Basketball Scouting Report: Alabama
You could pick at the margins and find other things to dislike about Vanderbilt’s game against Tennessee a few days ago, but in the end, the Commodores did so many of the things they were supposed to do against the Vols. Yes, Josh Richardson did indeed have a big game – that was predictable – but Vanderbilt didn’t allow Richardson to steadily feed his teammates for shots. The Dores allowed Richardson to score his points, but not at the cost of breaking down the VU defense and creating good opportunities for everyone else in an orange jersey. The Dores were tougher in the paint, as shown by a 30-13 margin in free throw attempts. They were superior on the glass. The Dores shot at a higher level than Tennessee and generated one of their better performances of the year in terms of getting their main frontcourt players to play defense without fouling.
Everything was properly set up for Vanderbilt to win this game. All the team needed was for Riley LaChance and then Wade Baldwin IV to make two of two foul shots in the final 10 seconds – at the very least, for the two men to make a combined 3 of 4 at the charity stripe. As long as VU had a three-point lead heading into those final three or four seconds, the Dores could have fouled (just as they had done on the previous Tennessee possession with six seconds left) and almost assuredly won in regulation time. However, on a night when Damian Jones and James Siakam (who were generally very impressive) hit only 6 of 14 foul shots, it was the pair of misses by LaChance and Baldwin – one apiece – which left the door open for the Vols. Tennessee didn’t need a three in those final three or four seconds, and when Robert Hubbs III hit that runner at the horn, Tennessee had gained a reprieve. It’s not an immutable law of sports, but it’s certainly a frequent-enough occurrence that when a talented team plays poorly but manages to steer a game into overtime, it realizes that it received a get-out-of-jail-free card and plays with a vibrant confidence that was missing in the previous 40 minutes. Tennessee did this (and it had a hot Josh Richardson), pushing ahead of Vanderbilt after the Dores allowed the game to slip away in those final 10 seconds of regulation.
There was no grand tactical failure. There was no gaping structural weakness in the Dores’ performance. They had played well enough as a team to offset the individual brilliance of Richardson, plus an abnormally potent and effective performance from Derek Reese off the bench. The Dores absorbed the best punches of two different Tennessee players by shutting down just about everyone else. They were about to notch a third consecutive victory.
They simply lost this game at the foul line, plain and simple. The bigs left a lot of points on the table during the balance of the contest, and then the backcourt left those two crucial points on the board at the very end. Had VU hit 19 of its 30 regulation-time foul shots on Wednesday, it would have left the court a winner. Had it made 18, it probably still would have won for reasons discussed above. Alas, the Dores made only 17, and that was just enough for Tennessee to turn to its advantage.
There was no great schematic failure. There was no huge systematic flaw. “Sports happens,” you might say, and losing like that is different from losing because you know you didn’t play hard enough or didn’t demonstrate basic competence in a live-ball aspect of competition, such as perimeter defense or ball movement or rebounding. If Vanderbilt can come to terms with the reality that it outplayed Tennessee, this team can take comfort in knowing that it is moving in the right direction. Carrying that kind of realization into Tuscaloosa for tonight’s game against Alabama can give this team the mindset it needs to win on the road in the SEC, something the team hasn’t done yet this season… but needs to. Even one SEC road win will offer just the kind of affirmation this team can use to convince itself that it is destined for bigger and better things next season… and in the years to come.
The Alabama Crimson Tide are left singing a familiar and sad tune. Head coach Anthony Grant has once again brought his team teasingly close to a few big wins, but those are wins that Alabama couldn’t tuck away. This team is headed for the NIT, and only an improbable turn of events can lead this team to the NCAA tournament, which it has made just once in more than half a decade of basketball under Billy Donovan’s former assistant.
When Alabama looks back at this season, it will regret a one-point loss to Wichita State in December, the kind of game that – had it gone the other way – would have given the Crimson Tide reason to think they had turned the corner. Those kinds of games just haven’t been going Alabama’s way this season, and after an encouraging 2-0 SEC start featuring wins over Texas A&M and Tennessee, this team could not maintain a winning edge. Alabama was nowhere near ready to handle Kentucky at home, and when Donovan – Grant’s mentor – managed to win in Coleman Coliseum despite having his worst team at Florida in several years, it had become patently clear that the Tide were adrift once more.
To make the NCAA tournament, Alabama has to come very close to running the table. Being realistic, Alabama can afford two losses the rest of the way. One of them can’t occur until after the Tide get a shot at – and then beat – Kentucky in the SEC tournament. If Bama can play and then declaw the Cats in the SEC tournament, losing in the final to (let’s say) an NCAA-bound team such as Arkansas or Georgia, the Tide could receive an at-large bid. Otherwise, they’d likely have to win the SEC tournament outright to get into the field of 68. Can Vanderbilt do what’s needed to fend off this team and make it question itself once more?
