Women's Hoops Scouting Report: Arkansas

Vanderbilt and Arkansas are two teams that find themselves in very similar positions -- not just in the SEC standings, not just in terms of the urgency attached to the next few weeks, but also with respect to the way in which they're both struggling. These teams can look in the mirror and see a reflection of themselves in the other. Which version of the same team will prevail tonight?


Heading into last Sunday’s game against Georgia, it was established that Vanderbilt needed to be on the winning side of the turnover battle, and to a 60-percent degree. If X amount of turnovers were committed by both teams, Vanderbilt needed to force at least 60 percent of them and commit no more than 40 percent of them. The final tally in Athens? A total of 36 turnovers were committed by both the Dores and the Dawgs. Vanderbilt forced only 13 of them, surrendering 23. The Dores stood on the wrong side of the divide – they committed 63.9 percent of the turnovers against Georgia, forcing only 36.1 percent. They lost by 11 on a day when they outrebounded Georgia across the board: 9-6 on the offensive glass, 25-23 on the defensive glass, and 34-29 overall.

It’s very clear and uncontroversial: Vanderbilt’s offense is not strong enough to travel just yet. The Commodores aren’t quite able to take a winning formula at home and carry it onto the road. This team gets a chance to reaffirm itself in Memorial Gym tonight against Arkansas, with the hope being that it can rise above the LadyBacks in the standings and then see what it can do in future SEC road games, which will determine Vanderbilt’s postseason fate in just under two months.

The SEC appears to be in very good shape in terms of getting eight teams into the NCAA tournament. Vanderbilt and Arkansas – both teams that won a few notable games in non-conference play and have absorbed losses to highly-ranked teams in the SEC – are the league’s foremost hopes for a ninth team, but at 1-4 in the conference, they both know they have to accumulate victories and ensure that at least some of them come against high-RPI opponents. Winning tonight will give VU or Arkansas a small but real degree of leverage in this narrow two-team race. The winner is intent on using tonight’s game as a catapult toward bigger achievements in the coming weeks and a successful scramble toward the NCAAs.

ARKANSAS AT-A-GLANCE

Jimmy Dykes left the world of announcing to once again try his hand at coaching. In non-conference competition, his team picked off wins against Iowa and Oklahoma, giving itself a shot at the Big Dance provided it could stay afloat in the SEC. That project isn’t going well thus far, since the LadyBacks are 1-4 in the league. However, Arkansas doesn’t have any bad losses on its resume in the SEC. The Hogs have lost to a likely tournament team in their four SEC setbacks. The only game they might have realistically had a shot at was their contest against Ole Miss, which is not in the current top 25. The other three losses came against Texas A&M, Mississippi State, and Tennessee, all in the top 20 at the moment. Losing to those kinds of teams can’t continue to happen with regular consistency, but the good news for Arkansas is that they’re not going to be a drag on the RPI. What’s true for the LadyBacks is true for Vanderbilt as well: Winning just enough against the upper tier of the SEC while cleaning up against the lower tier is the recipe that can put the NCAA tournament in play.

Vanderbilt, therefore, has an important advantage over Arkansas, at least within the confines of SEC competition: VU’s SEC win came against Mississippi State. Arkansas’ win came against Missouri, a member of the lower tier. Vanderbilt and Arkansas stand on very similar ground, which is why this game is a must-have in these final 10 days of January.

To switch from resumes to team characteristics, Arkansas is similar to VU in this respect as well. A simple survey of UA’s SEC losses shows that the Hogs have trouble scoring. Arkansas has not scored more than 57 points in any of its conference losses this season. When Dykes and Melanie Balcomb scout each other, they’ll see the same basic issues and tension points in evidence.

Starting Lineup

Forward – Jhasmin Bowen –
Senior, 6-1; 2014-15: 11.1 points per game, 6.9 rebounds per game

Bowen is the second-best rebounder on the Arkansas roster. Given her ability to successfully attack the glass, Bowen puts herself in position to score partly by getting offensive rebounds and the putback chances they offer. It will become clear in this overview of the Razorbacks that Vanderbilt will need to be strong on the boards in order to win this game.

