Okay, you’re thinking, “What is this business about a TCU football coach? What does this have to do with Commodore men’s basketball?” Well, here’s the thing: Over the previous two offseasons, just about everything bad that could have happened to TCU football did in fact happen. Drug busts got players expelled, including a key linebacker. A domestic incident got a star defensive lineman booted from the team. One important defensive player just quit football, period. A quarterback had a bout with alcoholism and had to step away from the sport. TCU, a program that won the 2011 Rose Bowl and then won the 2011 Mountain West Conference championship, fell on hard times in 2012 and 2013. Doubts began to surface about whether or not the program would amount to anything again.
You can see where that private institution now stands on the gridiron.
Now, will Vanderbilt compete for a national or even conference title this season? No. Let’s not get carried away. Yet, the salient aspect of the TCU football-Vandy basketball comparison is that just when you think a tidal wave of negative offseason events makes progress seem next to impossible, a breakthrough can still occur. As miserably unlucky as Stallings and VU have been the past few offseasons, the incoming freshman class might be able to create a dynamic in which new blood means a newer, better attitude and the arrival of depth that’s been missing the previous two seasons.
Eric McClellan gone? Dai-Jon Parker gone? Sheldon Jeter gone? Kedren Johnson now at Memphis? Kevin Bright going overseas? Josh Henderson trying to come back from the injury that struck last season? The past two years have been filled with nothing but bad luck for the program. Last season marked a painfully slow and grueling slog for a woefully shorthanded team that worked hard but faced impossible odds the whole way. Hopefully, an evening-out process can occur this season, and the breaks can cut in favor of VU, not against the program. The journey begins in earnest against Lipscomb.
Second-year head coach Casey Alexander – like any coach in his position – hopes that a rough first season will bear fruit and give way to marked improvement. Lipscomb struggled for most of last season, going 7-12 in its first 19 games before winning eight of the final 11 to finish with a 15-15 mark, 10-9 in the Atlantic Sun Conference when including a conference tournament loss to East Tennessee State. Lipscomb played a ton of close games in 2013-2014. The results trended negatively, but Alexander was able to get his guys to close the sale for most of the month of February. It had to be a point of encouragement for Alexander that as the season wore on, his team grew stronger instead of allowing itself to be discouraged by a slow start.
Lipscomb could not and did not do anything against clearly better teams, Vanderbilt being one of them. The Bisons’ defense was neither quick nor physical enough to handle opposing offenses from power conferences. Georgia scored 84 against Lipscomb even before it started winning a lot of SEC games. Vanderbilt scored 80. Georgetown, a slow-tempo team, scored 70.
How bad was Lipscomb’s defense last season? The Bisons conceded a two-point field goal shooting percentage of just over 55. That stat placed Lipscomb 342nd out of 351 Division I-A men’s basketball teams. Blocked shots? Lipscomb finished at 332 out of 351. Fouls per game? Lipscomb fouled an average of 22 times per game, putting the Bisons 327th in the country. The offense was decent, averaging 49.7 percent on two-point field goals and 1.037 points per possession, both fourth in the Atlantic Sun. The defense, though, was a disaster, and that’s what Alexander has to remedy this season if his team is to have any shot at winning the Atlantic Sun.
This past Monday, though, Lipscomb’s neighbors from Belmont poured a bucket of cold water over the Bisons. Belmont scored big in an 87-62 win over Lipscomb, but what had to concern Alexander was the 58-percent shooting clip the Bruins were able to produce. Belmont hit 16 of 33 treys and didn’t really need the foul line (only seven attempts) to roll up big numbers. The one thing Lipscomb can gain solace from: It did create 20 turnovers, but with those shooting stats, the Bisons’ defense remains a liability. This team knows where it has to improve more than anything else.
Center – Chad Lang – Senior, 6-11, 310; 2013-14 season: 2.5 ppg, 1 rpg
This Belmont transfer has produced minimal numbers, largely because his seven-minutes-per-game average this season is his largest average. He would not have gotten as much playing time with his former team. Lang is a placeholder, essentially, a starter in an official sense but not a meaningful one. Lang shares minutes at center with George Brammeier, who checks in at 6-10 and 240. Brammeier was just 1-of-6 from the field against Belmont on Monday, scoring two points in 13 minutes. This team just doesn’t have a strong interior presence, a big reason why its defense lags behind most squads in college basketball.
Forward – Martin Smith – Senior, 6-5, 200 2013-14: 15.6 points per game, 3.7 rebounds per game
Smith is a steady and reliable scorer. He hit 36 percent of his threes last season, which makes him a credible threat but not quite a lethal one. Vanderbilt will probably see early in the game just how dangerous he is.
Forward – Brett Wishon – Sophomore, 6-9, 220; 2013-14: DNP (did not play)
You’ll note that Wishon did not play for Lipscomb last season as a freshman. In two games this season, Wishon has hit 7-of-17 field goals, making 3 out of 10 triples. He has averaged four rebounds per game but also four turnovers per contest. Applying pressure when he has the ball could give Vanderbilt some steals and easy run-outs.
Guard – Josh Williams – Sophomore, 6-5, 205; 2013-14: 12.9 ppg, 5.1 rpg
In 29 games last season, Williams attempted 272 field goals. In two games this season, he has already attempted 27. Projected over a 29-game season, that shot total will approach 400 shots. In his 29 games from the previous season, Williams earned 81 foul shots. In two games this season, he’s already gained roughly one-fifth of that total, 16. All last season, Williams attempted 114 threes. He’s already attempted 11 this season. He’s definitely trying to become a lot more active in the Bisons’ offense.
Guard – J.C. Hampton – Sophomore, 6-0, 175; 2013-14: 14.6 ppg, 3.1 rpg, 2.9 apg
Hampton was a 39-percent three-point shooter last season, but so far this season, he has lacked the touch. Hampton has made only three field goals total (all threes) in his first two games this season. He hasn’t even made a foul shot (attempting only two). He’s not into the flow of the season, but Vanderbilt has to make sure that Hampton doesn’t emerge from hibernation in this game.
The two centers Alexander uses combined for no more than 21 minutes against Belmont on Monday. Therefore, while lineups can and will be tweaked by coaches in the early stages of a season, it is most likely that the Bisons will usually go with a smaller lineup and not entrust too many minutes to their pair of “placeholder centers.” When Lipscomb goes smaller, the first man Alexander will turn to is Talbott Denny, a 6-6, 205-pound guard whose main contribution last season came on the boards. Denny averaged almost five rebounds per game, earning him a place on the floor. If Lipscomb isn’t playing one of its bigs and Denny isn’t on the floor, you can be fairly certain that the Bisons will have freshman Nathan Moran in the game. Moran scored eight points in 22 minutes against Belmont on Monday.
That’s Lipscomb’s main eight-player rotation. We’ll see what Alexander does to change up his lineup, especially in terms of how the two big men might newly figure into the mix.
Keys to the Game
1) Share the ball in a context of fluid halfcourt movement. Vanderbilt needs to win with shared scoring and generally shared responsibility this season. Establish a good tone against a weak defensive team. Make Lipscomb move and work. Let’s not give the team an overly complicated plan right out of the gate.
2) Recognize hot shooters… if they emerge. Lipscomb is struggling, but some of the Bisons could heat up in this game. If any shooter does, Vanderbilt needs to clamp down and run that hot shooter off the three-point arc. Recognizing situations is a good defensive key in game one.
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