Second Basketball Scouting Report: Missouri
After a miserable week of being stuck in Columbia, S.C., and then having to play a weather-delayed weekday-afternoon game that few people were able to watch in person or on television, Vanderbilt came out flat against Texas A&M on Saturday morning. The sluggish response to a lousy and inconvenience-filled week was entirely understandable, the latest Murphy's Law moment in a season bereft of good fortune. When Vanderbilt – scoring less than a point per minute – trailed A&M by a 44-33 score after 34 minutes in Memorial Gym, the inclination to pack up and go home would not have surprised a single soul.
Instead, the Commodores kept trying to climb the mountain. They pushed and strained and struggled. They refocused, regrouped and rallied. Yet, for all their labors, the Dores still trailed by four points with 12 seconds left on the clock. It was useless and hopeless. The day just wasn't going to turn out well, just like the season itself. All that work in late January to get a 5-4 SEC record and at least a .500 season in the conference was about to go out the window. A season filled with bitter plot twists and bad news was about to get even worse.
But then it happened.
Tic. Tac. Toe.
Dunk. Jump ball with the possession arrow pointing VU's way. Jumper.
In three swift strokes, Kevin Stallings' players turned a 49-45 deficit into a tie, all inside the final 10 seconds of regulation. Vanderbilt took a "49-49 lead" into overtime and eased past the shellshocked Aggies to move to 6-6 in the SEC. The game was typical of this season for VU on so many levels, chiefly this: Despite a million different reasons to lose heart, the Dores kept plugging away. If the coming (2014-2015) season can actually involve the avoidance of piano-falling-from-the-sky-level misfortune, this team is already cultivating the mental toughness that can lead to a solid body of work in a conference that's begging for a non-Florida, non-Kentucky team to emerge as an NCAA tournament force.
Enough about next season; we'll be able to talk more about it when the time comes. For now, Vanderbilt's most immediate goal is to make sure that it stays out of the first round of the SEC Tournament, which belongs to the 11th through 14th seeds. The win over A&M helped a lot in that regard, but with VU preparing to play Missouri, Florida and Tennessee in the next week and a half, a first-round tournament bye is not guaranteed. Vanderbilt might have to win one game it is not expected to win if it is going to escape the prison sentence known as "SEC Tournament Wednesday," the day on which March Madness becomes "March Sadness."
The Tigers will be a tough opponent not just because they get Vandy at home this time (like a lot of SEC teams, Mizzou is quite different at home compared to the road), but because they're right on the cut line for an NCAA tournament berth. Missouri is not just on the bubble; the Tigers sit on the middle of the bubble, whereas other SEC teams (Tennessee, Ole Miss, Arkansas, LSU) are on the bad side of the bubble. Missouri is currently the best bet to give the SEC a third NCAA tournament team after Florida and Kentucky, but a(nother) loss to VU would probably push the Tigers into a "last four out" or "next four out" category. Vanderbilt should expect a great deal of energy from its opponent tonight in Columbia, Mo.
Forward – Johnathan Williams III – Junior, 6-9, 208 2013-14: 6.1 points per game, 7.1 rebounds per game, 1.4 blocked shots per game
Williams has seen his scoring average decrease by 0.7 points per game since the first meeting between these teams on Jan. 16. Otherwise, his statistical output has barely changed. It's no secret that Missouri's frontcourt is and has been a profound weakness for this team. If the Tigers are going to make the NCAA tournament, they'll need to get more from Williams and the next player on this list.
Forward – Ryan Rosburg – Sophomore, 6-10, 252; 2013-14: 5 ppg, 4.3 rpg
Rosburg has his moments, but until "moments" become "trends" or "patterns," Missouri won't become a substantially better team. Florida, Kentucky and Tennessee have the most formidable big men in the league, but Vanderbilt's starting frontcourt is also strong enough to give Rosburg a headache. VU's ability to score in the paint will be a central point of emphasis in tonight's game.
Guard – Earnest Ross – Senior, 6-5, 228; 2013-14: 14.2 ppg, 6.6 rpg, 1.5 assists per game, 1.4 steals per game
Ross' stat line has barely changed since Jan. 16. As Missouri braces itself for the stretch run of the season, it knows that Ross is the third scoring option on this team. As opponents try to take away the Tigers' first two scoring threats, Ross might very well be counted on to raise his level of play and become an even more central part of this team's offense.
Guard – Jabari Brown – Junior, 6-5, 214; 2013-14: 18.2 ppg, 4.9 rpg, 1.3 apg
Brown hit 41 percent of his threes entering the previous Vanderbilt-Mizzou game on Jan. 16. He now averages 45.7 percent from three-point range. In a classic "easy to say, hard to do" statement, Vanderbilt has to be able to run Brown off the three-point line, forcing him to take mid-range jumpers or give up the rock.
Guard – Jordan Clarkson – Junior, 6-5, 193; 2013-14: 18.7 ppg, 4 rpg, 3.4 apg
Clarkson, in recent wins over Arkansas and Tennessee, relentlessly attacked the basket and enjoyed a great deal of success in the process. The book on Missouri's top scorers really hasn't changed over the past month: You must primarily take away Clarkson's drive, while you must take away Brown's three-point shot.
Missouri coach Frank Haith gave at least 11 minutes to four reserves this past Saturday against Tennessee: forwards Tony Criswell, Torren Jones and Keanau Post plus guard Wes Clark. Criswell averages 3.9 rebounds per game while Clark averages 2.2 assists. Haith needs to get more production out of his bench if Missouri is going to make the NCAA finish line.
Keys to the Game
1) Attack the low post on offense. Missouri is not a rugged or physical defensive team. It possesses a soft underbelly, so if the Commodores are willing to feed the post and get shots near the rim, they have an avenue of opportunity in this game. Vanderbilt has generally thrived when playing games in the 50s this season, but in order to beat Missouri – especially on the road – the Dores must score in the 70s. This is a daunting task, but Missouri's defense might enable Vanderbilt to achieve what it wants.
2) Lock down Brown. Taking the drive away from Clarkson and the three from Brown is the basic defensive plan for all of Mizzou's opponents, not just Vanderbilt. The extra point of emphasis in this game is that VU needs to focus more on Brown. If he heats up from three-point range, the Dores won't be able to outscore the Tigers. Making Missouri shoot a lot of twos – and not fouling the Tigers when they drive to the rim – will be important for Vanderbilt tonight.
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