Basketball Scouting Report: Texas A&M
The Vanderbilt Commodores aren’t seeing an end to their losing streak, which is naturally not fun. To slog through the winter and come up empty in a succession of game nights (or Saturday afternoons) certainly carries with it a certain degree of both frustration and exhaustion. No team or coaching staff should feel it needs to repress negative emotions or somehow deny that losing stinks. It’s from the dissatisfaction with losing that a winning attitude is forged. Being upset at losing drives competitors to win. We all understand this.
The point worth emphasizing and, perhaps, clarifying is this: Hating the experience of losing doesn’t mean one should be filled with… well… hatred when one steps onto the court for a new game. Sports are supposed to be fun at their core, and pursuing a hard-to-achieve goal is something to be relished, not to view as a burden. Yes, Vanderbilt’s players need to translate the past few weeks of losses into wins… but the big picture for this team is that next season is when the real translating must be done.
This season isn’t going to lead to a shiny and towering achievement – that’s just being realistic. However, this season can certainly enable a young and skilled team to be tactically and psychologically ready for the following season, one in which Vanderbilt really would seem to have the makings of a team that can do some damage once again. Ever since the 2012 team exited stage right, a program that had known a fair amount of success has had to learn with living in a valley instead of sitting atop a peak. Coach Kevin Stallings has run into rough luck in many different ways over the past three years, but next fall, he should finally have his hands on a team that can chase greatness again. These next seven weeks are so critical not because something has to be achieved within the context of this season, but because the table needs to be set for what’s to come in the world of Vanderbilt basketball.
Losing hope, losing belief – that’s the one thing this team cannot do. It’s the one direction this locker room cannot consider as a possible path for what’s left of this season’s journey.
TEXAS A&M AT-A-GLANCE
The Aggies are making a run at the NCAA tournament. They’re not quite at the level of Georgia and LSU (the two best bubble teams in the league, with Arkansas being a tournament team that’s not immediately on the bubble right now…), but they’re close. They’re definitely fifth in the conference pecking order with January about to give way to February. Coach Billy Kennedy has engineered a five-game SEC winning streak after an 0-2 start. This team could have folded after it allowed Kentucky to slip through its fingers in early January. A&M lost in double overtime despite hitting just 9 of 19 foul shots in regulation and only 16 of 30 for the full 50-minute game, with the two extra stanzas. Yet, A&M used that game as a catapult instead of a reason to quit.
How has Texas A&M been getting things done? The Aggies are locking down at the defensive end of the floor. In their five-game SEC winning streak, they have held four opponents under 40 percent field goal shooting. The Aggies are able to play games in the 60s and make it work for them. They won at LSU and at Tennessee, a noticeable achievement in the league this season especially when you consider that the Bayou Bengals and Vols could very possibly give Kentucky a good run when they both host the Wildcats later this season. The Aggies have already conquered those two road environments. They’re in a very good place right now, enjoying rhythm more as a defensive team than as an offensive team. Sometimes that happens.
Forward – Kourtney Roberson – Senior, 6-9, 247; 2014-15: 7.6 points per game, 5.4 rebounds per game
Roberson is the second-best rebounder on this team. He doesn’t need or want the glory. He’ll simply work hard on the glass and as a low-post defender. As long as he’s providing that combination of rebounding and defense, Kennedy will be happy with what he’s getting from Roberson.
Forward – Jalen Jones – Junior, 6-7, 223; 2014-15: 14.1 ppg, 6.1 rpg
The Aggies have only two double-figure scorers. They both average 14 points per game, and this is the interior scorer of the two. Jones doesn’t concern himself with shooting threes – he’s made only seven all season long, and four of them came in a cupcake game against Youngstown State. Vanderbilt will want to keep Jones out of the paint in this contest, to the extent it reasonably can.
Guard – Jordan Green – Senior, 6-5, 191; 2014-15: 6.1 ppg, 1.8 rpg, 1.7 assists per game
There are two alpha males on this team, and then there’s the supporting cast. Green doesn’t look for his offense and is valuable to the extent that he facilitates offense off the ball with screens and other actions that promote spacing. His defense is what matters most on a team that commits itself to that end of the floor.
Guard – Danuel House – Junior, 6-7, 207; 2014-15: 14.3 ppg, 4 rpg, 1.9 apg
This is the perimeter scorer Vanderbilt has to watch out for. House torched Auburn earlier this week on 7-of-10 shooting from the field, 6-of-7 from three-point range. Vanderbilt found it hard to guard Kenny Gaines of Georgia from the three-point arc in two games this season. The Commodores’ shaky perimeter defense has to find a way to keep House in check.
Guard – Alex Caruso – Junior, 6-5, 184; 2014-15: 9 ppg, 4.5 rpg, 5.3 apg
What makes A&M’s SEC surge so impressive is that it has come without a big statistical splash from Caruso, a crafty left-handed player who provided a number of clutch plays for the Aggies last season. In this, his junior season, Caruso was supposed to be more of an impact player on offense, but it hasn’t happened that way. Yet, to his great credit, he has shown patience and unselfishness by continuing to get his teammates involved instead of hijacking possessions with bad shots in an attempt to play hero ball. If Caruso ever does get a hot shooting hand, the Aggies could become a much better team than they already are.
Kennedy turns to three primary reserves: center Tonny Trocha-Morelos, forward Tavario Miller, and guard Alex Robinson. Trocha-Morelos has virtually no statistical footprint to speak of. Miller averages 4.1 rebounds per game. Robinson is the elite reserve for the Aggies. He scored 12 points against Auburn earlier this week on 6-of-9 shooting, so his 4.8-points-per-game average is not something VU should take at face value. Robinson is also the second-best passer on the Aggies, handing out 2.9 assists per game.
Keys to the Game
1) The life of Riley must improve. Riley LaChance doesn’t have to be great every game for Vanderbilt to win, but he does have to shoot the ball reasonably well on a fairly consistent basis, and that’s not happening. Vanderbilt’s perimeter players don’t need to scorch the nets, but they too often toss in two bad games, then have a good game, and then go back to having a bad game. The Commodores don’t get steady shooting performances, which means that it’s up to a smaller number of players to carry the scoring load each night. When consistently decent shooting – not even consistently great shooting – becomes a reality for this team, the wins should start coming. However, that modest level of consistency is still elusive, and LaChance has embodied it more than anyone else has over the past two weeks.
2) Shut down Caruso’s passing lanes to stifle A&M’s perimeter offense. The Aggies have two perimeter scorers, House as a starter and Robinson off the bench. Caruso, though, is the player who will often feed them the ball. Perimeter defense is a blended art, and in this game, Vanderbilt can’t simply view its challenge as a matter of guarding House and Robinson one-on-one. Preventing Caruso from making crisp passes to set up his teammates will be very important in the larger scheme of things.
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