Women's Basketball Scouting Report: LSU
The past is prelude for coach Melanie Balcomb's basketballers. A strong initial start to the SEC season has placed the Commodores in the thick of the conference race. Now, Vanderbilt will find out how much staying power it possesses. What's noticeable about the next three weeks is that Vanderbilt will play only five games in that span of time. The Dores get a week-long break between this LSU game and their next game against South Carolina (on Jan. 26). They'll get another one-week break in early February as well, so it's not as though Vanderbilt will have brutally quick turnarounds. This team will be able to pace itself even as it faces the best the SEC has to offer.
Precisely because Vanderbilt will be playing high-stakes games with enough rest in the coming weeks, this stretch should provide a particularly good indication of this team's level of quality. It's time to find out just how high the Commodores can climb – to the top two in the SEC, or "just" in the top six (which is still plenty good)? All in all, Vanderbilt should look at this game as more of an opportunity than a burden. VU knows that if everything doesn't go right against the Lady Tigers, it will have a week to recover and prepare for South Carolina in an eagerly-awaited rematch. If Vanderbilt tucks away this win, the South Carolina game will likely be for second place in the SEC (behind Texas A&M) and added long-term leverage in the league race. Saying that VU is "playing with house money" might be too loose a characterization of this game, but the Dores have done so well this season that they won't be "behind schedule" if they lose. This is a chance to claim a new level of greatness, a chance that should be pursued with a decidedly liberated and confident mentality.
Nikki Caldwell came from UCLA to ensure that LSU basketball would remain an elite program. The Lady Tigers made five straight Final Fours from 2004 through 2008, but instability at the head coaching position caused the program to stall as soon as its foundation, decorated Olympian Sylvia Fowles, left. Caldwell's UCLA teams established themselves at the defensive end of the floor, but this particular LSU team has succeeded primarily because it has been able to score. The Lady Tigers have scored in the 80s in each of their three SEC wins to this point in the season. They scored 48 in their lone SEC loss, to Texas A&M. It will be fascinating to see if this game against Vanderbilt acquires a defense-first or offense-first dimension.
Forward – Theresa Plaisance – Senior, 6-5; 2013-14: 13.7 points per game, 7 rebounds per game
Vanderbilt responded so well last Sunday against Tennessee's frontcourt size, and the Commodores will have to deliver the goods again in the face of formidable low-post players. Plaisance isn't overworked – no LSU player is, as a matter of fact – so when she's on the floor, she plays with a maximum of energy. This applies to each Lady Tiger, and it must be taken into account by Balcomb and the rest of the coaching staff. Giving starters brief breathers by subbing them out just before the various media timeouts will be necessary in this game.
Forward – Shanece McKinney – Senior, 6-4; 2013-14: 7.6 ppg, 4 rpg, 1.4 blocked shots per game
McKinney has not attempted a three-point shot this season, whereas her frontcourt teammate, Plaisance, has stepped beyond the arc nearly two dozen times. McKinney is content to operate in the low post without straying too far from the basket. She is this team's best shot blocker; she averages roughly 2.7 blocked shots per 40 minutes.
Guard – Danielle Ballard – Sophomore, 5-9; 2013-14: 9 ppg, 6.3 rpg, 3.1 apg, 1.8 steals per game
Plaisance is the tall tree on this team, so it makes sense that she's the leading rebounder on the Lady Tiger roster. However, the second-best rebounder on the squad is the 5-9 Ballard, who is positively fearless in traffic and has no problem mixing it up with bigger opponents. Ballard is also one of the two main facilitators for LSU's offense. She is one of those players who can be immensely valuable to her team when not scoring or even looking for her shot.
Guard – Raigyne Moncrief – Freshman, 5-10; 2013-14: 10.8 ppg, 4.5 rpg, 2.4 apg, 2.1 steals per game
This freshman is going to make Caldwell very happy in the coming years. She's LSU's best perimeter ball thief. Her quick hands make her a strong and disruptive perimeter defender, but they also make her a highly competent rebounder despite a relative lack of size. Moncrief averages only 22 minutes per game, so if you took her stat line and measured it against 40 minutes, you would be able to appreciate how prolific her output really is.
Guard – Jeanne Kenney – Senior, 5-8; 2013-14: 11.4 ppg, 3.9 rpg, 3.7 apg
Kenney is the main distributor for LSU, and she's also the best three-point shooter in the starting five, hitting 43.3 percent of her triples. To be a bit more specific about Kenney's shooting capabilities, she's the best long-distance volume shooter on the Lady Tigers. DaShawn Harden (whom you'll read about below in the "Bench" section) is the only other competent three-point shooter on this roster who looks for the long ball with any appreciable degree of consistency.
Caldwell uses a 10-player rotation. The five reserves who get at least 12 minutes per game are DaShawn Harden, who is the primary bench player for this team (20.9 minutes per game). Harden averages 7.9 points and 1.6 steals per contest. She hits 36.2 percent of her threes. The other reserves, who are used a bit more sparingly, are guards Rina Hill, Anne Pedersen, and Jasmine Rhodes, plus forward Sheila Boykin. Rhodes and Boykin average almost three rebounds per game. No LSU starter plays more than 26.7 minutes per game, so it's clear that Caldwell incorporates depth and liberal substitutions into her plan, trying to keep her best players fresh for second halves. It's also worth noting, in light of the above statistic (the 26.7-minute maximum), that when you look at the stat lines for each LSU starter, they're based on limited minutes, not an extended workload.
Keys to the Game
1) Rebounding at all five positions. LSU's guards rebound quite well. Vanderbilt, in order to minimize the Lady Tigers' possessions and second-chance points, will have to box out at every spot on the floor. Containing LSU on the offensive glass will relieve a lot of pressure for VU, especially since there's only one player (Kenney) who shoos the three well and regularly. Controlling the six feet of real estate near the rim offers Vanderbilt its surest path to victory in this game.
2) Perfecting the pattern of peaking. There is a sense that Vanderbilt is marshaling its energies extremely well. The Commodores are doing just enough to beat lesser teams on the road on Thursdays (Auburn and Ole Miss), but when a prime opponent shows up on the schedule on a Sunday (Tennessee), the Dores crank up their energy level, particularly on defense. If this pattern of peaking for stronger opponents can be replicated on Sunday, it will show how much control this team has over its fate. Allowing 74 points to Ole Miss could be seen as cause for concern, but if Vanderbilt doesn't suffer a letdown in this game, it will be easier to claim that the Dores are handling this SEC schedule in a somewhat delicate but ultimately effective way. Why expand too much energy in the attempt to beat Ole Miss by 20 when you can win by six and leave something in the tank for LSU? There is a certain degree of risk in that, but it's not a bad way to go about your business if you can pull it off and get results with it.
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