Ironing Out Some Problems

If the Vanderbilt basketball team wants to have its voice heard in the SEC, the Commodores simply have to go to the iron. The laughter of victory is a delightful sound in sports, so it only figures that coach Kevin Stallings needs his crew to come up with some rim shots as this season continues.

A sense of urgency permeates the spaciousness of Memorial Gym. The memories of the past two glorious seasons exist in a painfully distant place right now, banished to the remote regions of the mind. The notion of an NCAA Tournament appearance seems silly at this point... unless, that is, something changes in a hurry. With a month and a half left in regular season competition, there's still time for VU--like any other SEC team not named Kentucky--to make a big run and claim one of the few at-large bids the conference will offer on Selection Sunday. The question is, "How will Vandy become that team?"

Stallings--an offensive guru--will need to deftly draw up some Xs and Os, but in all candor, the foremost answer to the Commodores' problems is more psychological than it is tactical. The mental jujitsu of basketball explains why. Basketball, particularly at the collegiate level, is such a fascinating sport for a number of reasons, chief among them the emotional volatility of the participants. With its generally up-tempo pace (unless Princeton or another slowdown team is involved) and its promise of up-and-down action, basketball--even more than football--can leave shaken players and dazed coaches wondering, "How did that just happen?" Roundball is a cruel mistress, so tantalizingly attractive yet so brutally fickle. Your own 7-0 run will leave you breathless with giddy excitement. Then, a 14-2 burst by the opponent in the following two minutes, based on four threes from a red-hot shooting guard, punches you in the gut. Whereas football dominance is generally established in extended sequences, basketball doesn't need a lot of time to create full-scale emotional carnage. The momentum of a contest can and will change on a dime, eliminating several minutes of bad play for the team that recovers, and wiping out several minutes of good play for the team that loses control. To win on the hardwood, college basketball teams need to know when to force the issue, and when to tread water. The squads that master this art are the ones that rarely lose their cool... and rarely lose games, especially in March. Flowing from this point, the most important--yet most fragile--aspect of big-time college basketball is this thing called "shooting confidence." In years of watching this sport, it never ceases to amaze me how teams can shoot the same basic shots over the course of a game, and yet attain such markedly different results because of greatly altered states of mind. A team will come out of the gate and hit everything in sight; then, when the opponent puts together a bold counter, those threes from the right wing that were dropping through the net are suddenly hitting the front of the rim. On the other side, shots that were being bricked suddenly swish through the net. An observer learns to decipher an open shot delivered confidently from an open shot that is anxiously pushed into the air. Teams and coaching staffs that are sensitive to these matters--and who possess the on-court talent to do something about it--almost always go farther in the NCAA Tournament than the teams bereft of a high-level feel for the rhythms and workings of the sport.

Enter Vanderbilt.

The Dores just aren't shooting the ball with confidence right now, particularly from distance. VU had many open threes on Tuesday against Tennessee, but few of them fell. Why were these shots not propelled with accuracy? For one thing, center A.J. Ogilvy never got into the flow of the action. Without their prime interior scorer, the Dores' guards understandably pressed a little more on their three-point shots. That's one reason why perimeter shooting percentages will plummet. Secondly, Vandy was trailing throughout the evening, a simple reality that requires no additional explanation. Third, and most revealingly, the Dores didn't get the dribble penetration they needed to break down the Vols' defense. Without a slasher who could create a shot opportunity on his own, VU became painfully limited against an opponent that prides itself on being able to score from all places on the court. On a night when the Dores had to exploit UT's tissue-soft defense, Stallings' students couldn't display the versatility that would have made them a potent offensive force.

What, then, to make of the remainder of VU's season, beginning with this Sunday's game on national TV against Florida? It's all about the rim shots and ironing out problems. By hook or by crook, the Dores have to get to the rim. It's not so much a tactical angle as it is a mentality.

If three point shots are going to fall with regularity for this team, and if Vandy is to gain the shooting confidence that is elusive for most basketball players in any time and season, the Dores must prove--not just to themselves, but to opposing defenses--that they can get to the goal on demand. Whether by driving the ball, using post entry passes, or using effective patterns of screens and cuts, someone on this roster has to get to the paint and take pressure off Ogilvy, who is not just returning from an injury, but appears to be sagging under the weight of expectations he bears. Once the Dores own the interior and force defenses to collapse in an attempt to defend the rim, threes will come off passes and catches, not dribbles. More open shots will be produced by the flow of the offense, not one-on-one moves that represent an improverished brand of ball.

When you watch on Sunday, see how much of a spring Vanderbilt has in its step. Watch how aggressive the Dores are in their halfcourt sets. Pay attention to the team's ability to own the painted area and establish the inside game before going outside. When teams struggle with the long ball, they need to attack the basket. Vandy needs to do this for a whole host of reasons. Without a newly determined mentality at the offensive end of the floor, a 1-3 SEC season won't turn around.

It's time for the trajectory of Vanderbilt basketball to change in 2009. It will... if the trajectory of VU's offensive thrusts can penetrate the foul line and the low blocks, offering aid to an injured A.J. Ogilvy in a time of need.

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