Women's Basketball Scouting Report: Arkansas

Crisis. It's an alarmist word, a word you shouldn't just yell out in a crowded sports theater. It has to mean something. It has to genuinely apply to a team's situation and should not be based on just one game or even two. Yes, Vanderbilt women's basketball is in a state of crisis right now.


Is it time to panic? Well, for Vanderbilt women's basketball fans, the answer is yes. Of course, a coaching staff and a group of players must do everything but panic in the midst of a baffling February downturn. After kicking the ball around Humphrey Coliseum this past weekend in Starkville, Miss., the Commodores – humbled by yet another unexpected loss in the SEC, this time to Mississippi State – simply have to reduce tonight's game against Arkansas to its smallest components.

Every pass, every dribble handoff, every post feed, every drive to the basket, every screen and cut – everything about this team's halfcourt offense – must be performed with care. Vanderbilt has to regain flow and comfort on offense, finding that safe space in which actions are performed with energy and decisiveness on one hand, yet a smooth and steady flow on the other. As John Wooden said, "Be quick… but don't hurry."

Coach Melanie Balcomb has to unlock the box in which her team's evident gifts have been trapped for most of the past six games. What had been an overachieving SEC season has suddenly turned into a campaign that could lead to a dreaded 8-9 game in the NCAA tournament. Vanderbilt has to win the next three games, because a road trip to Kentucky in the regular season finale is not likely to bring a positive result. Another bad loss will cause another downward move on the seeding line; the good news is that VU had been in position for a top-four seed a month ago, so the Dores can still rescue themselves.

They don't have any more margin for error, however.

ARKANSAS AT-A-GLANCE

Head coach Tom Collen's team offers an SEC profile that is fairly easy to identify and understand. Arkansas is 4-8 in the conference, and when the LadyBacks lose, it's always because they fail to score. More specifically, Arkansas's offense has not generated more than 60 points in any of the team's eight SEC losses. In the team's four league wins, it has scored at least 68 points in three of them, the exception being a 55-49 home win over Florida. Therefore, while halfcourt offense remains the biggest key for Vanderbilt, the backdrop to this game is similar to the Mississippi State contest: If VU can lock down Arkansas, it could win in spite of its offense, though the problem for the Commodores against Mississippi State was that a flood of turnovers gave the Bulldogs far too many possessions. It would be better for VU to shoot poorly and not turn the ball over than to shoot well and give Arkansas ample fast-break opportunities.

Say this about Arkansas as well: The LadyBacks, despite a conference record that is undeniably poor, have been admirably competitive for the majority of the SEC season. This team lost by only 10 points at Kentucky and Tennessee. Only on Feb. 9 against a surging South Carolina squad did a game truly get away from Arkansas. Armed with a full week of rest, the LadyBacks – playing at home – should be expected to give Vanderbilt a strong challenge. Given the way the Mississippi State game turned out, there's no reason to assume that this will be a straightforward game for VU. The Dores have to play with the kind of desperation that doesn't manifest itself in the form of panic, but rather, in the form of supremely focused and elevated intensity. If Vanderbilt can't find urgency now, it could find itself in an 8-9 game, which would mean a date with either Connecticut, Notre Dame, or Stanford in the round of 32 in the NCAA Tournament. This team has to reverse course and get a 6 seed so that prospects for a second-weekend journey in the Big Dance can remain alive.

Starting Lineup

Forward – Jessica Jackson –
Freshman, 6-3; 2013-14: 16.2 points per game, 6 rebounds per game, 1 steal per game, 1.5 blocked shots per game

Jackson isn't just Arkansas's best player; her scoring average is the only one in double figures without being rounded up to the next whole number. Moreover, her scoring average is 6.4 points per game higher than the second-best scorer on the team (9.8 per game). Just a freshman, Jackson is poised for greatness in the SEC in the coming years. If she can get more of a supporting cast, Arkansas could move up the ladder in this particularly cutthroat conference. It should be noted that while Jackson is not a high-volume three-point shooter, she does attempt close to four triples per game and converts at a 40.8-percent clip, the best mark on the team.

Forward – Keira Peak – Senior, 5-9; 2013-14: 9.8 ppg, 4.8 rpg, 1.4 steals per game

Vanderbilt, having just coughed up 26 turnovers against Mississippi State, will look at the stat lines of Arkansas's players and notice that four members of the starting five average at least one steal per game. Peak is one of them. Valuing the ball will be the first, second and third key to this game. Defensive rebounding will be a fourth key, because Peak is one of five players on the U of A roster averaging at least 4 rebounds per contest.

Forward – Jhasmin Bowen – Junior, 6-1; 2013-14: 9.2 ppg, 4.9 rpg, 1.4 steals per game

Bowen fits into the profile of most Arkansas players: Relatively limited as a scorer and passer; productive on the glass; and bothersome as a defender with active hands and good instincts. Arkansas needs more scoring production, but its output on the boards has been solid. The team's work at the defensive end of the floor cannot be faulted too much.

Guard – Calli Berna – Junior, 5-10; 2013-14: 7 ppg, 4.3 rpg, 7 apg, 2.1 steals per game

This is the LadyBacks' second-best player behind Jackson. Berna is one of the five main contributors to this team on the glass, but her bigger gift to this team is… well… how many gifts she hands out to her teammates. Berna isn't just the only player on this roster who averages at least 2 assists per game. As you can see, she goes way beyond that. Given that Arkansas generally has trouble scoring, where does Berna find that many assists per game? You can bet that – as was the case with Katia May (distributor) and Martha Alwal (receiver) of Mississippi State – Berna's assists mostly go to Jackson. Disrupting that outside-inside combination will be important for Vanderbilt on defense.

Guard – McKenzie Adams – Freshman, 5-9; 2013-14: 9.5 ppg, 2.3 rpg

Adams hits 39.1 percent of her threes, so while Arkansas's offense is not all that formidable, VU will want to make sure that if Adams knocks down a few bombs in the first 10 minutes of play, she doesn't get a free shooting hand as the game continues.

Bench

In what is an eight-player rotation, Collen shortens his bench in exchange for getting more minutes from his main reserves. Guards Kelsey Brooks and Melissa Wolff both average more than 21 minutes per game. Brooks averages 7 points and 1.7 steals per game. Wolff averages 4.7 rebounds per game. Guard Joey Bailey gets a little more than 11 minutes per game. She averages 2.2 boards per contest.

Keys to the Game

1) Value. The. Ball.
Arkansas likes to take the ball away. Vanderbilt gave the ball away 26 times to Mississippi State. You just have to put 2 and 2 together.

2) Make life difficult for Berna. If Berna can't feed Jackson in the low post, Arkansas will lose what measure of comfort it possesses on offense. Jackson can step beyond the three-point line and create her own shot at times, but limiting Berna's effectiveness will bring Arkansas's ball movement to a halt. As long as VU then protects the defensive glass, the Commodores should be able to contain the LadyBacks, but as we've seen in recent weeks, nothing is certain for a reeling team… a team that desperately needs a win tonight.

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