Despite Attrition, Vanderbilt Finding Surprising Success in SEC

Posted by David Changas on February 6th, 2014

Expectations for Vanderbilt were relatively low coming into the season, as the Commodores were predicted by most to finish in the bottom half of the SEC. A team beleaguered by defections and suspensions in the offseason started the year with an inexperienced nine-man rotation, but the loss of Josh Henderson to a torn ACL and leading scorer Eric McClellan to dismissal appeared to spell doom for the Commodores as they embarked upon conference play. Using a seven-man group that has forced starting guards Kyle Fuller and Dai-Jon Parker along with forward Rod Odom to essentially play with no rest, Vanderbilt’s start in the SEC went largely as expected with home losses to Kentucky and Ole Miss contributing to a 1-4 record. But after the Ole Miss loss, the Commodores went to Texas A&M and Georgia and grabbed wins, following that up with a home win over Mississippi State last weekend. On Wednesday night, they extended their winning streak to four after edging Tennessee, 64-60, to surprisingly move a game to 5-4 at the halfway mark of SEC play. With Arkansas coming to Nashville on Saturday, the Commodores have a realistic shot of adding to their current hot streak.

Vandy Continues to Surprise (S. Myers/Tennessean)

Vandy Continues to Surprise (S. Myers/Tennessean)

While Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings has endured his share of criticism for underachieving with several upper echelon SEC squads, the job he has done with this year’s team has drawn rave reviews. Included among the seven players who are part of the rotation are slender freshman Luke Kornet, who would have been a natural candidate to redshirt under different circumstances, and forward Shelby Moats, who logs just over 10 minutes per game. Fortunately for Stallings, he is especially able to rely upon the underrated Odom, who has stepped his game up to an all-SEC level.

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SEC M5: 01.17.14 Edition

Posted by Greg Mitchell (@gregpmitchell) on January 17th, 2014

SEC_morning5

  1. That sound you hear rushing past you? That’s Missouri dive-bombing off the bubble. The Tigers wiped out a 10-point halftime deficit in just a few minutes, but Vanderbilt regained control to get a home win last night. The Commodores’ half-court defense was impressive, as they largely bottled up Missouri’s dribble drive offense, especially Jordan Clarkson. Their zone also forced the Tigers to shoot more threes than they usually do (26 attempts last night; they average 17.3 per game). The fight that Kyle Fuller, Rod Odom and the rest of team have shown since Eric McClellan’s dismissal has been laudable, and the Commodores were due a win. Fuller and Odom each logged 40 minutes and still found the energy to hit the deciding shots in the final moments.
  2. Andy Kennedy has had the tall task  this season of replacing two incredibly productive big men in Reginald Buckner and Murphy Holloway. So when LSU and its frontcourt bursting with talent rolled into Oxford it seemed obvious which team would have the advantage down low. But freshman Sebastian Saiz had a breakout game (20 points on 8-of-11 shooting, nine rebounds) and Jordan Mickey and Johnny O’Bryant were held to just eight points combined. “It’s amazing when the ball goes in the basket, and what that does for your confidence,” Kennedy said. “[Saiz] made a couple [shots] early. They were really extended on Marshall, and when teams play that way, we have to take advantage of it behind the zone. We have to finish plays, and Saiz finished the plays. It’s something we’ve been sorely missing.” Henderson is a lot of things, and one of them is an effective decoy (see: Jarvis Summers’ game tying-three against Oregon). There will be easy opportunities for Saiz throughout the rest of the season, so we may not have seen his last big game.
  3. Marshall Henderson is “going back to me,” and we’ll probably all end up better (or at least more entertained) for it. The Dagger’s Kyle Ringo wrote about the tight rope Andy Kennedy may have to walk as the excitable Henderson reaches the end of his career. “He is a senior with 15 regular-season games remaining in his career. If he goes a bit overboard with his showmanship or showboating and taunting, will the school step in and risk short-circuiting another possible NCAA tournament appearance by suspending him again?” Henderson hasn’t done anything this season to attract Deadspin‘s attention, but he does need to keep the shenanigans in check. Unlike LSU and Missouri, Ole Miss is a middle-tier SEC team that has a bit of momentum going its way. We’ve written this countless times, but the conference has a soft underbelly begging for a team to rise up and stockpile a number of wins. The Rebels have the talent to be that team, but only with Henderson on the court in a productive way. 
  4. SI.com‘s Seth Davis doesn’t seem that bullish on Frank Martin‘s prospects at South Carolina. In his weekly mailbag, Davis writs that Martin might be able to turn the program arond in the “long LONG run” and noted that he took the job mostly because he hated his athletic director at Kansas State. Maybe I’m just an SEC apologist (which is not an easy job these days), but the second-year Gamecock coach deserves some more slack here. He didn’t inherit much talent from Darrin Horn, and he lost some of what he did have to the transfer rule. While the Gamecocks are off to an 0-3 conference start, none of the losses were that alarming (going to Gainesville isn’t easy, after all). He’s starting three freshmen and a sophomore, so counting out a significant turnaround by a proven coach seems premature.
  5. But things won’t get easier for Martin this season, as Villanova transfer Tyrone Johnson is now out indefinitely after fracturing his right foot against Texas A&M. Johnson is second on the team in scoring (11.6 PPG), and while he didn’t start against the Aggies, he is also the team leader in minutes (27.3 MPG). This is the second major in-season loss to South Carolina’s backcourt after Bruce Ellington left the team to train for the NFL Draft. While it hurts to lose Johnson, it’s not the end of the world for Martin. A bid to the NIT is a pipe dream after its start, and getting heavy minutes for Duane Notice and Sindarius Thornwell can only help in the seasons to come when a postseason invite may not be so unrealistic.
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SEC Power Rankings: Week Five

