Night Line: Is Vanderbilt Back? Commodores Are Getting Stronger Every Game

Posted by EJacoby on January 20th, 2012

Evan Jacoby is an RTC contributor and correspondent. You can find him @evanjacoby on Twitter. Night Line will run on weeknights during the season, highlighting a major storyline development from that day’s slate of games.

The popularity of Alabama’s basketball team might pale in comparison to that of its National Championship football squad, but the boys on the hardwood win its games in a similar fashion: defense, defense, and more defense. So the fact that Vanderbilt showed up in Tuscaloosa on Thursday night with the more physical defensive effort was impressive, especially considering how poor the Commodores struggled on the defensive end just a few weeks ago. Kevin Stallings’ team allowed just 59 points in the road win, and Vanderbilt (14-4, 4-0 SEC) is a much tougher team now with physical force Festus Ezeli back in the lineup. This group is a changed bunch from the team that lost to Indiana State at home in December, and the Commodores must be taken seriously now as a team with the formula to make a run in March.

With Ezeli Back, Vanderbilt is a Much Tougher Team Defensively (Getty Images/G. Halverson)

Vanderbilt entered this season a preseason Top 10 team, bringing back all five starters and three NBA prospects in Jeffery Taylor, John Jenkins, and Ezeli. Jenkins has held up his end of the bargain, leading the conference in scoring at 19.8 points per game. He’s arguably the best shooter in college basketball, currently leading the nation in three-point field goals (67) at a 45.3% rate (third in the SEC). Taylor has done his part, too, displaying his all-around game to the tune of 16.9 points, 5.6 rebounds, 2.0 assists, and 1.4 steals per game on 53.6% field goal shooting and the ability to hit from deep (45.3% on 3.5 attempts per game). But Ezeli missed six games due to an NCAA violation-related suspension, and another three recovering from knee surgery, and the Commodores struggled without him. While he doesn’t provide the statistical production of his fellow team leaders, Ezeli is their only true interior threat and most impactful defender. Take away those two aspects, and Vanderbilt barely looked like an above-average team for the first 10 games of this season.

Kevin Stallings’ team stumbled to a 5-3 start, with multiple losses at home, but it was a nearly universal belief that the team could not be judged fairly until Ezeli was back in the lineup. He started his first game on December 17, though, and the ‘Dores still lost at home to Indiana State. All of a sudden, Vanderbilt was 6-4 with three home losses and looked like a questionable NCAA Tournament team, most certainly not deserving of a Top 25 ranking. Of course, judging a team in early December based on record alone rarely makes anyone look smart. One month later, Vanderbilt has yet to lose another game and now sits at 4-0 in the SEC, 14-4 overall, and has a newfound toughness that makes them a far more difficult matchup. The true sign of change appeared in their beat down of Marquette on December 29 in Milwaukee, where Vanderbilt allowed just 57 points on the road to a top 15 team. That performance was the start of a trend, as the ‘Dores haven’t allowed more than 66 points in a game in over four weeks.

Looking back, Ezeli’s absence had just as big of an effect on this team as we thought. The defensive intensity that the senior brings to the table has shown up blatantly when comparing this team from November to now. The ‘Dores were viewed as soft at the beginning of this season, dropping home games to Cleveland State and Xavier in which they allowed each opponent to run offense at a 101.0 efficiency or better. After the Xavier loss, Vanderbilt’s defensive efficiency was 100.4, which didn’t even rank in the top 200 in the country. Compare that to now, as Vanderbilt has a season defensive efficiency of 95.0, thanks to an 89.7 rating in its conference games that is the best in the SEC. Ezeli is not yet 100% healthy from his knee injury, but he’s still averaged 1.6 blocks in about 20 minutes per game since returning. In Thursday’s victory over Alabama, he finished with 12 points, 10 rebounds, and three blocks; a classic stat line we are used to seeing from the big man. He’s quickly gaining the strength and confidence that makes him one of the country’s best interior defenders.

Besides defense, the other problem that Vanderbilt had early in the season was the lack of strong point guard play. Brad Tinsley was clearly outplayed by fellow lead guards in several games, particularly struggling with his decision-making. On December 2, Tinsley was averaging 3.2 assists and 2.5 turnovers per game for a 1.3 assist-to-turnover ratio, far too low for a point guard who is not a primary scorer and who’s asked mainly to set up his teammates. Today, on January 19, Tinsley is up to 4.4 assists and 2.1 turnovers, a much better assist-to-turnover ratio (2.1) that has helped the team run better offense. He’s also at a career-best 49.6% field goal percentage and 44.6% from three. Tinsley is still not a strong defender, but at least he’s playing much better on the offensive end and is having a more positive impact on the team.

