense. A strategy teams often employ against such a defense is to run the point guard off a back screen from the post, hoping the defensive forward will go with the guard on the baseline, thus leaving the point guard defending the post. Richmond has to counter that by sliding over its other post defender, thus leaving the weak side of the zone open. It sounds simple to defeat but it requires good floor spacing and patience, the latter not often displayed by the ‘Dores when standing open on the perimeter.
Forward – Justin Harper – Senior, 6-10, 225 2010-11: 17.9 ppg, 7.0 rpg, .465 3-PT %
Harper, who grew up down the street from Richmond, is considered by many to be one of the most improved players in the country this season, and has NBA scouts drooling over his potential. He is a 6-10 scorer who can do it with his jump shot and with his back to the basket. He is extremely difficult to defend on the perimeter due to his length and he made nearly 47 percent of his 3-pointers in 157 attempts. To make matters worse for VU, he has the ability to score from the low block too AND he is a good ball-handler. The million-dollar question for Kevin Stallings going into Thursday afternoon's game is how to match up with Harper. Festus Ezeli is a poor defender away from the basket and off the dribble. That leaves him a choice of Lance Goulbourne or Jeffery Taylor. Since Stallings most likely wants Taylor guarding the point guard, look for Goulbourne to get the assignment. Goulbourne is a close match physically and is a better rebounder. If this game gets called tight however, Goulbourne may have trouble with this match up. What would be even worse for Vandy is if Goulbourne decides to try to prove he is the shooter that Harper is, a very real possibility if he is guarding him.
Forward – Kevin Smith – Senior 6-5, 200; 2010-11: 4.0 ppg, 4.2 rpg, 3.5 apg
Smith is one of four senior starters for the Spiders and is essentially another shooting guard in Richmond's modified Princeton offense. Smith may have something to prove as he hails from Murfreesboro and would like nothing better than to eliminate a team from his home state. Smith is an efficient player in the half-court, making almost 52 percent of his shots. Not a frequent shooter from long-distance, Smith is effective on back cuts and middle game jump shots. Though listed as a forward, expect Stallings to start the game with John Jenkins guarding him. This allows Jenkins to guard someone similar in height without having to work hard on one of Richmond's primary scorers.
Center – Dan Geriot – Senior, 6-9, 235; 2010-11: 9.9 ppg, 3.8 rpg, 2.8 rpg, .421 3-PT %
Geriot is the prototypical "Princeton" center, basically working out of the high post where he may be one of the Spiders' top two passers. Geriot is the only player left from Chris Mooney's first recruiting class and thus the only player on the roster who experienced Richmond's 8-22 season his freshman year. Assuming Goulbourne gets the assignment of guarding Harper, expect Festus Ezeli to guard Geriot. While Ezeli is not a great defender away from the basket, Geriot is not the threat to attack off the dribble the way Harper is. Just as Ezeli's long arms have been effective blocking shots, he can accomplish the same things by getting his arms into passing lanes. The high-post offense can be slowed if passing lanes get clogged and Ezeli has the ability to do that and Stallings will take allowing Geriot a couple extra baskets to avoid Harper or Kevin Anderson from getting hot and taking over the game.
Guard – Darien Brothers – Sophomore, 6-3, 200; 2010-11: 7.8 ppg, .397 3-PT%
Another Richmond native, Brothers is the only non-senior starter in the Spiders' lineup. Maybe it is due to his relative inexperience, but he sees the least amount of touches in the Richmond offense (which is certainly under certainly understandable given the skill and experience of the other Spider starters." Having said that, do not sleep on Brothers. Just like every other Spider, he will knock down the open jump shot as his .397 3-point percentage demonstrates. Since Stallings is likely to have Jeff Taylor guard Kevin Anderson, Brothers seems likely to draw Brad Tinsley. This makes perfect sense, since Tinsley has struggled with quick guards (think Brandon Knight and Erving Walker.) Tinsley does not give up too much in height and should be able to stay fresh to run the Dores' offense.