Posted by Brian Joyce on December 21st, 2012

Another week of the SEC Power Rankings, and another week of Florida sitting in the top spot.

1. Florida (-): The Gators lost to Arizona on Saturday, but that’s not enough to drop them from the top spot. Saturday’s letdown was the first time this defense allowed more than 1.0 points per possessions (1.08 PPP). Part of the reason Billy Donovan’s defense is so effective is because Florida doesn’t allow easy baskets.

Florida\'s defensive summary for this season.

Florida’s defensive summary for this season (credit: hoop-math.com)

Florida is only giving up 24 percent of opposing shots at the rim (tied for 20th in the nation), forcing opponents to take more difficult attempts. Our Freeze Frame edition from Tuesday shows how quickly the Florida defense is rotating to keep players from penetrating into the lane. And then of course if they make it to the rim, Patric Young is waiting for them with outstretched arms.

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SEC Power Rankings: Week Four

Posted by DPerry on December 14th, 2012

Every week, the SEC microsite will post a composite power ranking list for the league’s performances coupled with a short commentary justifying each team’s specific ranking. Here are Week Four’s SEC Power Rankings (all statistics via TeamRankings).

The Gators Are the Class of the SEC (Photo via John Raoux / AP)

The Gators Are the Class of the SEC (Photo via John Raoux / AP)

  1. Florida- There’s not a lot missing from the Gators’ resume. They’ve beaten every opponent by double figures, while playing the nation’s 13th toughest schedule. As of the release of last week’s rankings, however, they hadn’t had the chance to prove their mettle in a true road game, a situation in which they struggled last season (losing their first four). After their trip to Tallahassee last week, consider that mettle proven. The Gators embarrassed rival Florida State in a 72-47 win, holding the Seminoles to only 15 first-half points. Florida’s ability to win away from the O-Dome will be crucial over the rest of the season. In addition to this Saturday’s trip to Arizona, the Gators will have road games at Arkansas, Missouri, Tennessee, and Kentucky, all among the more hostile environments in the SEC.
  2. Missouri- Do I have to put a team here? There’s a massive gap between Florida and the rest of the conference, but the Tigers are the choice at #2. Missouri hasn’t been tested against quality competition since they left the Bahamas, but their performances against smaller conference foes have been far from convincing. A nasty little habit of starting slow has been their biggest problem. The Tigers trailed Southeast Missouri State by 10 at the half, and only held a three-point advantage over Tennessee State after 20 minutes. In fact, Mizzou ranks 101st nationally in first half scoring margin, at only +3.1 points. Big second half scoring outputs have saved Frank Haith’s team, but with Brandon Paul and the Fighting Illini looming next week, another slow start may be too much to overcome.
  3. Kentucky- After consecutive losses to Notre Dame and Baylor, the Wildcats made history when they dropped out of the rankings from the #8 spot, receiving only 186 votes, the largest single-week drop in AP poll history. Kentucky proceeded to easily handle its next two opponents in Samford and Portland, but somehow fell even further in the next AP poll, garnering only 44 votes. I’m not claiming that the Wildcats deserve to be ranked, but why would they lose ground after two convincing victories? It appears that quite a few voters realized a week too late that they were allowed to leave Kentucky off their ballots. Read the rest of this entry »
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SEC M5: 12.11.12 Edition

