Are the Vanderbilt Commodores a senior-laden team? No. Do they still need to develop at multiple positions on the floor, especially in the low post? Without question. Yet, should VU's lack of experience be used as a reason to downgrade expectations this late in the journey?
Vanderbilt is capable of greatness, and on multiple levels. This team has shown that it can play a high-level game from start to finish (the home win over Tennessee) and pull out a gut-check triumph against a quality opponent during a period of adversity (beating Texas A&M by a bucket to snap a two-game losing streak). Vanderbilt was once 5-1 in the SEC, and against the upper tier of the conference, not a series of tomato cans. Is it unreasonable to continue to adhere to the belief that this team can make the second weekend of the NCAA tournament? A round-of-32 showing would be a solid achievement worthy of respect, but getting to the Sweet 16 should still represent the kind of goal which balances aspirational and realistic dimensions.
Plainly put, if Vanderbilt wants to be a "second weekend" team in March, the Commodores have to access a deeper layer of toughness.
The pattern talked about in the Auburn preview has, unfortunately, resurfaced for coach Melanie Balcomb's team: Win. One-week layoff. Loss following the layoff. Letdown loss following the first loss. The Commodores' offense finds a spark; loses rhythm during an extended break; and then fails to regain its edge in the second game after that extended break. Within this pattern, the losses after one-week layoffs are not the problem – VU has played excellent teams in those situations (South Carolina the first time, Tennessee the second). The true problem in this pattern is the letdown loss following the Carolina and Tennessee losses. The Commodores are looking down on Missouri and Auburn in the SEC standings, but they failed to beat those two sets of Tigers following a loss to a more credentialed opponent.
What was (and is) conspicuous about the loss to Auburn is that the Dores managed only 21 first-half points. Despite having played just a few days earlier (no longer having the full-week-layoff excuse), Vanderbilt didn't look sharp and failed to make adjustments, making it impossible to refute the notion that a letdown emerged on the court. If you recall, the loss to Missouri (four days after the 61-57 South Carolina loss in Memorial Gym) also involved a terrible first half by the offense, which scored only 20 points in Mizzou Arena. Against both Auburn and Missouri, VU's offense found a level of urgency in the second half and played at a much higher level, but a substantial first-half deficit was too much to overcome. Moreover, the poor first halves in each of those games enabled VU's opponents to gain confidence.
If this isn't a pattern, what would a pattern look like?
This Sunday's game against Mississippi State begins a two-week period in which Vanderbilt has a chance to regain a winning edge and remake its identity heading into the SEC Tournament. As disappointing as the past few weeks have been for her, Balcomb has a chance to capture the attention of her players, specifically in relation to the need to not allow negative developments to have a carry-over effect. If the Commodores can truly absorb and apply this lesson before the NCAAs begin, VU could enter the first weekend of the Big Dance with an attitude that could steer this team to the second weekend.
A final point of emphasis: All the underclassmen on this team might very well become far better (and tougher) players in seasons to come as a result of this experience, but let's first see if these same underclassmen can make this mental adjustment in midstream, without needing a full offseason to attain a measure of internal transformation. If the Dores can make a Great Leap Forward within the context of this season – not the next one – how much brighter the future will be for the program as a whole.
MISSISSIPPI STATE AT-A-GLANCE
At 16-9 overall and 3-8 in the SEC, the Bulldogs are – in full – a product of their schedule. Coach Vic Schaefer's team cruised through a cupcake-laden non-conference schedule that did not serve as adequate preparation for league play. Mississippi State averaged 72.8 points per game out of conference and allowed only 61.1. In SEC competition, MSU has scored 63.2 points per game while allowing 68.8. Over the past month (since Jan. 16), the Bulldogs have scored more than 64 points in only one of their SEC losses. This is a team that struggles to score, and while Vanderbilt's main issues lie at the offensive end, the Dores know that this is a team they can lock down.
Center – Martha Alwal – Junior, 6-4; 2013-14: 15.1 points per game, 8.2 rebounds per game
Given Vanderbilt's vulnerability in the low post, Alwal will present the Dores with a very tough matchup. Effective, timely doubleteams will naturally be a foremost need for VU in this game. The only other high-level scorer on this roster is backup guard Kendra Grant (you'll read about her in the "Bench" subsection). The biggest point of differentiation between Alwal and Grant is that Alwal hits 52.4 percent of her shots, Grant 38.1.
Forward – Breanna Richardson – Freshman, 6-1; 2013-14: 8.8 ppg, 5.6 rpg
There are four particularly formidable rebounders in MSU's starting five. Richardson helps to make this team a terror on the glass. Vanderbilt will have to be prudent about running the floor off missed shots – the Commodores will have to pick their spots in that regard.
Guard – Dominique Dillingham – Freshman, 5-9; 2013-14: 9.8 ppg, 4.2 rpg, 3.2 apg
Since Mississippi State rebounds so well, why doesn't this team score more, especially on putbacks? Dillingham, given her (lack of) size, rebounds extremely well. Yet, she hits just 35.8 percent of all field goal attempts. Clearly, a lack of height makes it harder for Dillingham to score on the occasions when she gets an offensive rebound. This helps explain why MSU's rebounding prowess doesn't translate into increased scoring production. More will be said on this in a bit.
Guard – Katia May – Senior, 5-2; 2013-14: 8 ppg, 5.3 apg, 1.5 steals per game
This is MSU's best distributor, the player who gives cohesion and structure to the Bulldogs' halfcourt offense. What's striking is that of every non-Alwal starter on the team, May herself has the highest shooting percentage (44.5). How can she find over 5 assists per game if most of her teammates can't hit shots consistently? There's something to be learned here: Alwal is the player who makes shots after catching passes from May. If Vanderbilt prevents May from getting the ball to Alwal, it can gum up the Bulldogs' offense.
Guard – Savannah Carter – Junior, 5-9; 2013-14: 6.6 ppg, 5.1 rpg, 2.3 apg, 2.4 steals per game
Everything that was said about Dillingham also applies to Carter. The two players have the same height, and this magnifies the extent to which their rebounding ability does not lead to a flood of putback baskets. Carter is, as you can see, an outstanding perimeter defender. Vanderbilt has to make simple passes when Carter is in the same basic area of the floor.
Guard Kendra Grant receives starter-level minutes and averages 11.4 points per game, the second-best mark on the team. It's worth noting, though, that Grant's average is the product of 21.4 minutes per game, while Martha Alwal's 15.1 points per game are the product of 31.4 minutes. Grant's efficiency as a scorer has to be respected.
Elsewhere on the MSU bench, forward Ketara Chapel and guard Jerica James both average more than 15 minutes per game, so they're core members of what is a nine-player rotation, rounded out by forward Sherise Williams. Chapel averages 5 points and 3.1 rebounds per game. Williams averages 3.2 rebounds per contest.
Keys to the Game
1) Get everyone involved, especially the underclassmen. This can't be the Christina Foggie Show, to the exclusion of other players. Moreover, VU knows it will need its underclassmen to help both Foggie and Jasmine Lister (especially at the offensive end of the floor) if this team is going to go far in either the SEC or NCAA tournaments. Might as well re-establish good habits and tendencies now.
2) Don't allow May to gain clear passing lanes. If May can't feed Alwal in the low post, Mississippi State's offense won't be able to function nearly as well. Rebounding is a big concern, but stopping the May-Alwal combination is the most central way in which to contain the Bulldogs' offense.