Women's Basketball Scouting Report: Georgia
Ever since Melanie Balcomb replaced Jim Foster as Vanderbilt's women's basketball coach, the Commodores have been a round-of-16 or round-of-32 program in the NCAA tournament. Getting to the Sweet 16 and the second weekend of the Big Dance is the realistic yet ambitious goal for this team, which continues to hope that the rigors of an SEC season will bear fruit in March. The SEC has, of course, lost some of its heft in recent seasons, but Vanderbilt can be part of the conference's attempt to build back its brand – who says Tennessee has to have all the fun?
Vanderbilt's attempt to establish itself this season begins in earnest on Thursday night in Memorial Gym against Georgia. The Commodores can't tiptoe their way into the SEC schedule this season, because the schedule won't allow them to do so. Of Vanderbilt's first seven SEC games, five are against teams with RPI ratings that currently sit in the top 35. Of the final nine SEC games on the 16-game SEC slate for Vandy, only two involve opponents with RPIs higher than 53.
The SEC season can truly be halved for the Commodores. Surviving the first seven games (4-3 at minimum, ideally 5-2) would enable VU to finish in the top tier of the conference. A 7-2 record in the nine-game back end of the schedule could create a 12-4 league mark that, if complemented by strong showings from other SEC teams, would produce a very solid seed in March. The Dores would be in position to make "the second weekend."
Andy Landers was present at the creation. Pat Summitt, Jody Conradt (Texas), Leon Barmore (Louisiana Tech), and other icons of women's college basketball are no longer head coaches for the programs they brought to the spotlight, but Landers is still leading the Lady Bulldogs with intensity and a single-minded focus. Landers has coached Georgia throughout the entirety of the NCAA tournament era (which began in the 1981-'82 season). His longevity is impressive in itself, but what's more notable about Landers is that he's still delivering results. Landers has made the second weekend of the NCAAs in eight of the past 11 seasons. He hasn't reached the Final Four since 1999, but he's always knocking on the door.
When one considers Landers' Final Four drought, a parallel example comes to mind. Stanford, under Tara VanDerveer, went 10 seasons without making a Final Four after being a regular part of the event. From 1998 through 2007, Stanford couldn't crack the code. However, as soon as the Cardinal managed to return to the Final Four in 2008, they didn't leave… not until last season. Landers is hoping that he can make a Final Four and create one more surge of high-level success in Athens. He has five Final Fours and 11 Elite Eights to his credit. Just one more trip to college basketball's promised land – especially after a dry spell of 15 years – would add much to an already-substantial legacy.
Georgia will have a difficult time reaching the Final Four this season. The Lady Bulldogs reached the Elite Eight last season and lost to California in overtime, but they did so with three seniors leading the way. Jasmine James, Jasmine Hassell, and Anne Marie Armstrong combined to account for roughly 30 points, 15 rebounds, 6 assists, and 4 steals per game. Those numbers might not be eye-popping, but Georgia was not a high-scoring team in the 2012-2013 campaign. The Lady Bulldogs relied on defense and played at a slow pace. They embraced a rugged, physical identity and enjoyed success in the NCAA tournament – nearly sweeping both Stanford and California in the Spokane Regional – by shutting down hot scorers and formidable perimeter shooters. Neither Stanford nor California established any kind of rhythm on offense against Georgia, so it's not as though the Lady Bulldogs were trying to play games in the 80s or 90s. Being in the 50s or very low 60s suited this team well. The production Landers has lost in 2013-2014 is likely to matter in the coming months.
Yet, for all the ways in which Georgia might be diminished as a team, the Lady Bulldogs can't complain too much about the non-conference portion of their schedule. Heading into SEC play, the Lady Bulldogs are 12-1, with their only loss coming to Rutgers and another legendary women's college basketball coach, C. Vivian Stringer. Georgia owns a high-value win over Ohio State and has been able to maintain its defense-first identity against good teams from power conferences. A big question facing this team is if it has fattened up on too many cupcakes in recent weeks. (Of course, it's not as though Vanderbilt has faced a Murderer's Row of opponents in December, either.)
Forward – Merritt Hempe – Sophomore, 6-2; 2013-14: 8 points per game, 4.1 rebounds per game
As you look at Georgia's starting five, you'll notice that the Lady Bulldogs are balanced on offense. No player averages fewer than eight points per game, none more than 12.5. Landers would like Hempe, given her height, to be a more authoritative rebounder. If she can't improve as a rebounder against SEC competition, she might get bumped out of the starting lineup before too long.
