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