Now that Vanderbilt has improved its two biggest weaknesses (interior defense and point guard play), the Commodores are looking like a much tougher matchup. They were able to, on the road, out-physical a team in Alabama Thursday night that specializes in its physical defense. Taylor and Jenkins always have been and always will be dynamic offensive threats, and things are starting to come together for this team. During the ESPN2 telecast, broadcaster Hubert Davis mentioned that he thinks this is a Final Four-caliber team, and he’s not the only national analyst who’s made that claim recently. I think this team still has a limited upside due to its lack of depth and playmaking guards, so Final Four-talk is more of a typical media overreaction to a hot team. But today, Vanderbilt looks like a much more solid Sweet Sixteen kind of team than it was two months ago, when the Commodores would have been squarely on the NCAA Tournament bubble. While no team may be able to fully challenge Kentucky in the SEC, the 4-0 Commodores are improving at the right time of year and look like they could be the second strongest team in the conference.

EJacoby (198 Posts)

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12 responses to “Night Line: Is Vanderbilt Back? Commodores Are Getting Stronger Every Game”

  1. Stan Overby says:

    Agree with majority of your post but you’ve neglected to include the play of Lance Goulbourne. Ezeli without question is the best interior defender on the squad, but Goulbourne has added to that and is a big reason why Tony Mitchell had zero points last night. He’s the teams best defensive rebounder, and he’s averaging 10.6 ppg and is playing red hot right now. Tinsley’s improvement is obviously important, but this team doesn’t stomp opponents on the road without Goulbourne.

  2. EJacoby says:

    You are right about that, Stan….. I was unable to fit in the importance of contributions from Goulbourne and Tchiengang given how long this piece already is for a Night Line, but you make great points about Lance G. He has to be given tons of credit for the work he did last night and how he complements Ezeli defensively. He’s been consistent all season, too, so I’m going to own up to this one and say you’re completely right that Goulbourne cannot go unmentioned.

  3. EJacoby says:

    I’d be interested in hearing from Vanderbilt fans, though, if they think this team is truly competitive with Kentucky and/or Final Four caliber. Do you feel good enough about the depth of these guards? And even good enough about your starting point guard? I’d be interested

  4. Slado says:

    I think we match up very well with UK. For one we have Goulburne who can shut down Jones. He did this in both games last year and considering how Jones is playing this year I see no reason why we can’t again this year. Ezeli is the key. By the time we play UK he will be more like his old self and he can push Davis around and also compete with him on size and athletic ability. Last year the only reason UK won at home was because of the play of Jorts and Knight. Those guys are now gone. Jorts was big enough to neutralize Ezeli and Knight could shoot which made him a match up nightmare for Tinsley. Taylor will also be able to neutralize Gildcrist and that leaves decent match ups between Teague/Lamb/Miller and Jenkins/Tinsley. The limited outside shooting by UK will definitely benefit us. We can pack it in and not expose Tinsley’s defensive deficiencies and make Teague beat us from the outside, which he can’t. Jenkins is showing that he can keep up with Lamb/Miller and no one can keep Jenkins from getting 20 pts these days.

    If we play defense like we have lately we will be in all of our league games and should expect to win them all. We won’t but we can realistically finish 13-3 or 12-4. We are 6-1 on the road/neutral this year with that lone loss being to Louisville in OT without Festus. The only game we lost where we where truley beaten was Cleveland St. Xavier, ISU, Louisville wehre games where we had leads deep into the 2nd half and could close. Why? We didn’t defend and rebound and let teams come back at the end.

    Those issues for some unknown reasons have been rectified and we have blown good teams out because we defend and rebound.

    I have no idea what happened before the Marquette game but since that thrashing this is a top 10 team. When we defend and rebound we are almost impossible to beat because we are very hard to defend on the offensive end.

    Last night was telling. We out defended and toughed a team that sells itself on exactly that. Add in we can shoot and score and we are becoming a very tough out.

  5. Stan Overby says:

    I think we can get there and I think we can compete with Kentucky. However, we have to continue to play as we’ve been playing.

    I’ll address the starting point guard spot first. Tinsley is a good player, but not a great player. That being said, Tinsley had a 2.67 A/TO rate last year, and is at 2.32 A/TO rate this year. He also has a decent Assist Rate at 30.4, while having a very solid Offensive Rating at 122.4. He’s a good three-point shooter and a good free throw shooter. His biggest limitation is that he is a liability defensively. All those things being said, I think Tinsley, while not an elite level player, is good enough with the talent surrounding him to compete with Kentucky. The point guard spot is not the worrisome part.