Guard/Forward – Shacobia Barbee – Sophomore, 5-10; 2013-14: 12.5 ppg, 8.5 rpg, 4.5 assists per game, 2.8 steals per game
Here's Georgia's best player by far, the one person the Commodores must account for at all times at both ends of the floor. Barbee's ability to rebound so well at 5-10 offers an indication of her effort level and her basketball IQ. She doesn't merely outwork opponents; she outmaneuvers them in the battle for loose balls. She gains leverage if it's waiting to be won. Her instincts are supremely sharp, enabling her to affect a game's outcome in so many ways. Neutralizing Barbee on the glass and protecting the ball from her will be the Dores' two foremost priorities as far as this specific matchup is concerned.
Guard/Forward – Krista Donald – Junior, 5-11; 2013-14: 8.2 ppg, 7.5 rpg, 1.6 apg
Look at how Georgia's wings rebound. Alongside Barbee, Donald – another tweener who can play either guard or forward – swarms the glass to give Georgia more possessions. The Bulldogs might not be in position to win shootouts against skilled teams such as Tennessee and Kentucky in this year's SEC, but if they're dominating on the boards and making their opponents "one and done" at the offensive end of the floor, they're going to enjoy a lot of success. Vanderbilt has to be mentally ready to realize just how central defensive rebounding is to the Lady Bulldogs' playing style this season. If Vanderbilt can draw even with Georgia on the glass, it will be in good shape.
Guard – Khaalidah Miller – Senior, 5-9; 2013-14: 11.4 ppg, 4.7 rpg, 3.5 apg
If Barbee isn't dropping dimes and setting up good shot opportunities in halfcourt situations for Georgia, Miller steps in and takes on that role. Miller isn't as athletically impressive as Barbee, but her experience and leadership as a senior give cohesion to the Lady Bulldogs on the floor. Miller's ability to contribute to her team in numerous ways makes her an anchor for Georgia. Landers will depend on Miller to guide a number of underclassmen through the SEC season. In Georgia's main rotation of eight players, five are sophomores or freshmen.
Guard – Erika Ford – Junior, 5-9; 2013-14: 10.4 ppg, 4.6 rpg, 1.5 apg
Ford logs roughly four fewer minutes than Barbee and Miller – 26.8 compared to 31.1 for Barbee and 31.3 for Miller. Therefore, her statistical output is slightly more impressive than the raw numbers might suggest.
In what is an eight-player rotation, Landers turns to three primary reserves, featuring guard Tiaria Griffin. It has to be said that Landers suspended Griffin for three games earlier in the season, part of a process in which Landers is trying to get Griffin's attention before giving her more responsibility. Griffin came off the bench in Georgia's most recent game, an 82-60 win over Illinois on Dec. 28, but she logged 23 minutes. She is a "non-starter starter" who might soon begin games on the court and not on the bench. Griffin is Georgia's leading scorer, averaging 14.2 points per game. She's not a prolific rebounder, but she does average almost three assists per contest and will be a problem for Vanderbilt because she will draw so much attention from the Commodores' defense.
The other two main reserves for Georgia are forward Halle Washington and guard Marjorie Butler. Washington could be on the verge of displacing Hempe as the team's starting low-post performer, though Landers isn't yet willing to give Washington, a freshman, the responsibility of being a starter. Washington snaps down 5.2 rebounds a game, and if Hempe – as mentioned above – doesn't improve as a rebounder, we could see Washington gain even more minutes on the low block. Butler played 13 minutes against Illinois and committed six turnovers while failing to notch a single assist.
Keys to the Game
1) Stop Barbee and Donald on the glass. Against some teams, creating a good shot or containing an elite scorer from the opposition is the paramount goal. Playing Georgia creates a game of possessions. The primary point of emphasis against the Lady Bulldogs is to accumulate more possessions. If Georgia can't get second-chance points or protect its defensive backboard, the Lady Bulldogs might not have other ways in which they can win this (or any other high-degree-of-difficulty) SEC game.
2) Stop the dribble when Barbee and Miller have the ball. Disrupting Georgia's offense must be a central focus for Balcomb and the rest of the VU coaching staff. This goal will largely depend on the ability of the Dores to keep Barbee and Miller out of the paint. Georgia's two best passers cannot be given chances to draw defenders and dish for easy looks. Vanderbilt has to stop the dribble drive before it can get started.
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