It is as though the Vanderbilt Commodores are following a speed limit right now… and their obedience of the law is paying off.
Vanderbilt has posted a double-nickel, 55 points, in each of its last two SEC contests. The Dores have walked away with close-shave victories against teams in the lower tier of the conference. These results certainly beat the alternatives, but there’s a very palpable awareness in the VU camp that the team’s halfcourt offense simply has to improve in order for this team to be able to survive future meetings against top-tier teams in the league. It’s just that simple.
It’s perfect, then – at least in the sense of being thematically appropriate, not necessarily advantageous – that Vanderbilt should reunite with Mississippi State. Of VU’s three SEC wins to date, the triumph over Mississippi State was the one in which Vanderbilt truly flourished on offense and delivered a knockout punch to an opponent. The 78-point game is conspicuous for how rare it was and is in the context of VU’s seven SEC games. This team has been held in the 50s or very low 60s in all its other games. Versus MSU, though, Vanderbilt managed to bust loose. The one source of encouragement for coach Melanie Balcomb’s team as it prepares for tip-off in Starkville: Mississippi State could be in the process of being exposed on a deeper level. Vanderbilt, however, needs to play well enough to do the exposing.
MISSISSIPPI STATE AT-A-GLANCE
The Bulldogs, who carried an unbeaten record into January before VU beat them in Memorial Gym, have shown signs of becoming a team that’s a lot worse than its record, which has added just one more loss since the last time these teams met on Jan. 11. While MSU is 21-2, its three wins since the loss to Vanderbilt have come against Ole Miss, Alabama, and Auburn. The win against Auburn, the most recent victory for the Bulldogs, came with Auburn missing its leading scorer. A loss to LSU won’t improve the way in which this team is evaluated. The point is plain: MSU needs a revival, and it is hoping that revival comes in the form of an authoritative performance against Vanderbilt.
It’s anything but certain that the Bulldogs will be able to deliver such a roundhouse punch, however. MSU has not shot better than 42 percent in any of its last four games, and the Bulldogs have hit under 39 percent of their field goals in three of those four games. This is a team which is clearly struggling at the offensive end of the floor. Vanderbilt wants to be able to play a high-level game on offense, but if that attempt fails, let’s acknowledge that VU has been really good at holding opponents in the low 50s.
Maybe that double-nickel approach can work for one more game. VU, though, doesn’t want to push its luck too much. This team knows it has to be better on offense if it wants to create the best possible chance of winning.
Center – Martha Alwal – Senior, 6-4; 2014-15: 8 points per game, 5.9 rebounds per game
When we last checked in on Mississippi State, we noted that the Bulldogs had distributed minutes fairly widely on their roster. In an SEC game from the first week of January, the starting five played 105 minutes and scored 33 points, 21 of them by only one player. The bench played 95 minutes and scored 39 points. That pattern has given way to something very different, at least if MSU’s most recent game against Auburn is any indication. Four starters played at least 33 minutes, and only one bench player received more than seven minutes. This is a team with a different rotation. Alwal is now the starting center.
Alwal’s backup, Chinwe Okorie, was a starter getting bench-level minutes when VU first played Mississippi State. She had been averaging 5.1 points and 5.8 rebounds per game. She’s now at 4.3 points and 4.8 rebounds.
Forward – Breanna Richardson – Sophomore, 6-1; 2014-15: 8.9 ppg, 5.9 rpg
Richardson has displaced Ketara Chapel in the Mississippi State starting five. Chapel had been averaging 7 points and 3.8 rebounds per game when VU and MSU first played. Chapel now averages 6 points and 3.3 rebounds. Richardson merits attention from Vanderbilt because she is tied with Alwal for the most rebounds per game on this club, despite giving three inches to her teammate in the low post. Richardson’s nose for the ball is something the Dores have to be able to deal with.
Forward – Victoria Vivians – Freshman, 6-1; 2014-15: 14.3 ppg, 5.1 rpg
Vivians’ scoring average is down 1.2 points per game relative to the previous time these teams met. Her rebounding average is down 0.5 boards compared to the first VU-MSU clash. This could be an example of a freshman losing steam as the season moves along, but Vanderbilt can’t assume that’s going to happen. The Dores have to work hard enough to hound Vivians into another bad night at the office.
Guard – Dominique Dillingham – Sophomore, 5-9; 2014-15: 6.1 ppg, 4.6 rpg, 1.7 assists per game
Dillingham’s scoring average is up 0.4 points compared to these teams’ first matchup this season. Her rebounding average is unchanged. Her assists are up 0.2 relative to Jan. 11. With the Bulldogs stagnating on offense of late, they would love to see Dillingham, still an underclassman, find more ways to score, but that just hasn’t happened yet. Vanderbilt wants to make sure that kind of breakthrough is delayed at least one more game.
Guard – Jerica James – Senior, 5-5; 2014-15: 5.3 ppg, 1.5 rpg, 2.9 apg
James played only 10 minutes against Auburn, whereas Morgan William received 29 minutes off the bench as the sixth player in the MSU rotation, a “non-starter starter” of sorts. William averages 9.8 points per game, the second-best total on the team behind Vivians. She also averages 3.7 assists, which is the best average on this roster. James happens to be second at 2.9 dimes per game.
You’ve met Okorie, Chapel and Morgan William. Other reserves are Sherise Williams, Kendra Grant, and Savannah Carter. Williams averages 3.4 points per game, Grant 5.9 per game, and Carter 3 per game.
Keys to the Game
1) Perimeter shooting. It’s easy to talk about ball movement and spacing and concepts as far as halfcourt offense is concerned, but tactics won’t mean that much if Vanderbilt doesn’t get someone to hit a few long shots early to open up MSU’s defense and create a series of driving and passing lanes the Commodores can exploit in the second half. Getting a hot hand in the first half will lead to more success. Players have to step up and deliver.
2) One and done for Mississippi State. The Bulldogs rebound really well as a team. Every player in this rotation is capable of plucking a handful of rebounds from her spot on the floor. Since MSU has been shooting very poorly of late, a big rebounding night from VU can apply a maximum of pressure toward the Bulldogs, making them panic more, not less, as this game goes along.
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