Women's Basketball Scouting Report: Florida

If you have the stomach to do so, look at a few box scores from the past weeks of Vanderbilt women's basketball. You'll cringe… but you'll also be amazed, and you'll see the way forward for a team that simply has to fight its way out of trouble.


It is said that lightning never strikes in the same place twice. Well, there are sometimes exceptions in life, and such is the case for Vanderbilt women's basketball in a season gone wrong… but a season that can still be rescued. Head coach Melanie Balcomb has to find a way to build back the confidence of her non-Christina Foggie players, who are just not hitting shots as consistently as they did earlier in the season, be it from the field or the foul line. Shooting confidence is a fascinating and elusive commodity in college basketball. It often becomes contagious throughout a roster. When teammates see the ball going through the bucket, they often join in, liberated by the sight. When they see teammates clanging bricks, they can be susceptible to the tendency to press too much on their shot, losing the natural and loose shooting stroke that generally produces a little bit of twine time.

The story of Vanderbilt's downturn – a story given more legs by this past Sunday's loss to Alabama – is magnified by two things: first, the reality of Christina Foggie being the only reliable shooter on all too many gamedays for this team; second, poor free throw shooting, one of the most preventable and correctable problems on a basketball team.

Yes, this might be painful, but before tonight's game against Florida – the second time in three nights that Vanderbilt is hosting the Gators in basketball – take 15 minutes if you can. Look at the box scores from the home-court losses to South Carolina, Auburn, and Alabama plus the road loss to Mississippi State. Three of those four games (the Mississippi State loss being the exception) witnessed a big scoring performance by Foggie, with no other teammate reaching a double-figure point total. All four of those games featured poor foul shooting by Vanderbilt, and what's particularly unnerving for Balcomb and the rest of the VU coaching staff is that in three of those games, Vanderbilt posted the exact same stat line at the not-so-charitable charity stripe: 12-of-19.

Yes, that's right: Three of Vanderbilt's close SEC losses this season – only the loss at Tennessee was a blowout; every other game has been highly competitive – have featured the same depressing and subpar free throw numbers in terms of both takes and makes. The Alabama loss this past Sunday witnessed an even worse outing at the line: 8-of-14. It's one thing for field goal shooting to deteriorate, but when foul shots are no longer being made at a 75-percent clip, it's that much more reasonable to say that there's a shooting confidence-based problem on this roster. What was once a joyride of a season has turned into a grim battle to fight off the weight of pressure, and it's Balcomb's job to give her team a fresh, sunny mental outlook once again.

FLORIDA AT-A-GLANCE

ESPN's women's basketball bracketologist Charlie Crème put Florida as a No. 11 seed in his most recent update. Whether you take that projection at face value or not, you can still conclude that Florida is near the cut line, for better or worse, and that if the Gators win this game, they'll take a huge step toward getting into the NCAA tournament. Vanderbilt, as we've discussed before, really needs to work its way out of an 8-9 game and into a 7 seed at the very least. Who wants to risk being shipped to a bracket in which Connecticut, Notre Dame or Stanford await in the round of 32?

It's been a turbulent season for Florida and head coach Amanda Butler. Christin Mercer, one of the more prolific scorers and active rebounders on the team, was arrested in January. (See details below.) Losing a player is one thing; losing said player under those kinds of circumstances is something which young human beings can't be expected to prepare for. Such a turn of events offers a sobering piece of perspective, but if you're an athlete immersed in the theater of competitive sports, there's nothing easy or guaranteed about the process of finding said perspective. Florida has done well to get where it is, though like Vanderbilt, this season is flowing in the wrong direction at the wrong time. The Gators have lost four out of five to endanger their NCAA hopes. VU has to know that it will be facing a desperate opponent tonight.

Starting Lineup

Forward – Ronni Williams –
Freshman, 6-0; 2013-14: 8.3 points per game, 5.7 rebounds per game

With the disruptions to Florida's roster during the season, Butler has continuously changed the combinations of players she puts on the floor. Williams has replaced Lily Svete in Florida's starting five. Svete had replaced the aforementioned Christin Mercer in the Gators' starting lineup. Mercer was suspended from the team following an arrest on the weekend of Saturday, Jan. 11 and Sunday, Jan. 12, on charges of conspiracy to commit robbery. The absence of Mercer has made life difficult for a team that had a short bench to begin with. Mercer had been averaging 11.8 points and 5.8 rebounds per game before her arrest and suspension.

Guard – Cassie Peoples – Sophomore, 5-6; 2013-14: 9.9 ppg, 2.9 rpg, 3.6 assists per game, 1.9 steals per game

Peoples is the second-best assist giver on this team, and the most active perimeter defender on the Florida roster. For a Vanderbilt team that has been struggling on offense, Peoples is more of a concern as a defender than as an offensive player.

Guard – Carlie Needles – Sophomore, 5-6; 2013-14: 5.9 ppg, 1.9 rpg, 1.2 steals per game

Needles has pushed teammate January Miller from Florida's starting five. (Miller had been starting for this team in very late January and early February.) Yet, Needles' statistical output is dwarfed by what Miller can provide. Miller is averaging 10 points and 3 rebounds per game. The reason why Miller isn't starting, though, is that she has fallen into a slump in February. Miller hasn't scored more than 7 points in six of her last seven games. Needles can't be expected to light up the stat sheet; Miller has to regain form if Florida is going to be a factor at the SEC Tournament and lock up an NCAA bid.

Guard – Kayla Lewis – Junior, 6-0; 2013-14: 11.4 ppg, 8.9 rpg, 1.4 steals per game

Here's the player Vanderbilt will have to worry about more than any other. The Commodores play close games, and so Lewis's formidable rebounding ability could give Florida the four or five extra possessions that could turn a four-point win into a four-point loss. Attentiveness to Lewis on the glass at all times must be a central point of emphasis from Balcomb to her players tonight.

Guard – Jaterra Bonds – Senior, 5-7; 2013-14: 15.6 ppg, 4.5 rpg, 4.2 apg, 1.5 steals per game,

Lewis provides the toughest matchup for Vanderbilt, but this is Florida's best player. Anyone who carries the bulk of the scoring workload for a team but still has the ability and court sense to become that team's most productive passer is a rare basketball specimen. Bonds also helps out on the boards and as a defender. This is a wise senior who has cultivated all aspects of her game to the point where she has few weaknesses. One weakness which stands out, though: three-point shooting (18.8 percent). This tells you, however, that Bonds is extremely skilled at getting to the basket. Vanderbilt can't allow her to have any sort of space to maneuver within eight to ten feet of the tin.

Bench

As you can see, there's been a revolving door between the starting five and the bench for this team's eight-player rotation in the aftermath of Mercer's arrest and suspension. You've met Svete and Miller, two of this team's reserves. The eighth player in the rotation is guard Antoinette Bannister, who averages 5.9 points and 2.3 rebounds per game.

Keys to the Game

1) Protect the rim and the glass when Bonds and Lewis approach.
Stopping Bonds's dribble penetration and fending off Lewis on the offensive glass must be Vanderbilt's two biggest priorities at the defensive end of the floor, full stop.

2) Foul shooting – more takes, many more makes. It's conceptually simple but naturally hard to do: When a team struggles to score, foul shooting is supposed to be its savior. Free throws are supposed to be gateways to easy points and, moreover, the act of seeing the ball go through the basket. Vanderbilt needs to be able to earn at least 25 foul shots and hit at least 75 to 78 percent of them. If the Commodores can hit those targets tonight and for the rest of the season, they'll start beating good teams again. Florida is a good team.

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