Guard – Kevin Anderson – Senior, 6-0, 175; 2010-11: 16.5 ppg, 3.3 apg, .427 3-PT %
Anderson was the Atlantic 10 Player of the Year last year as a junior and the Most Outstanding Player of the just complete Atlantic 10 Tournament. Due to his achievements last year, the Atlanta native declared for the NBA draft before wisely deciding to return to Richmond. When Chris Mooney needs a player to hit a big shot, Anderson will be the player he calls on because Anderson can beat you many ways. He is very quick off the dribble and is able to create his own shot, not something typically found in "Princeton Offense" point guards. He is also a deadly 3-point shooter, one of four Richmond starters at 40 percent or better. When it gets to crunch time, Mooney likes to put Anderson into ball screen situations with his two bigs. Its pick your poison with Anderson because if you go under a screen he will knock down the shot, but if a defender tries to trail the ball screen to take away the shot, Anderson will turn the corner and attack the basket. It is imperative that Ezeli, Goulbourne, and the other Vandy bigs either plug or hedge the ball screens to limit Anderson's effectiveness. As for the responsibility of guarding him, Stallings likes to put Jeffery Taylor on athletic lead guards, and I see no reason he will change his strategy here. Taylor's length will allow him to contest Anderson's jump shots and he is clearly athletic enough to help contain him on the dribble.
The Spiders do not have much depth on their roster. Francis-Cedric Martel is a 6-6 forward out of Montreal who is another above average shooter from long distance. He averages 4.5 points per game and 3.7 rebounds per game in just less than 20 minutes. Darrius Garrett is a 6-9, 210 forward who is light on scoring (1.8 points per game) but is an athletic rebounder with four rebounds a game.
The only guard who sees significant minutes off the bench is 6-1 Cedric Lindsay. Lindsay is a rarity on the Spiders in that he is not particularly strong shooting the basketball. He does have a solid two to one assist-to-turnover ratio, which will always get you in the game when you are not starting.
Keys to the Game
1) Beat the Richmond zone by going inside – not just chucking 3-pointers. Vanderbilt has been strong offensively against zone defenses, but sometimes has a tendency to settle for 3-pointers, especially early in the shot clock. It is one thing if Jenkins and Tinsley shoot when open, but it takes VU out of its offensive flow when Lance Goulbourne, Steve Tchiengang, and Jeff Taylor shoot early in offensive possessions. For Vanderbilt to have success Thursday afternoon, its players, particularly Tinsley, Taylor, and Jenkins, need to get into the middle of the zone off the dribble and get the ball to Ezeli on the weak side.
2) Don't let one of Richmond's secondary options be the deciding factor. Much will be made by analysts on TBS (the station broadcasting the game,) ESPN, and CBS about how great Justin Harper and Kevin Anderson are. Heck, I've made a big deal about them in this preview. But the fact of the matter is, if both of those players happen to score their average, it will take a third player stepping up to pull the upset for the Spiders. Vanderbilt will be in trouble if it cannot contain Harper and need to send another player at him, or are forced into having to trap Anderson. If that occurs, both players are excellent passers and the spacing in the Princeton game will get great shooters open. This means Commodores not assigned to the Dynamic Duo need to focus on their assignments, and not concern themselves more with helping on Harper and Anderson.
3) Get an early lead. Sounds simple enough right? Should the ‘Dores come out and allow Richmond to get an early lead, the commentary they will have heard all week about this game being the upset to pick may cause some doubt on the Vanderbilt bench. Getting an early lead though and the Vandy players will start to think that this time it's different. There is more than a psychological benefit too. The high-post game is designed to stretch games out, but if Richmond is behind, it will be forced into taking shots earlier in the shot clock than Mooney wants it to. Nothing is guaranteed against a team with great outside shooters and the Spiders' are certainly a tremendous 3-point shooting team, but getting an early lead can invade Richmond's comfort zone. A year ago, Murray State pulled ahead before the half, and increased the lead when the second half started. Once you let an underdog in the game, it is usually there to stay. If you step on a lower seed early, it is much easier to maintain control of the game.
Feel free to follow my commentary on the Commodores and this year's NCAA Tournament on Twitter at @PLH55.
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