Forward – Melissa Wolff – Junior, 6-0; 2014-15: 9.2 ppg, 8.7 rpg

Wolff plays a lot bigger than her height, which points to a personal (basketball) profile in which she’s not an instinctive scorer but gets her points in conjunction with the effort she puts forth near the basket. If Vanderbilt can outwork Wolff, it can severely limit her production, because she’s not likely to beat the Dores with a flurry of acrobatic shots or dazzling kinds of offensive plays.

Guard – Kelsey Brooks – Sophomore, 5-9; 2014-15: 16.2 ppg, 5.8 rpg, 2.7 assists per game

This is the future of Dykes’ program in Fayetteville. Brooks is the top scorer on the team and one of the foremost scorers in the SEC. In the LadyBacks’ most recent game against Missouri, Brooks got to the foul line 12 times and made 11 free throws. She uses her quickness to attack the rim while also getting loose balls. Her feel for the game is considerable, and that’s always a player who is hard to deal with if you don’t have an imposing player to check her at all times. Brooks is also the second-best passer on the team, and only this next player is better:

Guard – Calli Berna – Senior, 5-10; 2014-15: 5.4 ppg, 5.4 rpg, 4.8 apg

Look at this lineup – you will notice that you haven’t yet seen a member of Arkansas’ starting five who averages fewer than 5.4 rebounds per game, even though the LadyBacks have two players who check in at under six feet. Berna is relentless in the pursuit of 50-50 balls, but her signature characteristic is that she sacrifices her own offense so that she can distribute the ball and get everyone else involved. If there’s a player in the starting five Vanderbilt must be able to stop in terms of dribble penetration, it’s Berna.

Guard – McKinley Bostad – Freshman, 5-9; 2014-15: 3 ppg, 0.8 rpg, 0.9 apg

Arkansas played only eight players against Missouri, and that’s a product of the fact that only nine players have logged any playing time at all for this team in the 2014-2015 season. The LadyBacks are a thin team without a bench that can share copious quantities of minutes. Against Missouri, two of Arkansas’ three reserves played under 10 minutes, a worrisome sign that the starting five is overextended and will continue to be pushed to the breaking point in the coming weeks. It is essential for Dykes to cultivate depth in his program in the coming years. Right now, he doesn’t have much of it.

Bostad does average only three points per game, but she did bust loose for 15 points against Missouri on 4-of-7 shooting from three-point range. That has to get VU’s attention tonight.

Bench

The two low-impact reserves who received under 10 minutes against Missouri were forwards Katie Powell and Joey Bailey. Neither player averages more than 3.5 points or 2.2 rebounds per game. The one high-impact reserve is sixth woman Jessica Jackson, who averages 14.3 points and 5.9 rebounds per game. Jackson incorporates the three-point shot into her arsenal and can attack the Dores from any spot on the floor.

Keys to the Game

1) Rebounding.
Arkansas rebounds the bejeezus out of the ball – the LadyBacks are third in the SEC and 16th in the nation in rebounding percentage, at 57.2. In a game between two teams that struggle to score, getting more possessions will be central to the outcome. Therefore, VU has to be able to play Arkansas even on the glass. UA attacks the boards from almost every spot on the floor – only Bostad fails to rebound at a high rate, but everyone else thrives when chasing down missed shots. Total commitment from the frontcourt and the backcourt is a must for Vanderbilt tonight.

2) Turnovers. No one said game keys had to be complicated. Vanderbilt’s 23 turnovers against Georgia played a large role in that outcome, and again, since Arkansas – like VU – doesn’t score well, possessions matter a lot in this contest. Arkansas is second in the SEC and 26th in the country in terms of fewest turnovers committed, with 13.1 per game. Vanderbilt doesn’t have to force more than 13 to win, but the Commodores sure have to limit their own turnover numbers. Five players on the VU roster committed at least three turnovers against Georgia. Let’s see if Melanie Balcomb’s team can cut that statistic to “one player with at least three turnovers” and change its fortunes in the process.

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