Scouting Report: Bucknell
Let's just say it, even if it might be premature: This feels like a one-and-done year in the NCAA Tournament for Vanderbilt. It's true that all teams spend November dealing with their roughest of rough edges, but the Commodores have already shown that they have not become the tougher team they need to be. Let's re-emphasize something said in the Oregon and Cleveland State scouting reports: Vandy doesn't have to do everything right in November. It doesn't have to display mastery. It doesn't have to flourish. What the Dores to have to show is that they can be the aggressors in every game they play against inferior opponents. Coach Kevin Stallings needs to cultivate a group of players who are strong with the ball, strong in the mind, and strong in every aspect of competition. No one's asking for a team free of flaws; what is being asked for is a team free of fear and timidity.
On Sunday against Cleveland State, Vanderbilt played with the fear and timidity that have cast a shadow over a program that usually makes the NCAAs but has nothing to show for its ventures into the world of March Madness. If Vanderbilt wants to justify the unwarranted praise that was thrown its way in the preseason (a No. 7 national ranking defied all logic, did it not?), the VU crew has to become a tough team. It can't surrender turnovers at the drop of a hat. It can't get beaten for key offensive rebounds the way it was in the second half against Cleveland State. It can't be exposed as the second-toughest team on the court, the team with less fire in the belly and a paucity of passion.
Let's put the matter plainly: No Vanderbilt hoops fan should be interested in defending the No. 7 preseason ranking right now. No Vanderbilt hoops fan should think that it's important to justify the offseason plaudits or insist that this team will do well in March. The purpose of this season – of any season – is to grow and develop, to ripen into an airtight and forceful squad that can throw down the hammer in supremely significant situations. Saying that Vanderbilt will be a one-and-done team in March isn't an attempt to make news with a prediction and crow about how it will be correct. No, the point of saying that VU looks like a one-and-done goner in the springtime is to lay down a challenge to this team, a challenge that must be met with untiring effort and focus over the next four months.
Even if you're optimistic about VU basketball this season – even if you think it's too early to be worried – you will acknowledge that Vanderbilt has not earned the stature of a top 10 team. It has not earned the place of a No. 2 or No. 3 seed in the NCAAs. That kind of status must be claimed and owned beyond any reasonable doubt. Until Vanderbilt gets there, any laurels or verbal bouquets won't matter at all. It's time for Commodore basketball to grow a spine; might as well confront this truth earlier this season rather than later, when the lesson will be ever more painful to absorb. The journey to toughness begins now, against the Bucknell Bison.
Last year was a banner year for the Bison, who won 16 of 17 Patriot League games (three in their conference tournament) and captured the league's automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament. The Patriots, who took down Kansas in the opening round of the 2006 NCAAs, couldn't overcome Connecticut in the 2011 Dance, but a 25-win season, complete with a tourney ticket, met all of coach Dave Paulsen's immediate goals. This is a very healthy program with a track record of success and an internal subculture which expects to be excellent. This is exactly the kind of team that can give Vanderbilt (or any power-conference team) fits in the early stages of a season. Of course, Cleveland State was that very same kind of team as well, given the fact that CSU was loaded with returning starters even though its point guard moved on to the NBA,
Bucknell, like other mid-majors, can't rely on an imposing brand of ball. Teams without the depth or the added resources of power-conference behemoths need to be smarter; they need to be in the right position on the floor to compensate for negative differentials in bulk, size and quickness. The Bison have become that kind of team, and that's why Vanderbilt – which hemorrhaged turnovers against Cleveland State – could be in for much the same challenge against this Patriot League foe.
Forward – Mike Muscala – Junior, 6-11, 232 2010-11: 14.9 ppg, 7.3 rpg,
Muscala is not overpowering with his size because he's not as bulky as other big men. However, he's a smart and efficient player who knows who to use his body in the low post to maneuver for position. He has a nose for the ball and puts himself in the right spot on the floor. Precisely because of the guard-oriented lineup Bucknell uses, Muscala's presence on the court is critical to his team. His value stands out not just because of what he does, but because few other players on the Bison are able to do what he does with considerable consistency.
Combo / Wing Guard– Bryan Cohen – Senior, 6-5, 199; 2010-11: 7.0 ppg, 3.9 rpg, 2.5 assists per game
Cohen is the two-time Patriot League defensive player of the year, a testament to his ability on the perimeter. At 6-5, Cohen possesses the wingspan that can make it tough for opposing shooters to get free. Naturally, Stallings and the Vanderbilt staff will try to formulate plays that get John Jenkins open. The ability of Jenkins to get a free shooting hand against Cohen's tireless pressure will naturally become a primary pressure point in this contest.
