The Vanderbilt Commodores were being outplayed and outshot by the South Carolina Gamecocks throughout the first 25 minutes of last Saturday’s game in Memorial Gym. The Gamecocks, not a very good shooting team in general, made 15 of their first 28 field goal attempts and built a 39-27 lead with 14:53 left against at VU squad that looked stuck in molasses.
Vanderbilt had just beaten a Florida team that owned only one considerable perimeter threat, and the Dores – frail in terms of perimeter defense for most of the season – had a chance to beat yet another team that did not establish a healthy relationship with the jump shot. Yet, South Carolina played against its history and the odds in those first 25 minutes, lighting up the nets and catching the home team off balance. Vanderbilt had spent weeks without knowing the joy of victory in SEC competition. To lose a game – at home, no less – just a few days after finally re-entering the win column would have put the brakes on any notions of a sustained surge in the middle of a long season. How was Vanderbilt going to respond to the possibility that a run would never become a run, that good vibes would disappear as soon as they had begun to filter into the team’s locker room?
The answer to this question had to please Kevin Stallings a great deal: Vanderbilt responded by trusting the plan... and the percentages. This was the correct answer to a stiff test, and when a student begins to find the right answers to puzzling queries, confidence grows.
There’s only one way to truly address an opposing team’s abnormally or unexpectedly hot shooting: Play harder, at least to the extent that a team has to work for shots and doesn’t get anything easy near the rim. After 25 very frustrating minutes, Vanderbilt competed with greater focus and concentration over the final 15 minutes of regulation. As a result, the game changed and settled into the patterns the Dores were hoping for. South Carolina, following that 15-of-28 start, hit only 2 of its last 15 field goals, finishing at 17 of 43, or just under 40 percent, very much in line with what a competent defensive performance should produce against South Carolina. Vanderbilt stayed the course; accordingly, it was able to produce separate bursts of excellence to take and then maintain control. VU uncorked an 18-0 run to take a 49-43 lead midway through the second half. Then, it unleashed a 10-0 run in the final three-plus minutes to pull away for a 65-50 victory.
This time, Vanderbilt – not its opponent – was able to finish the race. This time, the Commodores displayed a considerable measure of staying power instead of losing their edge midway through the second half. NBA games are the ultimate manifestation of how basketball’s copious quantity of in-game possessions rewards patience and the ability to steadily erode a deficit over time. The college game, while not packing in nearly as many possessions as the pro game does, still affords teams this same opportunity. Had Vanderbilt trailed by 12 with four minutes left, it might not have successfully completed its comeback, but with 15 minutes left, there was enough time to trust the plan and count on South Carolina to start missing jumpers… provided that the defensive energy level became more substantial… which it did.
This team now has something more meaningful to build on as the season continues.
The Volunteers should get better as head coach Donnie Tyndall settles into his job (and it seems he’ll get the chance to do just that, given that an ongoing NCAA investigation has not yet unearthed evidence that he specifically participated in committing NCAA violations). For now, though, this program is clearly going through growing pains.
Tennessee beat Kansas State and Butler in December, suggesting that a special season stood as a distinct possibility. When the Vols beat Arkansas at home early in the SEC campaign, hopes of a return to the NCAA tournament became even more realistic. However, the past few weeks have shattered those notions. Tennessee has lost four out of five games, losing at home to Mississippi State and Texas A&M while dropping a road decision at Georgia this past Saturday. The Vols do get a shot at Kentucky in a week, and that game is in Knoxville, but the idea that Tennessee can be a tournament team has taken a huge hit, probably one the program won’t be able to recover from within the confines of this specific season.
What has to really concern Tyndall and everyone else in the Vols’ camp is that this team has lost its last two games in very different ways. The Mississippi State loss on Feb. 3 was the result of porous defense. Mississippi State hit 56 percent of its shots on the Vols’ home floor. That can’t happen to a tournament team… but it did. Fair enough – bad performances will occur. Tennessee just had to set things right against Georgia.
Well, another bad performance emerged… but this time, it was at the offensive end of the floor.
