Vandy looks to end losing streak

The losses keep mounting for the Vanderbilt men's basketball team, but when a mantra must be relentlessly emphasized, there's no point in discontinuing it. VU has a bright 2016 to look forward to, and that's a constant source of genuine hope... as long as this team doesn't lose hope in the present tense. Results might not emerge right away, but this team has to believe in itself.


The essential point to keep in mind for Vanderbilt after another SEC loss on Saturday – this one against Texas A&M – is that the Commodores kept fighting, despite the uphill nature of their battle against the Aggies. VU could have packed it in after a miserable first half which created a 16-point halftime deficit. Yet, the Dores sliced their deficit under 10 points and made their hosts in College Station work to put them away. That’s the kind persistence which needs to be permanently on display for the rest of the season. If that level of determination sticks around, results are going to emerge before the season ends. Vanderbilt will be able to learn something powerful and positive, setting the foundation for next November and a journey which contains a lot of promise.

Yes, it is undeniably exasperating to contemplate how this season has unfolded for VU, with Saturday’s game serving as a perfect example. The team finally got another good shooting performance from Riley LaChance, a solid 5-of-7 outing from the floor. LaChance also committed only one turnover in his 35 minutes, a strong floor game for any midseason road conference clash. This is exactly what Kevin Stallings had been hoping for from LaChance, whose shooting touch and overall impact on games has been hit-and-miss for much of the SEC season. Getting LaChance and Damian Jones to play really well in the same game is what Vanderbilt has been missing. With LaChance getting off the deck, the Dores figured to have a really good chance of busting into the win column, because Jones is by far the team’s best and most imposing player.

Sure enough – in accordance with the cartoon raincloud nature of this season – Jones picked a bad day to struggle. Yes, it bears mentioning that he’s not yet an elite player and that the future is when he’s going to hit his stride, but a strong performance from Jones could have made Saturday’s game even-steven. Instead, Jones put in one of his worst offensive performances of 2015, hitting just 2 of 11 shots with 3 rebounds and 5 turnovers. It’s just one of those things in a season filled with “one of those things”-type moments. It’s precisely the kind of reality which can cause a team to lose all faith and hope. However, Stallings needs to keep his players’ eyes on the prize: building confidence so that come next November, everyone’s ready to make a run at the NCAA tournament. This team, with Jones as the centerpiece, will have that potential. This month of February and the SEC tournament are all about cultivating and harnessing that potential so that it’s ready to burst forth next fall.

What better way to begin to harness potential than to take on the defending SEC champions, led by one of the elite coaches in America… and likely to be a lot better next season than they’ve been this season?

FLORIDA AT-A-GLANCE

Vanderbilt is not the only SEC team to have a truly snake-bitten season. Florida, given all the successes it has accumulated over the past four seasons, can rightly claim to have suffered an even worse season than Vanderbilt, relative to its talent and expectations. This was not a Final Four team before the season began, but its accumulation of pieces was certainly supposed to point to an NCAA tournament appearance and likely a win or two in the Big Dance. None of those things are going to happen, barring a miracle run through the SEC tournament or a victory over Kentucky this upcoming Saturday in Gainesville (followed by a near-perfect run through the rest of the regular season). Florida looks ticketed for the NIT, a numbing disappointment for a team coming off four straight Elite Eight appearances; a Final Four; and a 21-0 SEC season combining the 18-game regular season slate and the SEC tournament.

The Gators’ season has been defined by one narrow miss after another, especially due to an inability to protect second-half leads. Twice at home and once on the road, Florida has blown double-digit second-half leads against generally good teams. Yes, the Gators lost at home to Connecticut (an NIT team) after squandering a large lead, but they also blew double-figure leads to Miami – a likely NCAA team – and mighty Kansas in Phog Allen Fieldhouse. That game at Kansas showed how good the Gators could be. They roared to a 39-24 halftime lead in Lawrence. You have to have quite a bit of talent to be able to do that. Florida still led by double figures, 49-39, with nearly 11 minutes to go, but then the dam burst. Kansas went on a huge run to win that game with a small working margin, 71-65. Florida never really recovered from that moment.

To express how awful this season has been for Billy Donovan’s team, the Gators lost at Florida State when forward Jacob Kurtz somehow managed to bobble an attempted defensive rebound into his own basket just before the final horn. That was the iconic moment for a season that has never stopped spinning sideways. In the Battle 4 Atlantis early-season tournament in The Bahamas, key performers Eli Carter and Dorian Finney-Smith were injured. The roster was not whole for much of November and part of December, preventing this team from being in the best possible position to get the non-conference wins it has normally collected in the past, setting up high NCAA tournament seeds and deep runs in March. So, when Vanderbilt contemplates its own frustrating season, it can know that in Florida, it has some company.

