Women's Basketball Scouting Report: Georgia
The Vanderbilt women’s basketball team showed last Sunday against Mississippi State that it could play well against a high-quality opponent even when existing trends suggested that a victory was going to be hard to come by. Vanderbilt had not played well at all on offense in its previous two games, but against a strong defensive team, the Dores came to life and played their best game of the entire season.
That same challenge – winning a game when not expected to – remains in place for another Sunday showdown in the SEC, this one against Georgia. What makes this challenge different, though, is that victory is hard to expect for VU not because of worrisome trends… but because it’s hard to think that a course correction won’t occur.
Entering the Mississippi State game, Vanderbilt had very little to point to as evidence that it could play well. Mississippi State had not lost, thanks to a defense that had been wearing down opponents on a consistent basis. Vanderbilt authored a course correction that didn’t seem likely at the time.
Against Georgia, it’s exactly the opposite. Vanderbilt has made definite forward strides the past week, while Georgia – previously 3-1 in the SEC – stumbled at Ole Miss, giving away a game to a team outside the top tier of the league. The Lady Bulldogs will be angry entering this game, and while that certainly doesn’t guarantee an improved performance – Georgia could be entering a rut, a period of the season in which it loses confidence and clarity (that’s certainly a possible result…) – it is more likely to make Georgia a focused and motivated bunch. Vanderbilt doesn’t need to author the change of storyline it so elegantly wrote a week ago against Mississippi State. This week, Georgia is the team trying to create a different outcome. Vanderbilt is the team trying to sustain a current run of form.
Previous Vanderbilt teams under Melanie Balcomb – ones that made the Sweet 16 in the NCAA tournament – would be expected to maintain an upward trajectory. This one, however, hasn’t earned that benefit of the doubt yet. Georgia, the program with more recent forays deep into the NCAA tournament, is going to be viewed as the favorite here, and it’s hard to say that the Lady Bulldogs don’t deserve that status.
This backdrop leads into a fundamental point, though: Should Vanderbilt manage to pull through in this game, taking down a formidable conference opponent on the road one week after knocking Mississippi State from the ranks of the unbeaten, it will definitely be time to rethink what’s possible this season, and to reassess this team... for all the best possible reasons.
The Lady Bulldogs plant their flag on perimeter defense, team rebounding, and the ability to force turnovers. Georgia forces an average of 19.6 turnovers per game, putting the team in the national top 50. Their rebounding percentage of 55.2 is also in the national top 50. Three-point field goal defense is this team’s best specific virtue across several statistical categories. Opponents hit just 25.6 percent of their threes against UGA’s defense, giving Georgia the No. 12 three-point defense in the country. All these qualities on defense lead to the ultimate stat: Georgia gives up just 0.727 points per possession, fifth-best in the United States. We can see what kind of test Vanderbilt has after the Dores put the pieces together against Mississippi State’s defense a week ago.
Georgia plays games in the 50s and low 60s. A typical Georgia game – at least in the SEC – involves under 60 shot attempts for each team. Against Ole Miss, neither the Lady Bulldogs nor the Rebels attempted 50 field goals. The value of each possession is magnified against UGA, which Vanderbilt has to be ready to play with supreme precision.
The flip side of Georgia’s defensive prowess, though, is that it struggles to shoot well. Georgia is tenth or worse in the SEC in three-point shooting, two-point shooting, overall shooting, and effective field goal percentage. If this team’s defense keeps it competitive, the offense prevents Georgia from being able to blow opponents out of the gymnasium. Vanderbilt might have a tough time scoring, but a robust defensive effort could keep the Dores in this game for the duration.
Forward – Merritt Hempe – Junior, 6-2; 2014-15: 7.7 points per game, 5.1 rebounds per game
Georgia has only two players who average more than 8.2 points per game, and no one averages more than 12.3. You’re not going to see standout scorers on this team, just a lot of players who are excellent defenders who contribute on the glass. Hempe is one of the foremost examples of this kind of player for the Lady Bulldogs.
Forward – Krista Donald – Senior, 5-11; 2014-15: 8.2 ppg, 7.4 rpg
Donald, despite being only 5-11, is listed as a forward… maybe because she plays like one. The ability to snap down more than seven rebounds every night is a testament to three things in a basketball player: work ethic, technique, and positioning. Boxing her out will require a maximum of effort and attentiveness.
Guard – Shacobia Barbee – Junior, 5-10; 2014-15: 12.3 ppg, 6.8 rpg, 3 assists per game
Barbee, from a pure statistical standpoint, is Georgia’s best and most versatile player. What stands out is her ability to rebound at 5-10, much as Donald is able to do the same at 5-11. Barbee is coming off a terrible game against Ole Miss, having scored eight points while coughing up five turnovers and handing out only two assists. Vanderbilt can and should expect her to be a lot better in this game.
Guard – Tiaria Griffin – Junior, 5-7; 2014-15: 11.7 ppg, 3.3 rpg, 1.6 apg
Griffin is the three-point shooter Vanderbilt has to pay attention to. She hits 39 percent of her threes. As a point of comparison, Barbee and key reserve Erika Ford both hit under 30 percent of their triples.
Guard – Marjorie Butler – Junior, 5-8; 2014-15: 4.6 ppg, 2.8 rpg, 3.9 apg
On a team that doesn’t score, Butler doesn’t look to score. She’s more than content to set up teammates. She handed out eight dimes against Ole Miss, but she also turned the ball over six times. Three Georgia starters committed at least four turnovers against the Rebels, so Vanderbilt knows it’s playing a team that is not securing the ball very well at the moment. Finishing with a turnover differential of plus-eight or better should be a goal for Balcomb and the rest of the coaching staff.
Coach Andy Landers doled out little more than a handful of minutes to two reserves against Ole Miss: forwards Halle Washington and Mackenzie Engram received five and seven minutes apiece. Washington averages 2.5 rebounds per game, but Engram averages 7.3 points and 4.4 boards per contest. Of much greater significance is the possibility that Landers has found a super-sub off the bench. Guard Erika Ford averages only 5.4 points per game. However, against Ole Miss, she carried her teammates. Ford threw down 20 points on 8-of-14 shooting, 3-of-7 from long distance. No one else on the roster scored more than eight points. She also collected five rebounds without committing a turnover in 28 minutes, an essentially flawless performance. Vanderbilt has to be vigilant when Ford enters the game.
Keys to the Game
1) Turnovers and 50-50 balls – win 60 percent of both. Let’s say there are 35 combined turnovers in this game. Vanderbilt needs to force at least 21 of them (and accordingly commit no more than 14). That’s a 60-percent success rate. As for 50-50 balls, VU needs to get at least 60 percent of them as well against an opponent that rebounds well at every position on the floor. Let’s see what performances in those two categories can achieve for the Dores in this game.
2) Don’t allow game pressure or Georgia’s defensive pressure to lead to stagnant halfcourt offense. Vanderbilt’s masterpiece against Mississippi State was built on the strength of ball movement and floor spacing. When you get 18 assists on 22 made field goals and get double-figure scoring from four players, you’re getting ball movement and floor spacing. Can VU take that home-court performance and transfer it to the road against another imposing defensive team? Melanie Balcomb has to pound home the importance of continuing to move without the ball even when Georgia is revved up and the flow of the game is not where VU might want it. Relentless movement and spacing form a core part of a Vanderbilt victory… if it is going to happen.
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