Tennessee forced 20 turnovers from Georgia; was plus-6 on the offensive glass (11-5), and limited Georgia to 13 foul shots, several of them in the final minutes when playing catch-up. The Volunteers, without a meaningful free-throw-attempt deficit, gained 18 more field goal attempts than the Bulldogs. That should translate into a win… but it didn’t. Tennessee made just 35.7 percent of its field goal tries. In actuality, two UT starters – Armani Moore and Robert Hubbs III – hit roughly 50 percent of their shots, but Josh Richardson hit only 1 of 13 attempts, dragging down the team’s shooting percentage by himself.
It’s gotta be driving the Vols batty – they committed only 8 turnovers on the road, meaning that their turnover differential was plus-12 for the game. Yet, their star player’s poor day at the office translated into a three-point loss. That’s the story of this SEC season, and it’s why Tennessee has to beat Kentucky just to get back into the at-large conversation. The Vols aren’t part of it now, and they need to beat VU so that if they can improbably upend UK, they’ll be able to compile a tournament-worthy resume.
Forward – Armani Moore – Junior, 6-5, 215; 2014-15: 10.4 points per game, 7 rebounds per game, 2.1 assists per game
Moore has a small frame – he could be a big guard with his body – but he throws his weight around on the glass like a power forward. Vanderbilt will need to confront his energy, and the Dores will also have to deal with his passing ability and court sense. Moore is the second-best assist man on the Tennessee roster.
Forward – Tariq Owens – Freshman, 6-10, 205; 2014-15: 0.8 ppg, 0.9 rpg
Owens is a placeholder forward. The player who gets more minutes per game is Derek Reese, who averages 5.4 points and 5.2 rebounds per game. Reese is a little thicker at 6-8 and 220, but the Vols really don’t have an especially bulky low-post player. This is a team with length and quickness, but not power.
Guard – Kevin Punter – Junior, 6-4, 180; 2014-15: 10.9 ppg, 2.4 rpg, 1.9 apg
Punter is a bit of a mystery in that he’s a 41.1-percent 3-point shooter, but someone who doesn’t look for his shot. He normally doesn’t take any more than four threes per game. If he looks for his shot a little more (he did hit 5 of 7 triples against Texas A&M a few weeks ago…), he could be a problem for Vanderbilt’s perimeter defense.
Guard – Robert Hubbs III – Sophomore, 6-6, 206; 2014-15: 6.8 ppg, 2.7 rpg
Hubbs scored 15 points on 6-of-12 shooting against Georgia, so while his averages look pedestrian, he’s coming off a big game, so for that reason alone, VU has to take him seriously on Wednesday.
Guard – Josh Richardson – Senior, 6-6, 200; 2014-15: 15.6 ppg, 4 rpg, 3.7 apg
Let’s say that Richardson follows his nightmarish game at Georgia with another slow shooting start against Vanderbilt. If that’s the case, the Dores still need to be ready to contain Richardson as a playmaker – he is the Vols’ best assist man by a considerable margin. Since he’s a big guard, Richardson can find and create passing angles fairly easily. That itself is a problem for VU. However, the bigger issue is that Vanderbilt should not expect Richardson to shoot poorly in this game. Richardson is a quality scorer. He’s gone for at least 17 points in 12 separate games this season. Richardson will be intent on playing – and shooting – better than he did against Georgia. Vanderbilt must be ready to deal with the effects of a stronger performance by Richardson.
You’ve met Derek Reese. The other primary reserve Tyndall uses is guard Detrick Mostella, who averages 4.1 points per game. Two other reserves got under 10 minutes of playing time against Georgia: forward Willie Carmichael III and guard Devon Baulkman. Carmichael averages 3.5 points and 2.5 boards per game, Baulkman 4.7 points and 2.2 boards per contest.
Keys to the Game
1) Contain Richardson. The Vols’ best scorer might get his points, but if he does, he needs to use a lot of field goal attempts to get there, with few free throws and layups as part of the mix. Richardson – if he does go for 20 points – can’t be allowed to also hand out six or eight assists, setting his teammates up for great looks at the basket. Significantly limiting at least two facets of Richardson’s game will make the evening manageable; completely shutting down Richardson is not a realistic aspiration.
2) Jonesing for a dominant performance. Richardson is a matchup problem for Vanderbilt. Damian Jones should be a matchup problem for Tennessee in this game, given his ability to play over the top of a smaller man who lacks bulk and heft in the paint (Owens, primarily). If Richardson posts a 22-5-9 scoreline (points-rebounds-assists), Jones needs to counter with a 26-12-3-5 (points-boards-assists-blocked shots).
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