SEC Tournament Preview: Time to Rebound
Yes, NBA legend Pat Riley played basketball for a certain basketball powerhouse located in Lexington, Ky., but the Los Angeles Laker coach and Miami Heat maestro knew a thing or two about the realm of roundball. (He still does.) Riley's central mantra at playoff time was really rather simple: "No rebounds, no rings." This dressed-down belief system needs to become Vandy's guiding formula heading into this weekend's SEC Tournament.
Vanderbilt can shoot. Vanderbilt can run a halfcourt set. Vandy can certainly defend, as Kentucky found out in Memorial Gym. But Vandy can't rebound when all the chips are on the table… at least, the Dores haven't proven as much. Florida plucked a plentiful portion of offensive rebounds in Gainesville not too long ago. Georgia would have won in Nashville if Travis Leslie had been able to hit the layup he attempted at the end of regulation after beating three (!) Dores to a missed shot. South Carolina cradled a few key rebounds in a white-knuckle affair. Vandy generally does good things when it has the basketball, but without rebounds, the orange sphere can't be claimed.
Forget this weekend's results for a brief moment. Before previewing this tournament on a round-by-round basis, it simply has to be established that heading into the NCAA Tournament, Vandy needs to grow as a rebounding team. If VU can do that – even if it might lose in the semifinals because of a bad shooting day – this tournament can serve as a catapult to a Sweet 16 or Elite Eight run (and we all saw how close VU came to the Elite Eight in 2007).
Now, on with the show at a building in Nashville that is undergoing as many name changes as the home stadium of the Miami Dolphins. (The Sommet Center is now Bridgestone Arena. Good grief. Stick with a name and move on with life, will ya?)
Cracking the Code in the Quarterfinals: Georgia or Arkansas
For the unitiated of SEC basketball fans, the numbers in front of the team names would indicate an Arkansas victory. After all, Arkansas is No. 3 in the West and Georgia is No. 6 in the East. Some things to consider: Arkansas potentially had a chance to win the West, but after defeating LSU on Feb. 2, proceeded to lose six of its last seven games, one of which was a 17-point home loss to Vanderbilt.
Georgia meanwhile is the team no one wants to face. Mark Fox's team defeated each of the other teams in the East once, with the exception of Kentucky. Neither of those Kentucky losses were Wildcat blowouts either. (Remember, too, that the East is plainly superior to the West.) Trey Thompkins is a force both inside and out, averaging 17.7 points per game, rebounding 8.2 times a game, and also making over 38 % of his 3-pointers. Thompkins cancels out the inside play of Arkansas' Michael Washington, essentially boiling this game down to what Georgia can do to stop Courtney Fortson. Expect Georgia to make adjustments to keep him from getting to the foul line 16 times, as he did in the Feb. 3 game, making 12 of those foul shots.
Vanderbilt will be favored either way, though facing the Bulldogs again certainly puts a lump in the throat of its fans. Due to UGA's lack of athleticism, the Bulldogs have employed a zone defense for the most part this season. The Commodores' key problem when facing a zone is establishing an inside game. When Vandy fell to the Dawgs in Athens, A.J. Ogilvy and Jeffery Taylor were held to six and eight points respectively, while shooting a combined 4 of 14. Those two players need more shots. It also did not help that Vandy reverted, as most teams do when facing a zone, to settling for 3-pointers. While Jermaine "Dollar" Beal had a good night and Brad Tinsley finished with 18 points, he was only 2 of 6 from long distance. John Jenkins was much worse, shooting 0 of 7 from downtown.
Kevin Stallings' club found its offensive form against Georgia in the rematch and won 96-94, but VU played poorly on defense. While the Dores struggled to contain Thompkins in both games, the Bulldog backcourt torched the Vandy defense with Travis Leslie scoring 22, Dustin Ware 16, and Ricky McPhee 14 points. Ware and McPhee combined to shoot 8 of 16 on 3-pointers. For Vandy to beat Georgia, it will need to improve its backcourt defense and find a way to contain Thompkins, not an easy task with his ability to also score from the perimeter.
Vanderbilt matches up much more favorably with the Razorbacks. Arkansas is not a consistently good outside shooting team and Stallings used this to his advantage in the 89-72 win on Feb. 27 by playing a zone in the second half. While Arkansas' guards were content to shoot open threes, the touches for Marshawn Powell were limited in the second half. This was a good thing as he did score 27 that afternoon. If the Hogs get by Georgia, expect to see more Vanderbilt zone defense as it protects Ogilvy from collecting fouls and encourages Arkansas to go away from its strength inside.