Shooting Guard – Bryson Johnson – Junior, 6-1, 181; 2010-11: 11.7 ppg, .453 3-point shooting percentage
Not all teams are fortunate enough to have a true-blue sniper, a relentless downer of long-distance daggers. The Bison have one in the person of Johnson, who attempted 217 triples last season and still made them at a very high rate. Anything over 45 percent from downtown is stellar, so Vanderbilt's team defense will have to make Johnson a top priority. Bucknell isn't an imposing team, but when you begin to look at the component parts, you can see why the Bison are the preseason pick in the Patriot League. Muscala is the savvy operator in the pivot, Cohen the defensive stopper, and Johnson the sniper. It's an impressive collection of parts.
Combo / Wing Guard – Cameron Ayers – Sophomore, 6-5, 200; 2010-11: 7.5 ppg, 2 rpg
Ayers came off the bench for Paulsen in last year's NCAA Tournament game against Connecticut. On Friday night against Minnesota in Bucknell's season opener, Ayers found himself in the starting lineup. As a sophomore, Ayers is clearly being entrusted with greater responsibilities by the coaching staff, a sign that Paulsen expects a lot more of him this season. The Commodores need to prepare for the new version of Ayers, not last season's incarnation.
Point Guard – Ryan Hill – Sophomore, 6-2, 185; 2010-11: Stats were negligible (under one point, rebound and assist in six minutes of playing time per game).
This is the source of mystery for the Bison in the 2011-2012 campaign. Bucknell used what was essentially an eight-man rotation against Connecticut in the Big Dance, with seniors Darryl Shazier and G.W. Boon gaining a substantial amount of minutes. Hill, who started for Bucknell on Friday against Minnesota, is currently the one player in Paulsen's new seven-man rotation (a rotation being defined, for purposes of this examination, as the list of players who get at least 10 minutes per game) who did not see appreciable time against Connecticut. The Bison are placing a lot of faith in this second-year player – who didn't get much floor time in year one – to become the primary ballhandler and guide at the offensive end of the floor. That's a significant responsibility, one that could prove to be quite daunting for this team. It's quite ironic that a guard-laden team might struggle at the point, but that could very well be the case for Paulsen's pupils… certainly in this game if not over the next few months.
There are two primary players for Paulsen to turn to on the bench, and they both received an appreciable amount of minutes last year against UConn in the Big Dance. Enoch Andoh is a 6-8, 251-pound bruiser who gives Bucknell some muscle and interior defense. He'll have to supplement what Muscala provides, making him the Bison's most valuable bench player. Andoh's physical style of play gives this team the dose of ruggedness it needs within six feet of the basket. Andoh will almost always have a place on the floor on Bucknell's roster as this season unfolds. Joe Willman is a 6-6 small forward who averaged 7.6 points and 4.6 boards per game last season. He averaged 21.5 minutes last season and started the tournament game against Connecticut, but he played only 16 minutes in a bench role against Minnesota this past Friday. It will be interesting to see how Willman's role evolves on this team; it seems that Paulsen isn't entirely ready to decide whether Willman should be part of his starting five or his bench.
Keys to the Game
1) More point guard pressure. It's a broken record, but Vanderbilt continues to face teams with questions at the point. Ball pressure and excellent defensive communication on the perimeter will continue to short-circuit each VU foe. Learning how to clamp down on defense – which will generate easy transition baskets at the other end of the floor – is something the Dores must repeatedly do if they want to produce a fulfilling season. Just because a theme repeatedly emerges doesn't mean it shouldn't be the primary point of focus. If Vanderbilt can rattle opposing point guards like Ryan Hill, it will win games with more ease, thereby giving bench players more minutes and easing the load on the starters while Festus Ezeli recuperates. The larger economy of a season – managing energy for the long haul – will work in VU's favor if the Dores can land knockout punches well before the final 10 minutes of regulation.
2) Match Muscala. Mike Muscala is the kind of player who, with his nose for the ball, will challenge the reactions and instincts of VU's post players. The Dores have suffered, as you well know, from a chronic inability to get tough rebounds and crucial loose balls in season-defining games over the past few years. Sealing Muscala (and, for that matter, Andoh and Willman off the bench) will show that Vanderbilt is on the right track in this first full week of competition.
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