Lowery: Improved defense is bright side

Vanderbilt found a different way to win on Thursday, relying on their defensive intensity to overcome the IUPUI Jaguars. Shan Foster was the only Commodore to score in double figures en route to the 53-45 victory.

The key change in the game seemed to be the matchup zone defense that Vanderbilt employed to shut down the Jaguar attack. IUPUI jumped out to an early 13-5 lead before Coach Stallings switched away from the man defense. The matchup zone created significant problems for the Jaguars – especially for star guard George Hill. Hill was held to 6 points on 3 for 12 shooting, as the Commodore defense harassed him all night. Hill played 38 minutes despite his offensive woes, underlining his importance to IUPUI. Matt Burks led the Jaguars' offense with 15 points on 12 shots; all of his shots were three point attempts. Brandon Cole (10 points, 7 rebounds) and David Barlow (5 points, 2 rebounds) also played over 30 minutes for the Jaguars.

IUPUI's relatively low scoring total wasn't just due to the different defensive scheme – there were also other notable improvements on defense. Julian Terrell noted after the game that "at the start of the season we weren't communicating well on defense. But we've been working more on that." Also, Vanderbilt seemed to have more defensive intensity, including more effective defense on the ball. These changes, as well as the matchup zone, seem to indicate that the Commodores' defensive woes of the last several games are correctable.

As expected, the Commodores shifted to a smaller lineup for much of the game, turning to DeMarre Carroll for 28 minutes while limiting Ted Skuchas to 10 minutes. IUPUI played 40 minutes of zone defense on the night, collapsing tightly around the lane and the basket. Their defensive strategy appeared to rely on neutralizing Julian Terrell, preventing backcuts, and forcing Vandy to win with perimeter shooting if they were to win at all. If the Jaguars were hoping for the Commodores to have a bad shooting night, then they certainly got an early Christmas present this year.

Vanderbilt was 8 for 29 from downtown. All of Shan Foster's 11 shots were 3 point attempts, and he only converted 4. Derrick Byars was an uncharacteristic 0 for 5, and Mario Moore converted a respectable 3 of his 8 attempts. The rest of the team was a combined 1 for 5. As Coach Stallings put it "We couldn't hit the broad side of the barn on open looks, and we were having trouble making anything." Stallings has made it a point of emphasis this year to avoid the "live by the three, die by the three" moniker that has haunted so many Commodore squads of the past, but he was happy with the team's offensive efforts Thursday: "We would get the ball inside and their zone would collapse – we had good shots… I can only think of one three point attempt that was a questionable shot. We were taking good shots, and believe it or not, we were running the offense well."

So what should worry Vanderbilt fans about this game? For one thing, three point shooting was disappointing, but an off night from the perimeter is somewhat inevitable. Another bad spot was the Commodores' failure to get to the free throw line. However, that is largely a function of playing against a zone defense and getting open looks for three point shots.

The bright sides in this game are much more significant and numerous. The Commodores' defense, especially their perimeter and on-the-ball defense, were much improved on Thursday. IUPUI's 36.7% field goal percentage attests to Vanderbilt's improved defense. Also, there was less hesitation on the offensive end of the court – Vanderbilt took what the IUPUI defense gave to them. This was a stark contrast to the New Orleans contest, in which the Commodores seemed unwilling to take open shots without first looking to pass.

The bottom line is that if Vanderbilt continues to play this quality of defense, the outlook for a successful SEC season is much better than it has appeared since Cincinnati's visit to Nashville. Commodore fans know that their team is capable of making a much higher percentage of their open three point shots, so the lackluster offensive numbers are not as disappointing as they might seem at first glance. This game should inspire more confidence for the tough road ahead, as the Commodores prepare for a road trip to Dayton and Atlanta before embarking upon an SEC schedule that seems tougher every day.

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