Semifinal Look-Ahead: Mississippi State or Auburn/Florida
The Gators and Tigers matched up once and Florida won that game, 78-70. Do not get the idea it was a close game, however. Florida outscored Auburn 41-36 in the second half despite not making a shot from the floor in the last eight and half minutes of the game.
Assuming the Gators win their first round matchup, it puts them against Mississippi State in the quarterfinals Friday evening. The Gators also won the regular season matchup between those two teams by a score of 69-62. UF won despite shooting only 17.6 % beyond the arc. The backcourt duo of Kenny Boynton and Erving Walker combined to go 1 of 13. A similar performance probably won't get it done in the postseason, but Gator big man Vernon Macklin showed an ability to score on Jarvis Varnado: Macklin scored 20 and Varnado, who led the league in blocks, only had one swat against the Georgetown transfer who came to Gainesville.
Both MSU and Florida come into the SEC Tournament on losing streaks, and both probably need to win a couple games to ensure themselves an NCAA invite. Florida is playing better, however, and Billy Donovan's past postseason success certainly helps too, so Florida should come out on top in the quarters.
Vanderbilt will have its hands full in the semifinals should it win Friday. First of all, since the Friday night game starts at approximately 9:45 pm, the VU players will most likely not crawl into bed until 1:00 a.m., and maybe not until 2 a.m. Then the Saturday tip-off is at 3:25 p.m. (don't buy the officially listed 3:15 time unless the first semifinal scoots by in a buck-45), leaving very little time for a walk through and adjustments.
Either opponent (MSU or Florida) brings an element that Vanderbilt has struggled with, the physical inside player. Varnado has the SEC record for single-season blocked shots, while UF's Macklin went for 21 points and nine rebounds in Florida's last game against the Commodores.
A possible difference maker against either team could be the play of Beal. The senior lead guard has played well against both teams and neither the Bulldogs nor the Gators have a point guard who can match Beal's offensive or defensive skills. Florida's backcourt has not consistently hit shots in the last month and while Mississippi State leads the conference in 3-pointers, its backcourt also turns the ball over too much for extended postseason success; MSU's guards are victims of their own three-point success, often taking too many shots beyond the arc.
Depending on the number of upsets in other tournaments, this game could determine the NCAA life of either school. Earning a top 25 win over Vanderbilt could be the final achievement needed to propel MSU or UF into the Tournament and keep those schools from being NIT-bound.
Consider this game a toss-up with Vandy's advantage in the game being that it will be played in Nashville.
BLUE SUNDAY: The Potential Rematch With Kentucky
If Hollywood scriptwriters were to plan the SEC Tournament and make a movie on Vanderbilt, the only logical climax would be for the Commodores to face Kentucky in the championship game. All signs point to the Wildcats earning their way to Sunday afternoon.
The Cats open with the winner of the South Carolina-Alabama game, which – considering the fact that Carolina had the same conference record as Bama yet played in the much more difficult East Division – figures to be the Gamecocks. Devan Downey is the type of player who can lead a team come tournament time. Should he play up to his reputation, which he has not failed to do this season, look for a Wildcat-Gamecock quarterfinal. Though Darrin Horn's team made waves nationally when it upset Kentucky in Columbia behind the outstanding play of Downey, John Calipari's club manhandled the Gamecocks in the rematch, winning by 21. Look for the well-rested Wildcats to move onto the semifinals, where they may have to face the only other team to beat Kentucky this year, the boys from Knoxville.
Tennessee of course would first need to beat last-place LSU on Thursday, and then get by Ole Miss to set up a game with Kentucky. A Tennessee – Ole Miss matchup should be entertaining. Both teams like to push the ball, but the Volunteers are used to success at this time of year and would therefore have a leg up in a quarterfinal collision.
While Tennessee's defeat of Kentucky should not be discounted, remember that in the game won by Bruce Pearl's team, the Cats hit only 35 % from the field. As bad as that shooting display in fact was, UK proved to be even worse beyond the arc where the Wildcats converted only 2 of 22 shots. Tennessee can beat Kentucky if it does two things: 1) Get Wayne Chism the ball on the block and not shooting 3-pointers, and 2) penetrate the Kentucky defense off the dribble. The Vols, however, have not accomplished either task with any type of consistency this season, precisely because they're far too content to settle for long-range jumpers, the quick, brain-dead hoists that have become a harmful Tennessee trademark. Kentucky has the two elements found in successful postseason teams (see below), and when that point guard and post player happen to also be potential top five draft picks, the Wildcats' chances for success become extremely good.