Forward – Shannon Hale – Junior, 6-8, 226; 2014-15: 8.4 points per game, 3.2 rebounds per game
Alabama is a backcourt-dominated team, with guards representing all three of the Tide’s double-figure scorers. Hale is the best frontcourt scorer on the team, however, so for that reason alone, he merits attention. It’s also worth pointing out that Vanderbilt just got surprised by a frontcourt player (Derek Reese of Tennessee) who more than doubled his season scoring average in an individual game. That should also make VU vigilant when it comes to defending Hale in the post.
Forward – Jimmie Taylor – Sophomore, 6-10, 240; 2014-15: 4.5 ppg, 4.5 rpg
Taylor is a player of limited skill, a young man in a big body who is still learning the game. As long as Vanderbilt can compete with him in the paint and work hard enough to keep him from getting easy opportunities, the Dores should be fine.
Guard – Justin Coleman – Freshman, 5-10, 160; 2014-15: 4.8 ppg, 1.1 rpg, 1.4 assists per game
Coleman is a temporary fill-in at a starting guard spot because Ricky Tarrant, the team’s second-leading scorer at 13.1 points per game, is out indefinitely with an injury suffered in late January. Tarrant’s absence has primarily hurt Alabama because it has removed a central scoring option from the roster, but it has also brought about a negative secondary effect: It has shortened the team’s rotation, cutting into what little depth the Tide possessed. This team needs Tarrant back in a big way; Coleman is just not up to the job and is being given a near-impossible task for an undersized freshman who needs a year or two in which to grow – both physically and holistically.
Guard – Rodney Cooper – Senior, 6-6, 218; 2014-15: 10.3 ppg, 3.9 rpg, 1.6 apg
Cooper is one of Alabama’s two senior guards, a player who seems as though he’s been around for seven or eight seasons, not merely four. Cooper is Alabama’s main three-point threat, shooting 41.5 percent from long range. Vanderbilt has been torched by the Tide’s perimeter shooters in the past. If VU gets smoked by Cooper from three-point range, it will not be able to say it didn’t see it coming.
Guard – Levi Randolph – Senior, 6-5, 208; 2014-15: 14.8 ppg, 4.9 rpg, 2.3 apg
The stat which immediately jumps out about Randolph is that while he’s a guard, he hits 57 percent of his two-point shots. That’s very impressive for someone his size. He’s not a diminutive player, but he’s also not 6-11 and 270 pounds, the kind of player who can move aside defenders and create a steady diet of easy putbacks at the rim. That’s how a player normally builds a very high shooting percentage on two-point shots. The fact that Randolph can achieve that at 6-5 is extremely impressive. VU has its work cut out when it comes to defending Randolph.
You know that Coleman is Ricky Tarrant’s replacement. What’s left on the Alabama bench? Forward Michael Kessens, who averages 6.4 points and 5.7 rebounds per game. He is this team’s leading rebounder, an indication of how poorly the starting frontcourt rebounds the ball. Kessens is joined by guards Riley Norris and Devin Mitchell. Norris averages 4.5 points and 3.7 rebounds per game. Mitchell averages… basically nothing (0.6 points, 0.3 rebounds). You can see that Coleman is meant to be in Mitchell’s spot, with Tarrant being in the starting five. Alabama essentially has an eight-player rotation… but it’s one which needs Tarrant as part of the mix. Mitchell shouldn’t be playing if Grant had a real choice in the matter, but he has to steal minutes with his depleted roster and its lack of depth. Mitchell is the guy who must steal a few minutes a game. Vanderbilt must make Bama pay when Mitchell’s on the floor.
Keys to the Game
1) Power the ball to the basket and earn more free throws. You’ll note that we’re not focusing on making foul shots – that’s a separate concern. What’s important for Vanderbilt and Kevin Stallings to emphasize in this game is that with Alabama’s frontcourt being so noticeably weak, VU should once again be able to find favorable matchups in the low post and the painted area. VU should be able to get Bama in foul trouble and create good opportunities to score.
2) Play the same game with Randolph. Vanderbilt watched Josh Richardson of Tennessee score at a high rate… but it did not allow Richardson to set up teammates very often. If VU can do the same thing with Randolph, giving him his points but preventing him from setting up Cooper for open three-point looks, the Dores should be able to contain Alabama to the extent that they’ll have a great chance to win.
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