Second Basketball Scouting Report: Alabama
You don’t like it. No one should. There’s been way, way, wayyyyy too much made of the Kevin Stallings-Wade Baldwin incident right after the Tennessee game on Thursday night. It’s a drama akin to something you always see in a presidential election.
What’s one of the worst things about presidential election (something people on both sides of the aisle should be able to agree on)? A matter of absolutely no genuine consequence – one candidate’s wardrobe; another candidate’s embarrassing photo-op; one candidate’s innocent gesture in a New Hampshire diner; another candidate’s awkward moment in a factory or a store – becomes a major talking point in a campaign, at least for a week or so. It’s trivial. It really shouldn’t matter… but the media runs with it in order to get pageviews or ratings.
That’s what this Stallings-Baldwin story is.
Look: Baldwin shouldn’t have done what he did. Stallings meant well, but did not react with the measured intelligence or appropriately-calibrated tone the situation called for. However, no one got hurt. We know what Stallings meant, what he wanted to try to achieve. The words spilled out, and they weren’t the right ones… but they’re not offensive to the point of needing a severe reprimand or any further investigation. A couple people made mistakes, and it’s up to them – as player and coach – to now make sure they’re on the right page… and that the whole team and coaching staff are unified.
Thursday’s win in Knoxville was an amazing and hugely important win, chiefly because VU rarely wins in the Tommy Bowl, as you know. VU basketball – based strictly on results – is building a LOT of hope and optimism for the 2015-2016 season. It would be a shame if a drama unrelated to basketball itself robs this team of the confidence it is creating on the court. In many ways, that might become the worst result of Thursday’s episode… but it will become the worst result of Thursday’s episode only if Stallings and his team allow it to. They can nip this problem in the bud and move forward. If they do, the progress made in the past few weeks is likely to roll on into March… and November… and beyond. It’s a great time to be a VU men’s basketball fan… as long as Thursday’s problem remains confined to Thursday, as it should.
As it MUST.
The Alabama Crimson Tide have been battling in multiple senses of the term. They’ve been battling well, competing with an admirable constancy amidst diminishing hopes and dwindling crowds in Coleman Coliseum. This is a nowhere program with a coach who is finding it increasingly hard to find reason for long-term optimism. This is going to mark the third straight season in which Alabama will fall short of the NCAA tournament, following a 2012 appearance in which a disputed out-of-bounds call in the final minute (before replay was available as a corrective tool…) led to a gut-punch loss against Creighton in Greensboro, N.C. Yet, for all the gloom enfolding the Tide, they’re still playing hard for Anthony Grant. They beat South Carolina this past Tuesday, and the previous Saturday, they would have beaten Georgia if they had simply been able to make a few last-minute foul shots. It has to give Grant a considerable degree of satisfaction that his players haven’t given up on him. If you think Alabama’s going to meekly surrender to Vanderbilt, you’re likely to be surprised.
Alabama is also battling the injury bug, calling to mind what Vanderbilt went through a season ago. Tuesday against South Carolina, starting forward Shannon Hale suffered a foot injury. He is unlikely to play in this game. Hale averages 8.2 points and 3.2 rebounds per game. Also, backup forward Michael Kessens, who averages nearly six rebounds per game, is likely to miss this game due to a deep bone bruise in his knee. Considering that guard Ricky Tarrant - as mentioned in our previous scouting report on Alabama – has already been knocked out for the full season, this is going to be a very shorthanded Tide team on Saturday. VU has to put in the work, however, and display the energy needed to wear down Alabama as this game continues.
Forward – Jimmie Taylor – Sophomore, 6-10, 240; 2014-15: 4.7 ppg, 4.8 rpg
Taylor will have the responsibility of guarding Damian Jones throughout this game. There’s no other real low-post player for the Tide to turn to, since Dakota Slaughter (mentioned below in the “Bench” section) is only 6-6. Jones began to play more authoritatively down the stretch against Tennessee on Thursday. If he carries himself similarly in this game, Taylor is not likely to have good answers for Jones, and Vanderbilt should thrive.
