Freeze Frame: Searching for Vanderbilt’s Defense

Posted by Brian Joyce on December 10th, 2015

Longtime followers of SEC basketball have come to expect a solid offense from Vanderbilt in most years, but perhaps not a particularly stout defense. Still, Kevin Stallings’ team entered Wednesday night’s clash with Dayton boasting the 16th-best adjusted defensive efficiency in the country, but it certainly didn’t look that way during the game – Vanderbilt gave up 1.06 points per possession to the Flyers. The Commodores’ best defense was not on display last night, but Vandy will need to perform as efficiently as the numbers suggest to reach its goals for this season.

Kevin Stallings needs more consistency on defense to win big games (AP/Bill Kostroun)

Kevin Stallings needs more consistency on defense to win big games. (AP/Bill Kostroun)

This Vanderbilt team is definitely good, but just how good is the burning question. The Commodores had some chances against both Kansas and Baylor, but fell just short in their two contests with the Big 12 clubs. Against Dayton, despite a seemingly commanding 16-point lead in the first half, Vanderbilt gave up far too many points in the paint and made too many mental mistakes to come away with a key non-conference win. The only way to escape this all too familiar scene is by the defense living up to its billing. In this edition of Freeze Frame, we focus on the positive aspects of Vanderbilt’s defense to analyze what the Commodores should do to avoid another meltdown.

Vanderbilt’s offense is roughly on pace with its metrics from last year (a 111.9 offensive efficiency rating, compared with 113.4 last year), but its defensive ratings are already significantly better. In fact, the Commodores have improved by 7.0 points per 100 possessions and, as a result, jumped 97 spots in KenPom’s adjusted defensive efficiency ratings from last season. This substantial improvement in Stallings’ defense represents one of the top five turnarounds in defensive efficiency in college basketball’s power conferences this season (see table below).

Vanderbilt's adjusted defensive efficiency has seen a significant turnaround this season.

Vanderbilt’s adjusted defensive efficiency has seen a significant turnaround this season.

Interior defense has been a major strength and one of the primary reasons for such a significant jump in defensive efficiency. Vanderbilt struggled against Dayton without 7’1” Luke Kornet — he missed last night’s game with a sprained MCL — but there is still a lot to like about its stingy post defense. He, along with seven-footer Damian Jones and 6’11” Josh Henderson, provide great size and length on the inside, leading to many contested and blocked shots near the rim. However, Stallings was forced to go small during most of last night’s game, playing 6’6″ Jeff Roberson at the four and giving up the Commodores’ defensive advantage in the paint. Kornet’s return to the lineup in four to six weeks will again immediately and significantly bolster the team’s protection of the rim.

The Commodore big men are some of the best defenders to come through Nashville.

The Commodores’ big men are some of the best defenders to come through Nashville.

The positioning of the offensive post player is key to the effectiveness of Vanderbilt’s interior defense. Jones in particular makes it difficult by forcing them to catch the ball well outside of the lane. In this frame, you can see how far outside of the lane a Dayton big man caught the ball when Vanderbilt was in its half-court defense.

Jones forces the offensive player off the block.

Jones forces the offensive player off the block.

Unfortunately for the Commodores, Dayton pushed the tempo in transition, failing to give Jones an adequate opportunity to establish himself defensively in the post. The Commodores need to do a better job of limiting transition opportunities so that he can do his thing down low. Once the offensive player has the ball inside, another reason this team is usually so good at protecting the rim is how quickly weak side defenders help out. In the below frame, Henderson quickly maneuvers from the weak side to close in on the attacker.

Henderson quickly double teams.

Henderson quickly double-teams.

As the offensive player looks to rise with the ball, he is smothered by two long and sizable Vanderbilt defenders.

Smothering defense on the interior.

Smothering defense on the interior.

As a result, Dayton kicks it back out and starts the offense again. After a high-ball screen, the Flyers attack the middle but are quickly met again with a double-team in the post.

Another double in the post.

Another double-team in the post.

Stallings’ big men are effective at hedging on ball screens, giving the Commodores’ guards enough time to recover. A quality ball screen defense makes it difficult for opposing offenses to penetrate the lane, forcing them to go late into the shot clock and providing relatively few opportunities for easy looks at the basket. In the below frame, Henderson hedges hard on this ball screen to prevent penetration.

Henderson prevents penetration.

Henderson prevents penetration.

He stays with the ball-handler to prevent a three-point shot and limit opportunities for penetration.

Effective ball screen defense prevents anything for Dayton's offense.

Effective ball screen defense prevents anything for Dayton’s offense.

Finally, the defenders switch and Dayton is forced to pass out of the play and start over.

Dayton starts over.

Dayton starts over.

Unfortunately, fatigue without Kornet in the lineup set in, and Vanderbilt didn’t defend with the same energy and effectiveness in the second half. Its offense has remained impressive but the Commodores’ defense has let them down in their three biggest games. The Commodores were clearly not at their best against Dayton without Kornet’s size and length on the interior, but it still showed flashes of the requisite defensive brilliance it needs to win those marquee matchups. Ultimately, Dayton beat Stallings’ team in transition and found ways to consistently penetrate the lane.

Vanderbilt can certainly become an SEC title contender this season, but only if its defense performs at an elite level against quality opponents. The last time the Commodores had a defense this good, they went to the NCAA Tournament and put three players into the 2012 NBA Draft. Could there be a similar ending for Stallings’ team again this year?

Brian Joyce (333 Posts)

Brian Joyce is an advanced metrics enthusiast, college hoops junkie, and writer for the SEC basketball microsite for Rush the Court.

Share this story

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *