NIT Scouting Report: Saint Mary's
Losing a 12-point lead to Tennessee in the final 7:18 of the SEC tournament’s second round had to sting the Vanderbilt Commodores for a number of reasons. First, it was Tennessee. Second, the Vols won by hitting the three-point shot, something they really hadn’t done that well for most of the regular season. It’s never fun when you lose in a way that feels somewhat aberrational. It feels like a cosmic joke.
What made the loss tougher to take, though, was that Vanderbilt had a real chance to make its way through the bottom half of the SEC bracket and possibly earn a date with Kentucky – technically for an automatic bid, but essentially for the chance to test itself against the best and gain crucial experience for a 2015-2016 season which has people in Nashville rightfully excited. Vanderbilt lost a chance to make a run in the SEC tournament, and that’s why the pain of defeat is easily greater than it was in previous SEC tournament exits.
However, for all the ways in which that loss should rightly eat away at every VU player and coach, it’s not the final episode in this season. The Commodores – unlike Florida, unlike Michigan, unlike Minnesota, and unlike Kansas State – were invited to the NIT. Imagine that for a bit – VU had a better season in terms of postseason achievement than Florida and other schools with much more recent NCAA tournament success. More games are what this team needs. More non-conference games against unfamiliar opponents with different matchup components will be especially welcome for the Dores. This is a chance to grow and a chance to build into November.
Beyond the large-scale themes at work with Vanderbilt, there’s an even more specific reason why this game against Saint Mary’s is such an opportunity to expunge the bad taste left by the Tennessee loss: It’s a chance for this team to learn how to develop its most promising player.
When VU gained that 59-47 lead over Tennessee near the seven-minute mark of regulation, the Dores continued to shoot threes. After all, that’s what propelled the team past Tennessee in Knoxville. However, when a game gets tight and the other team is making a big run, the best and most direct way to shut down that run is to get an easy basket. That means going to the tin, ideally with the intent of getting a dunk or layup, but having the fall-back plan of shooting foul shots if unable to make a field goal. Jones, though, didn’t get many paint touches, and the Commodores just didn’t score many points in the final 7:18 – two, to be exact. A lesson was hopefully learned about getting to the rim in a time of crisis. This NIT berth – a well-deserved prize for a good season – gives VU a chance to show that it has learned that lesson and can carry it into next season as well. A win here would do quite a lot to turn the Tennessee loss from an ugly moment into yet one more teachable occasion which improved the way Vanderbilt plays basketball.
SAINT MARY’S AT-A-GLANCE
Saint Mary’s was a team that almost did the things it needed to do to make the NCAA tournament. The Gaels lost by two points at home to Northern Arizona, a damaging loss which hurt them in the NCAA selection process. The team also lost to Santa Clara and Portland late in the season to clearly eliminate themselves from the Big Dance. Saint Mary’s doesn’t have the perimeter playmakers it used to have. (You’ll note that former SMC guard Matthew Dellavedova is a decent player for the Cleveland Cavaliers. He’s not amazing or spectacular, but he’s holding his own in the pros, which is a lot better than many expected of him.) The Gaels have an elite big man in Brad Waldow, but they don’t have an outstanding second scorer which can change the nature of a game.
As inconsistent as the Gaels were this season, they showed how good they can be when they’re clicking. They led Gonzaga by 11 at halftime when they hosted the Zags in Moraga, Calif. They still led by nine with 6:15 left, but they faltered down the stretch and lost by 10. Gonzaga almost won a few games it really should have won, and it almost avoided losing a few games it couldn’t afford to lose. That’s how a season with NCAA potential ends up in the NIT. Head coach Randy Bennett cannot be happy with how this season unfolded. An NIT run is the only thing which will make the regular season recede a little bit into the past. You’ll see more of why this team really should have been able to make the NCAAs in 2015. SMC is the kind of team Vanderbilt does not want to become next season. VU wants to be able to knock the NCAA door down 12 months from now, instead of lamenting what might have been or what almost was.
