The Vanderbilt Commodores didn’t find a victory on Tuesday, but they found something very powerful, something that can make the final week of January, all of February, and the SEC Tournament a lot richer and far more charged with electricity. What’s that something? Learned belief.
There is a difference between conceptual or personal belief and learned belief. Athletes know they HAVE to believe if they’re going to win. Coaches tell them they have to believe. Individual human beings, as ambitious aspirational creatures, feel they need to believe in something and know they will have to believe in themselves at some point in order to get anywhere in life. Human beings carry around a certain kind of belief because they know they have to carry it. They might not actually believe with all of their being, but they try to convince themselves they do, because they know it’s important. This is the realm of the conceptual or personal.
Learned belief, though, is something quite different. Learned belief emerges when you’re thrown into the fire of competition or pressure, into a challenge posed by either a situation or a human presence that requires you to be better… and you realize, through performance or actions, that yes, you can exist in such a world and belong. You can cope. You can survive. You can be considered worthy of the responsibility entrusted to you; the relationship you wish to build; the goals you hope to achieve. When you are given a test and hold up well under pressure, this thing called belief goes from being very conceptual and head-based to being something that’s written on the heart, deep in the center of your personhood. You no longer think you believe or think you have to believe. You know you believe, and you no longer have to question your belief or whether you own it or not.
Very simply, then, the Vanderbilt Commodores ought to be learned believers now. They should now know they can compete well against an elite team on the road in a difficult environment. They should now know that they can play Kentucky on even terms, especially on the glass. They should now know that they can defend at a high level against a physically imposing team. They should now know that they can withstand the aura and atmosphere of Rupp Arena. They should now know that they’re capable of producing considerable quality.
Learned belief must now translate into more results, and specifically, the ability to compete well in consecutive games. This has been an issue for Vanderbilt this season, and this is why Saturday’s game against LSU is richly important. It matters not necessarily within the context of any specific SEC or postseason goals this season; it matters because VU, in order to become what it needs to become – especially with an eye toward 2016 – must demonstrate the ability to back up one good performance with another. This team has to show that after an emotionally draining game and a huge outpouring of mental and physical energy against Kentucky, it can bounce back against a formidable LSU squad that’s making a run at the NCAA tournament.
It needs to be pointed out that Vanderbilt, having played on Tuesday as opposed to Wednesday or especially Thursday, should have enough recovery time to be physically and mentally fresh. If this team is going to convince itself, its fan base, its coaching staff, and the rest of the SEC that it will be ready to take the great leap forward next season, playing well against LSU (not necessarily winning, but certainly playing well) would send a very strong message. It’s showtime for the VU crew.
The Tigers are a constantly exasperating team, capable of brilliance or ineptitude every time they take the court. Coach Johnny Jones has a very talented team on his hands, but it’s one that displays a Jekyll-and-Hyde identity. The same LSU team that beat West Virginia on the road is the team that lost to Clemson. The same LSU team that won at Ole Miss is the team that lost to Missouri. The same LSU team that lost at home versus Texas A&M is the team that whacked Florida in Gainesville on Tuesday, when Vanderbilt was giving Kentucky a run. Which version of LSU will show up on Saturday? It’s up to VU to try to force LSU into an ugly game, but if LSU plays well, the Dores will just have to take the Bayou Bengals’ best punch.
Center – Darcy Malone – Sophomore, 7-0, 245; 2014-15: 1.3 points per game, 1 rebound per game
Malone is listed as a starter, but he’s just a placeholder on a team that likes to go with a two-forward, three-guard lineup. LSU has a number of players who get trace amounts of minutes and leave virtually no statistical footprint (with any meaning, at least).
Forward – Jordan Mickey – Sophomore, 6-8, 238; 2014-15: 15.5 ppg, 10.6 rpg
This is one of LSU’s two best players. Mickey has a physical, powerful frame but is more than agile enough to create shots in many different kinds of ways. What’s impressive is that he doesn’t have a three-point shooting game – it’s not a meaningful part of his arsenal – but he still gets to the rim enough to shoot just over 50 percent from the field. He’s a force of nature, and he shows this not only in his ability to score, but also in his ruthless assaults of the backboard. He’s a beast on the glass, and Vanderbilt will have its hands full in trying to contain him on the boards.
Forward – Jarell Martin – Sophomore, 6-10, 236; 2014-15: 16.9 ppg, 8.8 rpg, 1.9 assists per game
Martin takes Mickey’s skill set and delivers similar numbers with it. Martin can carve out a little more space, and being taller, he is in better position to get putbacks that boost his scoring average. The ability to put Martin and Mickey on the floor at the same time gives LSU an extremely strong frontcourt which can attack the glass and enable the Tigers to use the missed shot as a form of offense. As long as this team avoids turnovers, it will have a chance to chase down a miss. Vanderbilt needs to keep that point in mind.
Guard – Keith Hornsby – Junior, 6-4, 210; 2014-15: 12.5 ppg, 4.6 rpg, 2.3 apg
Hornsby scored 15 for LSU on Tuesday against Florida, supplementing Martin’s 22 and Mickey’s 14. He’s a 37-percent three-point shooter who enables LSU to space the floor and give more room for Mickey and Martin to operate.
Guard – Josh Gray – Junior, 6-1, 182; 2014-15: 9.6 ppg, 2.7 rpg, 4.9 apg
Gray got only 17 minutes against Florida, while fellow guards Tim Quarterman and Jalyn Patterson received at least 28 minutes apiece. Gray is LSU’s best assist man – he’s not that great a shooter, but he’s generally judicious with his shot selection, because he knows there are better scorers on the team, the ones he needs to feed the ball to.
LSU basically has a seven-player rotation, and as you’ve seen above, Tim Quarterman and Jalyn Patterson are the two primary subs for the Tigers, the players who sometimes get starter-level minutes. Quarterman is a 12-points-per-game scorer who also averages 5.6 boards and 3.5 assists per game, a well-rounded performer. Patterson averages 5.2 points per game.
Keys to the Game
1) Turnovers – force a lot of them. As you read above, a missed shot is okay for LSU – it can create offense, because Mickey and Martin can chase the miss on the glass. Where LSU gets into trouble is in the turnover department. The team is last in the SEC and near the very bottom of the 351-school realm of Division I in turnovers per game, with 15.4. If Vanderbilt can force 20 turnovers, it will have a very good chance of winning. LSU shoots well – third in the SEC in overall shooting percentage, fifth in two-point percentage, fifth in free-throw percentage. If the Bayou Bengals get a lot of shot attempts, their odds of winning will improve. If Vandy can turn them over, the visitors from Baton Rouge will be in trouble.
2) Free-throw differential. Mickey and Martin can easily create a parade to the foul line for LSU. That’s one point to note. Second, Vanderbilt was outscored in a big way by Kentucky at the charity stripe. Vanderbilt doesn’t need to win the free-throw battle, but it can’t get blown out in this category on Saturday evening.
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