Guard – Riley Norris – Freshman, 6-7, 207; 2014-15: 4.9 points per game, 4 rebounds per game
Norris averages just under five points per game, but he scored eight against South Carolina. The larger point to make about Norris and – for that matter – all six of Alabama’s remaining core players is that they’re almost certain to log at least 30 minutes in this game. Some of them are sure to exceed normal single-game averages in terms of minutes played. When one mentions per-game averages of any kind, remember that we’re not talking about per-40-minute averages. For this reason, you might see multiple Tide players exceed their normal statistical averages. This is not a concern for Vanderbilt; what’s important to absorb is the need for VU to make sure Alabama players are inefficient in eclipsing their statistical norms. As long as that’s the case, the Dores shouldn’t have much to worry about.
Guard – Retin Obasohan – Junior, 6-1, 208; 2014-15: 5 ppg, 2.5 rpg
Obasohan is the player Vanderbilt will need to focus on more than any other, if only because he was the star of Alabama’s win over South Carolina on Tuesday. What’s also worth noting about Obasohan is that when he played Vanderbilt the first time, he was returning from a two-game absence due to a hand injury. He was just getting back into the swing of things. Now, he’s a more polished player. It’s important to point out that he’s averaging over 13 points per game in his last six outings. Forget the five-points-per-game season average. He’s become a leader on this team, and Bama’s thin bench means he’ll probably try to assert himself to an even greater extent on Saturday afternoon.
Guard – Rodney Cooper – Senior, 6-6, 218; 2014-15: 10.3 ppg, 3.8 rpg, 1.7 assists per game
Given that Alabama is so conspicuously limited in the frontcourt, and given that Vanderbilt has struggled to defend the perimeter this season, Cooper looms as a natural point of focus for VU’s defense. One thing that’s particularly necessary to mention is that VU must defend Cooper not in isolation, but as a teammate working in tandem with both Obasohan and the next player on this list:
Guard – Levi Randolph – Senior, 6-5, 208; 2014-15: 14.8 ppg, 5 rpg, 2.4 apg
The leading scorer on the Tide will feel it necessary to take charge of this team’s offense, with Obasohan trying to figure out the best way to play off him and see how Randolph might pry open Vanderbilt’s defense. It’s plainly apparent that Alabama has three players who can hurt the Dores. The key for VU is not to find a way to defend one of these three, but all of them as a unit.
What can Grant get out of his thinned-out bench? Guard Devin Mitchell didn’t play against South Carolina. Rarely-used forward Dakota Slaughter played four minutes. Justin Coleman, a guard who played 17 minutes against South Carolina, should very likely get at least 20 minutes in this contest to give his teammates a rest at various points in time. All in all, only six players figure to get extended minutes for Alabama. Mitchell and Slaughter don’t appear ready to be able to handle the speed of the game; they might get a few possessions just before TV timeouts to give the starters small but timed breaks.
Keys to the Game
1) Handle the unwanted distraction from Thursday night. This Kevin Stallings-Wade Baldwin story will remain a big deal only if everyone in the VU locker room allows it to. No, this story isn’t a big deal and shouldn’t be a big deal… but if it does divide the team and create doubts about the coach’s authority as a trusted leader, then we’ll have problems. Being together is the most important thing Vanderbilt can – and must – do to properly prepare for this game.
2) Be ready to attack the basket. Yes, when you’re hitting 13 of 25 threes, you’re going to win a lot of games, but what happens when the shots aren’t flowing and you’re not tickling twine with regularity? Vanderbilt can’t fall in love with the three to the extent that it takes “fool’s gold” shots or relies on the three too instinctively. Great teams are able to get to the rim when outside shots aren’t falling. VU has to be ready to do this if the threes don’t drop.
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