Basketball Scouting Report: Norfolk State

Vanderbilt is taking the drama out of the early portion of its season... and that's a very good thing. Growth and development are the key themes for the Commodores before they meet a series of power-conference teams after Thanksgiving.


The Vanderbilt Commodores haven’t yet run into a particularly strong test this season. This is, on one hand, a credit to the team – it has managed to take care of business against opponents it should be able to defeat by convincing margins. The Dores have not allowed drama to seep into a game that should not involve end-stage pressure. Uneventful under-eight and under-four timeouts are certainly first-world problems for a basketball coach. What is hopefully emerging in these first few games of the 2014-2015 campaign is a sense of which combinations work best on the floor, and how the Commodores can cultivate the depth they never really had a chance to develop last season. It’s still a period of time in which to gain a lot more information about VU hoops before Thanksgiving and the arrival of a series of power-conference opponents, beginning with Rutgers on Nov. 28.

NORFOLK STATE AT-A-GLANCE

The Spartans of the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference – known as the MEAC for short – are noted in the college basketball world for their upset of Missouri in the first round of the 2012 NCAA Tournament, one of the 15-2 upsets to leave an indelible imprint on the month of March. How did Norfolk State follow up its big moment in 2012? The Spartans went 16-0 in the MEAC regular season in 2013, but they lost in their conference tournament and fell short of March Madness. Head coach Anthony Evans went to Florida International, and Robert Jones came in as the new man in charge. Last season’s team went 11-5 in the conference, but finished only 19-15 overall. What you might be seeing in the early part of the season is Norfolk State’s testing period, a time when the team absorbs non-conference losses but toughens itself up for conference play in January.

Last season’s NSU team had an excellent field-goal conversion rate of 46.5 percent. Its effective field goal percentage was in the national top 100. Assists (13.7 per game) also placed the Spartans in the top 100. The team’s rebounding percentage, 54.5, was in the top 35. Turnovers were a problem (13.2 per game, 280th in the nation), and field-goal percentage defense (47.8 percent) put the Spartans in the middle of the pack on a national scale (143rd).

Starting Lineup

Forward – Rashid Gaston –
Junior, 6-9, 240 2013-14: 8.3 points per game, 6.5 rebounds per game

Gaston’s numbers the previous two seasons have remained fairly stable. He has averaged just over 50 percent shooting from the field. He doesn’t take too many shots or earn that many free throws per game. His best attribute is his ability to be a worker bee on the glass. That’s where Vanderbilt will most likely need to deal with Gaston in this game. You might see Paulius Vinogradovas as the starter for this game, but the Lithuanian averages under 11 minutes a game and posts trace statistics, such as a per-game average of under one point. It’s not worth paying attention to him as the starter for Norfolk State. Gaston averages 26 minutes per game, so it’s worth focusing on him as a lead forward for the Spartans.

Guard – Malik Thomas – Senior, 6-7, 185; 2013-14: 5.8 points per game, 4 rebounds per game

The transfer from Boston University – a team Norfolk State has already played this season, by the way – has averaged 14 points in NSU’s first few games this season, keeping in mind that the Spartans played one of their four games against a lower-division teams, three against Division I-A opponents. Thomas could be an emergent scorer, and it will be up to Vanderbilt to deny him easy looks. Thomas is only a 26-percent three-point shooter, so keeping him out of the paint with his size as a big guard will be important.

Guard – Jeffrey Short – Junior, 6-4, 195; 2013-14: N/A

Short played for Fordham in 2013 and then sat out last season. During his year off in 2013-2014, Short has built up his game. He’s currently averaging 17.3 points per game on the strength of 43.5-percent three-point shooting. This is Norfolk State’s main threat, the guy who can get hot and carry this team for small stretches of time.

Guard – D’Shon Taylor – Junior, 6-2, 198; 2013-14: N/A

Taylor has no prior experience at the Division I-A level. So far this season, he’s averaging 8.3 points per game. What’s noticeable about his stats to this point is that he takes a handful of shots from the foul line and from three-point range. He tries to find ways to score from all spots on the floor, and will therefore need to be tended to at all times, especially if Short tries to draw attention with his long-distance shooting. The interplay between Taylor and Short could become an issue for VU’s defense, which is why it needs to be a focus of Stallings’s game plan.

Guard – Jamel Fuentes – Senior, 6-4, 185; 2013-14: 6 ppg, 4.8 assists per game

Fuentes is the distributor for this offense. To this point in the season, he’s averaging under 1.5 points per game, but he’s handing out an average of 5.3 assists per game. He’s a player who needs to be played for the pass, and should be dared to shoot. In that sense, he’s the opposite of Short, a player the Dores want to pass. Vanderbilt doesn’t want Short to shoot – at least not from comfortable spots on the floor with a free shooting hand. Fuentes is the player who should be dared by the Dores to hit some long-range attempts on Tuesday night.

Bench

Coach Robert Jones distributed double-digit minutes to the following players in NSU’s most recent game against Texas Southern on Saturday: Forward LaTre’e Russell, forward Jordan Butler, guard Zaynah Robinson, and guard Devonte Banner. Of these players, none average more than four points per game this season or offer any appreciable statistical footprint.

Keys to the Game

1) Make Short pass, make Fuentes shoot, keep Taylor off the foul line.
There’s a balance among Norfolk State’s best offensive players, and it’s important to note that these are really the only three offensive players who command a lot of respect on this roster. Short likes to shoot, Fuentes likes to pass, and Taylor tries to get involved in a number of ways at the offensive end of the floor. Vanderbilt’s basic approach has to be to take away the strengths of each of these three players. This will hurt the Spartans more than anything else.

2) Post touches and turnover avoidance. The Spartans do not have a lot of size or power in the low post. Vinogradovas is 7-1, but he’s not effective on the floor, at least not yet. With Norfolk State being unable to offer much of a presence in the paint, Vanderbilt’s offense should attack at this point of weakness. The emphasis on turnover avoidance comes from the idea that as long as Vanderbilt puts up a shot, even if it’s not a great one, the Commodores can chase the miss on the glass.

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