So what does that mean should Vandy face Kentucky in the final?
It is imperative the Commodores at least find a way to slow DeMarcus Cousins. The future first-round pick averaged 20 points in the two games with VU. The difference in the two games was that Kevin Stallings' crew was much more effective on double-teams with Andre Walker and Jeffery Taylor; moreover, the Dores were also able to keep Cousins off the boards. (He only had five in the second game, which – as readers surely remember – came down to a final shot to tie for Vandy.)
The question for VU is: Can its offense and defense play together against Kentucky? In the first game, won by the Wildcats, 85-72, Vandy was able to score with UK and shot 47.8 % from the field. The breakdowns occurred defensively for the Black and Gold, particularly in the post on Cousins. VU also was blindsided by the outside shooting of Patrick Patterson, who was frequently left open when Cousins was double-teamed. Patterson made 3 of 4 3-pointers.
In the second game, when Kentucky held on to win by two, 58-56, the Dores could not hit the broad side of a barn. Jermaine Beal was 2 of 9 (0 of 5 from three), John Jenkins was 2 of 8 (1 of 6 from three), and Brad Tinsley was 1 of 7 (0 of 4 from three). Had only one of those 3-pointers gone down, Vandy would have earned the upset.
No one should anticipate the Commodores shooting that poorly again, no matter who the opponent is.
There is another factor in Vanderbilt's favor should it face Kentucky in the SEC Championship Game, but it's not one VU fans are going to want to hear. John Calipari has stated repeatedly throughout the season that his team is not playing for the league championship necessarily, but for NCAA Tournament seeding. Since the SEC title game is on Sunday, Coach Cal will know going into the game how his competition for the No. 1 seeds will have done in their respective conference tournaments.
Kentucky probably has a No. 1 already locked up. Assume for the moment that Syracuse and/or Kansas are still jockeying to see who will be the No. 1 overall seed in tournament play. Kentucky will know going in it can practically bank a No. 1 seed, even though it would be the "third highest" (or second-weakest) place on the "1 line," as bracketology graduate students would say. What does that mean?
Does anyone see a reason for Calipari to keep John Wall and DeMarcus Cousins on the floor for extended minutes in what would be for the Wildcats a meaningless game based on Coach Cal's already stated core beliefs and attitudes?
If Vanderbilt were to get an early lead on Kentucky in the final, expect to see uncommon Kentucky player rotations and a perfect opportunity for the Dores to bring home the SEC Tournament championship.
Success in March is usually determined by two things, point guard play and controlling the low post. Vanderbilt is in solid hands at the point with the senior leadership of Jermaine Beal, who has been solid if not spectacular. Apart from a subpar game against Kentucky (which all of Vandy's backcourt had) and a six-point game in a blowout win over Arkansas, he has been at his finest while facing the SEC. Beal is shooting better than 40 %, setting up scoring opportunities for his teammates, and making his free throws, which is always important since the ball will be in his hands at crunch time.
The low post is a different story. While A.J. Ogilvy is a very good offensive player, he has struggled lately with defending more athletic post players. Look no further than Sam Muldrow's 20 points for South Carolina last Saturday. What's worse for VU is that when Ogilvy gets into foul trouble, he comes out leaving the Commodores without his offensive ability on the low block. Jeffery Taylor has also come into his own in this, his sophomore season, but he is slightly undersized to be a defensive presence on the block. Andre Walker has been an effective rebounder and defender, but is a forgotten member of the VU offense. He did not take a shot against South Carolina.
Depth may be another issue of concern for Stallings. Brad Tinsley is the only true guard to come off the bench for the Dores. Only once in the past eight games has Tinsley reached double figures in scoring. In that span, he has shot 11 of 42, not what Vandy is looking for from someone billed as a shooter. Surely there will be a time, either this weekend in the SEC Tournament or next week in the NCAAs, when John Jenkins will show he is a freshman. It may very well be that the Commodores will need Tinsley to come off the bench to hit some key shots. If he plays the way he has in the past four weeks, the VU crew will be in for a tough night.
The frontcourt depth is better if only for the number of bodies that contribute. Sophomore Festus Ezeli can fortunately play defense in Ogilvy's stead, but he is subpar offensively and is a liability at the foul line. For the Commodores to have a chance to win the SEC title this weekend, the African Connection of Ezeli and Steve Tchiengang need to contribute in ways they did not during the SEC regular season.
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