Forward – Brad Waldow – Senior, 6-9, 260; 2014-15: 19.3 points per game, 9 rebounds per game, 2.3 assists per game
SMC’s best player stands at the heart of this game. The individual confrontation between Waldow and Damian Jones is going to be worth watching this game on television. It’s also going to be the main reason this game flows in one direction or another. Perhaps most important of all, it’s going to give Jones a great test, possibly the last high-level test of his 2014-2015 season.
Waldow is not as tall or as long as Jones, but he is wider and thicker. Waldow is very smart in terms of using his body, including his posterior, to carve out space for his offense while also boxing out his opponent. He has a simple and effective half-hook shot which – given the space he creates – is hard to block. He has mastered a set of low-post moves that make him hard to defend even though no one would say that he is particularly quick. Waldow shows how body positioning and crisp, precise footwork – the products of a keen understanding of how to play the game – can take a seemingly unimposing athlete and turn him into a very productive player. Jones will have a lot to study before this game begins. The neat thing about playing Waldow is that Jones will gain a lot of insights into how to play in the post. Those insights should enable him to improve his game to a considerable extent in the offseason. That’s going to be the number one priority for this team in the summer and autumnal months.
Forward – Garrett Jackson – Senior, 6-5, 225; 2014-15: 8 ppg, 4.2 rpg
Jackson, playing in one of two forward spots at 6-5, shows how undersized this team is. An undersized team has to be able to compensate for that deficiency by offering something more in terms of playmaking or shotmaking ability. Elite-level defense would also help. Saint Mary’s hasn’t gotten enough out of Jackson in these facets of competition, and it helps explain why this team is playing in the NIT instead of the NCAAs.
Forward – Desmond Simmons – Senior, 6-7, 225; 2014-15: 5.1 ppg, 6.4 rpg, 1.4 apg
Simmons’ low scoring average points to a key deficiency on the Gaels’ roster. Waldow is asked to carry too great a share of the scoring load in the frontcourt. He doesn’t get enough help from his other forwards. The Gaels, with a starting five comprised entirely of seniors, should have expected to make the NCAA tournament this season. All-senior starting fives are increasingly rare in college basketball. Simmons’ inability to score at a higher rate certainly held back the Gaels this season.
Guard – Aaron Bright – Senior, 5-11, 175; 2014-15: 10.7 ppg, 2.1 rpg, 3.8 apg
Bright is good at getting to the basket, not so much at shooting from distance. Bright hits 30.7 percent of his threes. Vanderbilt needs to give him the jumper and take away the drive.
Guard – Kerry Carter – Senior, 6-0, 198; 2014-15: 12.4 ppg, 5.1 rpg, 1.5 apg
Carter is the player Vanderbilt must guard near the three-point arc. He hits 40.7 percent of his treys, exactly 10 percent better than Bright. Knowing the strengths and weaknesses of the Saint Mary’s backcourt must inform the Dores’ defensive game plan, though they must also realize that any shooter – if he gets hot – is one Vanderbilt has to focus on as the game develops and acquires its own organic trajectory.
Bennett turns to a short bench to steal some minutes for the starting five. The primary reserve is guard Emmett Naar. He’s joined by forwards Calvin Hermanson and Dane Pineau. Naar averages 6.4 points per game. Hermanson averages only 2.6 points per game, but Pineau offers 3.8 points and 3.8 boards per game – his energy on the glass might be something to keep an eye on.
Keys to the Game
1) Draw even in the primary paint matchup. As mentioned above, this is a great learning opportunity for Damian Jones. If he can somehow play as well as Waldow – not better, but not worse – he will have achieved something significant. He will also give his team a better-than-average chance of winning this game.
2) Endgame perimeter defense. Thought Saint Mary’s is not a terrific three-point-shooting team, the reality of losing a late lead in the SEC tournament should keep the Commodores mindful of the need to squelch an opponent’s big run before it can get going. Attentive perimeter defense limits the ability of an opponent to score in bunches. Should Vanderbilt manage to get a nine-point lead late in this game, the need to protect the arc should become apparent.
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