Starting Lineup

Center – Jon Horford –
Senior, 6-10, 245; 2014-15: 6.7 points per game, 4.8 rebounds per game

Horford’s decision to transfer from John Beilein’s Michigan program has been a complete bust. Horford might have been able to help Michigan go to the NCAA tournament. He hasn’t been able to make a difference for Florida. He missed a few games for disciplinary reasons earlier in the season, and while he’s a very active player, he’s a bit undersized and has not been able to impose his game on opponents in the paint. He doesn’t bring enough low-post offense to the table, which hurts Florida’s overall spacing and limits the ability of wing shooters such as Michael Frazier III to get free on a team that’s markedly different from the 2014 Final Four squad.

Forward – Dorian Finney-Smith – Junior, 6-8, 218; 2014-15: 13.2 ppg, 5.7 rpg

Finney-Smith suffered a hand injury in November, the worst possible injury for a talented shooter. Finney-Smith has just not been able to catch fire, though, from the field. He’s a 40-percent 3-point shooter, but his strong shooting games have been rare. He’s made more than two threes in a game only three times this season. He’s not like one of Georgia’s shooters – the Bulldogs, as a contrast to Florida, seem to get one really hot shooter in every SEC game they play (at least up until Saturday’s loss at South Carolina). Florida can’t get its shooters to play well in the same games.

Guard – Michael Frazier III – Junior, 6-4, 194; 2014-15: 12.9 ppg, 4.7 rpg, 1.6 assists per game

The good news for Florida, as you might be able to tell, is that this core group will have another year together in 2015-2016. Finney-Smith will be back. So will Frazier. For now, though, that’s cold comfort, because this season feels like a waste. Last year, Frazier had Scottie Wilbekin to draw attention to defenses, giving him much more open looks off catches. This year, Florida’s much poorer backcourt has created a much lower quality of shot for Frazier, who isn’t getting the catch-and-shoot opportunities he had in 2014. As a result, while Frazier is shooting a respectable 38 percent from three-point range, that’s down from the 44.7-percent conversion rate of last season, and the rate of almost 47 percent he attained the year before. Florida’s struggles have pervaded the roster, but they especially show up on the perimeter.

Guard – Eli Carter – Junior, 6-2, 200; 2014-15: 7.6 ppg, 2.1 rpg, 1.9 apg

This is another transfer who – like Horford – has not panned out at all. Carter was supposed to give Florida another scorer, but he’s not scoring, chiefly because he’s not shooting the three well enough, at 32.8 percent. Carter needs to be the guy on this team who can hit the corner three so that Frazier can be the guy to shoot from the wings and the top of the key coming off staggered screens and all sorts of angled cuts, creating added spacing for Florida. Carter, though, is not taking care of his end of the bargain. Until he does, this will remain a limited offensive team. Again, though, Carter will be back next season, giving Billy Donovan a chance to mold this team together and fix what has been missing over the past few months. Florida will have a chance to get it right next fall.

Guard – Kasey Hill – Sophomore, 6-1, 182; 2014-15: 7.5 ppg, 2.3 rpg, 4.3 apg

Here’s the biggest reason why Florida has fallen short of its potential this season. Last year, Hill was backing up Wilbekin at the point. He was a freshman thrown into the fire, and while he made a lot of understandable mistakes, he still contributed to the team provided a level of quickness on the dribble which was eye-catching. He was supposed to be a dynamic distributor of the ball, someone who could break down defenses with his penetration and create high-quality shots for his teammates. That hasn’t happened. Hill’s complete distrust of his own shot has made it painfully easy for defenders to sag off him and deny him the ability to get into the paint with the dribble. Hill has become a limited player without the consistent ability to set up teammates. In the offseason, it is quite clear that Hill has to be able to find a 15-foot jumper he can hit with reasonable consistency. He also needs to make much better decisions with the ball. Until he improves in those two areas, Florida’s offense is going to be much more of an adventure than Donovan would like.

Bench

Donovan turns to five reserves to try to get production, but without much success: forward-center Chris Walker, forwards Jacob Kurtz, Alex Murphy, and Devin Robinson, and guard Chris Chiozza. Walker has turned out to be a project at center, a tall and lanky shot blocker without any real offensive game. His meager totals of 5.4 points and 3.9 boards per game rate as huge disappointments for the Gators. Kurtz is a worker-bee defender-rebounder type. He averages just 4.5 points and 4.3 boards per contest. Murphy also averages under five points (4.9 per game). Robinson averages 6 points and 2.5 boards. Chiozza, in the backcourt, averages 4 points per game. There’s not one high-level game-changer on the Gators’ bench, another indication of why they’ve fallen short this season after so many deep NCAA tournament runs in Gainesville.

Keys to the Game

1) Make sure Kasey Hill doesn’t get comfortable.
Hill is the biggest reason Florida has struggled this season, so being smart about giving him the jump shot and packing in the paint to cut off his driving angles is an essential maneuver the Commodores must execute. Do this, and the rest of the Gators’ offense can bog down. VU can make the perimeter rotations needed to stay on Frazier’s and Finney-Smith’s shooting hands.

2) Jones and LaChance together. Let’s see it, VU: Let’s see Jones and LaChance play together at the same time on the same night. That or some similar combination in the frontcourt and backcourt is what will make this offense good enough to put together some SEC wins.

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