    You’ve correctly harped on the biggest weakness of the team in your first question, and that is bench performance. Despite having a senior-laden starting lineup, we have a very young bench. Odom is a sophomore, and Dai-Jon Parker and Kedren Johnson are freshmen. Tchiengang is a senior, but he is not very gifted offensively. For this team to really become a final four group, the bench must produce offensively with more consistency. They have been coming around of late and Stallings has found a rotation that is getting our starters breathers without putting them in a spot where they can blow leads. That was something that took some ironing out, and is the biggest reason outside of Ezeli’s injury that we lost to Xavier and Louisville despite having leads in the 2nd half. In this area, I really don’t know. The talent is there as Parker, Johnson and Odom were all ESPNU Top 100 recruits, but they will not emerge as quickly as UK’s group. The question is if they will emerge enough to supplement the starters and keep giving us good offensive and defensive possessions while in. In that area, I am only certain that Dai-Jon Parker will do so on the defensive end. Lots of people talk about Austin Rivers, but Parker shut him down twice last year in HS hoops.

    If Brad continues to play as “what he is”, and the younger players continue to improve over the course of the year, this team can get to the Final Four, particularly considering Lance’s emergence. But the question, as it is always with Vandy, is consistency. I believe the starters have answered that thanks to Ezeli’s return, but the bench letting teams back in games is the biggest concern.

  6. Randy Horick says:

    Evan, I agree with your overall assessment of Vanderbilt relative to Kentucky. After the first two conference games, I didn’t see much way for Vandy to beat UK even at Memorial Gym.

    But suddenly Kentucky began to look vulnerable with their performances against Auburn and Tennessee. And Vanderbilt is suddenly playing with more consistency than at anytime this year. Their rebounding and defensive intensity have been especially notable. And even though their first three games were against three of the SEC’s weakest teams this year, the same Auburn team they beat by 30 took Kentucky almost to the wire, and Georgia played well enough in Nashville to have beaten a lot of SEC teams.

    Vandy still won’t be BETTER than Kentucky. But if they continue to play as they have the past two weeks, they will have a very good shot of beating UK in Nashville and of giving them a good challenge at Rupp.

  7. TwoSaints says:

    I actually think they match up particularly well with Kentucky: Taylor, Goulbourne, and Ezeli will each prove a real challenge for Kidd-Gilchrist, Jones, and Davis to handle on both ends of the court. Ezeli vs. Davis is particularly interesting because Davis will be utterly unable to prevent Ezeli from gaining interior position and he’s more than long enough to keep Davis off the boards. I actually expect Kentucky to use Jones more on Ezeli, but either way he will simply overpower them. Kentucky has the better defensive backcourt, but Jenkins and Tinsley have been much better on that end lately (another key to the defensive resurgence) and Vanderbilt has the backcourt depth that Kentucky lacks. However, Teague is exactly the kind of quick, penetrating point guard that causes Vanderbilt trouble and Kentucky’s defense will prey on Vanderbilt’s tendency to turn the ball over. It’s a pretty balanced matchup.

    As for the Final Four, I think it’s a good possibility. Perhaps the best thing for Vanderbilt would be a slate of BCS conference teams because their trouble with teams like Murray State and Richmond is less one of composure and more a product of their system. They’re vulnerable to teams that press, grab offensive boards, force turnovers, and make three-pointers. And a lot more mid-majors than majors follow that recipe.

    But we’re getting ahead of ourselves: They’ve still got to play a tough Mississippi State team tomorrow on short rest, followed by a Tuesday trip to Knoxville and then a trap game against a very tough Middle Tennessee State team. Where they stand after those three games will be a big indicator of their post-season hopes, I think.

  8. Cameron Carlile says:

    Vandy has the pieces in place for a run. They will go as far as their guard play will allow. Kedron Johnson really needs to be a viable speed guard by tournament time. All the bigs are interchangeable enough to provide quality depth.

  9. Randy Horick says:

    Just to clarify, the Tennessee game next week is in Nashville, not Knoxville.

  10. EJacoby says:

    You’ve all made some very good points and I appreciate the comments & discussion…..

    Few teams in the country can defend Kentucky’s line, and only a handful can score against them…. Vandy might be one of the few. The trio of Taylor, Goulbourne, and Ezeli matching up against Gilchrist, Jones, and Davis is going to be special to watch….. That’s the first key to competing with that team. But like TwoSaints mentioned, Marquis Teague is the key in this matchup. Is there anyone that can stop him from penetrating the defense?? His quickness will lead to open shots for Lamb & Miller which can kill defensive momentum. Do you have faith in playing the frosh guards for extended minutes for defensive help, and how much will that affect offensive output?

    I’m really looking forward to the Vandy-UK matchups now.

  11. Jon says:

    DJ EJ straight up killin it. what writing ability. so eloquent. so fantastic. I just can’t get enough of this Evan Jacoby character

  12. Randy Horick says:

    Dai-Jon Parker has been getting more minutes — well-deserved ones, by the way — in recent games. It wouldn’t surprise me to see Stallings utilize him a lot against Kentucky, because he can be a shut-down defender.

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