Basketball Scouting Report: Providence
St. Thomas. That's the location of Vanderbilt's early-season neutral-site tournament this weekend. Will St. Thomas become a place in which Vanderbilt conquers doubt or allows it to build?
Say this about Vanderbilt's noble loss at Butler this past Tuesday in Indianapolis: Had that loss occurred with Kedren Johnson and Kevin Bright in the lineup, Commodore fans would have been right to express grave concerns about the makeup of this team. However, the loss – when viewed in light of the roster's lack of depth – is 100 times more acceptable, maybe 200. Vanderbilt lost so many excruciatingly tough games last season, frequently because it froze down the stretch in SEC competition. This recent loss to Butler carried its own frustrations – chiefly at the free throw line in overtime – but the game was close only because the Dores produced such a stirring rally in the final minutes of regulation time. This was a "building" loss. If Johnson and Bright had been in the lineup, it would have been a "tear your hair out" loss.
Now comes this team's chance to show that it grew as a result of its journey to Hinkle Fieldhouse. Vanderbilt can establish a new identity this weekend and make it clear – as a statement to itself and the nation – that it will not falter in a majority of tight games. With a successful weekend, VU could go to Texas on Dec. 2 with the kind of psychological armor that could lead to a steady upward trajectory this season and the promise of a brighter future when the SEC starts up in January.
The first college basketball game televised by the Fox Sports 1 network (called by its new on-air team of Gus Johnson and Bill Raftery) was the Boston College-Providence game on Friday, Nov. 8. Boston College was supposed to be a dramatically improved team under head coach Steve Donahue, who guided Cornell to the Sweet 16 in the 2010 NCAA Tournament. Providence, though, stopped B.C. in overtime, and the two teams have gone in opposite directions ever since. The Friars are unbeaten, while the Eagles have continued to slip over the past two weeks.
How did Providence fend off Boston College? The Friars were clearly the stronger team in the paint and on the glass. Providence established a 36-20 rebounding advantage, 11-2 on the offensive backboard. This toughness has remained in evidence, as coach Ed Cooley's team has moved to 4-0 with a series of steady performances. If Vanderbilt can take down the Friars, coach Kevin Stallings' students will slap a quality win on their resume.
Forward/Center – Kadeem Batts – Senior, 6-9, 245; 2012-13: 14.8 ppg, 7.3 rpg
Bats anchored Providence in the paint last season. He's the true bruiser in the Friars' frontcourt. He fills up space and plays a more muscular brand of ball than anyone else on the Providence roster. Matching the brawn and power of Batts in low-post situations and on the glass will become obvious needs for the Dores in this game.
Forward – Tyler Harris – Sophomore, 6-9, 215 2012-13: N/A
Harris played seven minutes per game for North Carolina State two seasons ago. He's the one starter that did not play for Providence last season. Harris has been averaging nearly 11 points per game to this point in the 2013-2014 season, while snapping down 5 boards per contest. He's part of a Providence team that – while not necessarily big – is certainly long. The Friars don't start anyone taller than 6-9 (they have a seven-foot reserve center), but they have only one player that's smaller than 6-5. Vanderbilt's big challenge in this game will be the Friars' length. This specific attribute manifests itself on the boards and on defense, especially on defense. When Providence has the ball, VU defenders must make solid block-outs so that the Friars aren't able to pluck loose balls out of the air. When Vanderbilt has the ball, the Dores must make simple passes on the perimeter so that the Friars don't get their arms in passing lanes.
Forward – LaDontae Henton – Junior, 6-6, 215; 2012-13: 13 ppg, 8.3 rpg
Last season, Henton was a terrific foul shooter (81.4 percent) and a poor three-point shooter (25.8 percent). This season, he's shooting better from long range, but that's partly the result of better and more judicious shot selection (only 12 shots taken behind the arc). Henton's best attribute is that he eats up loose balls. The junior is Providence's best rebounder to this point in the season, even more than Batts. He plays an intelligent two-way game, making him a coach's dream… and a difficult assignment for Vanderbilt.
Guard – Josh Fortune – Sophomore, 6-5, 205; 2012-13: 5.4 ppg, 2.4 rpg, 1.4 apg, 1.5 steals per game
This player is the embodiment of Providence's identity on defense. Fortune isn't primarily concerned with his offense; he is a pickpocket and a pest, a wing defender who deflects passes and tries to disrupt the flow of an opponent's halfcourt sets. If the Commodores mechanically pass the ball and don't devote a great deal of care to things like footwork and body position, they could hemorrhage turnovers. The ball – and the game – could get away from them.
Guard – Bryce Cotton – Senior, 6-1, 165; 2012-13: 19.7 ppg, 3.6 rpg, 2.9 apg
Clearly Providence's most dynamic offensive player, Cotton – a high-volume shooter who is not bashful in his approach to the sport – will be a load and a half for the Commodores. One thing to note about Cotton's start to the new season is that he's averaging 7 assists, more than double his average last season. The centerpiece of Vanderbilt's game plan against Cotton must be to stop his dribble penetration. If a volume shooter's shots are almost all long ones, the shooting percentage will generally stay down. Keeping Cotton out of the lane will probably lead to fewer assists and free throw attempts.
There are two main bench performers for Cooley: Big man Carson Desrosiers and guard Kris Dunn. Desrosiers grabbed 8 rebounds in 20 minutes earlier this week in a win against Vermont, while Dunn – who had missed the Friars' first three games of the season due to a shoulder injury – made his season debut against Vermont and handed out 8 assists in just 21 minutes. Desrosiers is a seven-footer who will force the Dores to attack the paint with prudence and patience. Dunn's ability to distribute the ball is something Vanderbilt must pay attention to when the reserve guard enters the game. You can begin to see why Providence is unbeaten through two weeks of competition this season. The Friars have the kinds of reinforcements on their bench that prevent them from suffering a severe drop-off in quality at both ends of the floor. The Friars also have a lot of players who don't have to score in order to make a considerable impact on a game. Cotton and Henton generally need to score, but the other five members of Providence's seven-man rotation just need to rebound, defend, and share the ball in order for this team to thrive.
Keys to the Game
1) Get a feel for Cotton. If Vanderbilt can keep Cotton out of the paint, its defense can manage the rest of this game. Being able to adjust to Cotton's actions and his line of attack must form the basis for everything else the Commodores choose to do. The point to remember is that Cotton – while primarily a scorer – can also damage VU's defense with his passing. Knowing what to concede and knowing what to take away – how Vanderbilt handles Cotton in these respects will shape this contest for better or worse.
2) Rebound. When Cotton isn't the point of focus, Vanderbilt's other big task will be to handle Providence's length and energy on the glass. If the Dores get "window-washed," so to speak, Cotton (and Henton) will gain extra looks at the basket… and quite possibly the foul line as well. Vanderbilt must limit Providence's overall number of possessions. If that goal isn't achieved, it will be hard to see how VU will win this game.
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