Posted by Brian Joyce on December 11th, 2012

  1. The Kentucky players haven’t quite bought into John Calipari’s system yet, but they’re certainly trying to become a top 10 team. “Definitely,” freshman center Nerlens Noel said. “We’ve definitely got the potential. We’ve got the players, the pieces, the coaching staff. We’ve got all the great tools. We’ve just got to work on some things and really bring it all together.” But if anybody has the credibility to get first year players to buy in, it’s Calipari. Perhaps last year’s success is part of what is hindering this year’s version of the Wildcats? “We’re trying to uphold expectations we shouldn’t have had,” freshman Willie Cauley-Stein said. “We’re not last year’s team.” He’s right about that. The 2012-13 team is more 2010-11 than 2011-12, and that team was possibly a play away from being Cal’s first championship team.
  2. Jarvis Summers is crucial to Ole Miss‘ success this year. The Rebels lost their first game of the season on Saturday to Middle Tennessee State, in part because Summers sat the last 13 minutes of the first half in foul trouble. While he was on the bench, his backups committed seven of Ole Miss’ 18 turnovers. “They just took the ball,” coach Andy Kennedy said. “Like what happens sometimes when you play your big brother. They just took your ball.” Summers returned to play 17 minutes in the second half, but it just wasn’t enough. He finished the game with just seven points and four assists, but Kennedy recognized his impact on the game by allowing Summers to play through four fouls with over six minutes left in the game.
  3. Florida is getting some much needed rest before one of its biggest games of the year against Arizona. “Playing as many games as we’ve played this early against some really good quality opponents I think guys get mentally drained,” coach Billy Donovan said. “So I think we’ll probably need some time to regroup before we go out west.” The Gators have 10 days between games, allowing some time to recover from injuries as well. Senior forward Erik Murphy hasn’t been 100 percent after a hip pointer injury, and of course final exams are mixed in for the student-athletes. “This a good group,” Donovan said. “They’ve worked hard. We’ve had to individually battle through our own adversity as a team.” So far this year, 13 points is the closest margin any team has come to the Gators.
  4. Missouri is also preparing for one of its biggest games of the year, but this one is for bragging rights above all else. Missouri is already circling a December 22 date with Illinois, which is one of the hottest teams in the country right now. The author makes the case that the Tigers need this win for RPI purposes because of the weak standing of the SEC relative to the Big 12 from which coach Frank Haith and the Tigers migrated. I tend to disagree. Yes, the SEC is weak at the bottom, but teams like Kentucky (with a current RPI of #95) or Tennessee (#132) won’t stay that low for long. Regardless, the match-up with the Illini is important in the bigger picture for Haith and company, but don’t expect the top half of the SEC to be a hindrance to RPI standings in the long run.
  5. Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings had a unique perspective regarding Vandy guard Kyle Fuller’s honor as SEC player of the week for his outstanding performance against Xavier. Fuller scored all 12 of Vanderbilt’s points during the overtime period, leading the Commodores to a surprising victory. “That’s awesome for him and almost embarrassing for the rest of us,” Stallings said. “Good for Kyle. He made some huge plays.” Fuller came up huge in the road victory with 25 points on 8-of-16 shooting, along with five assists, four rebounds, and three steals. You have to sort of agree with Stallings on this one, however. Vandy desperately needed someone not named Kedren Johnson to step up on the offensive end. Johnson’s field goal attempts have been in double figures in every game this season, and until the return of Dai-Jon Parker, the Commodores can’t continue to rely that heavily on Johnson for all of their scoring.
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SEC M5: 12.07.12 Edition

Posted by DPerry on December 7th, 2012

  1. Thursday night was a light one for SEC basketball, but the one game on the schedule did not disappoint. Vanderbilt traveled north to take on Xavier and was able to pull out a 66-64 overtime victory in Cincinnati. Earlier in the week, coach Kevin Stallings told media that he needed his team to be more aggressive. “I don’t know that people are trying to define their roles anymore,” he said. “I think that we just have to have guys that are aggressive.” Kyle Fuller was listening. The junior guard scored a career-high 25 points on 8-16 shooting. His resolute play also earned him 10 trips to the line. Xavier, implementing an entirely new starting lineup this season (like Vandy), isn’t as good as they have been in recent seasons, but a road win against a top 100 team (according to Ken Pomeroy) is exactly what the struggling Commodores needed.
  2. Breaking news: This year’s Kentucky team isn’t as impressive as the 2011-12 Wildcats. Beyond the clear disparity in talent, the current players’ commitment to their workouts has been called in to question. However, Willie Cauley-Stein (who has apparently become the spokesman for this freshman class despite being its least important player) believes that his team is starting to turn it around. “There are four of us in the gym and it carried over. Before it was one guy in the gym. It was Archie. Then Julius was in there. Then Alex was in there. Then I was in there,” Cauley-Stein said. “Now it is just collective and everybody is going to start going in there.” Kentucky’s apparently poor work ethic might have gone undetected if they hadn’t put in such a spiritless display last week against Notre Dame. John Calipari’s team has three cupcake home games over the next few weeks as a warm-up for the trip to Louisville on December 29.
  3. Alabama dropped its second straight game this week (at home against Dayton), leading coach Anthony Grant to question his team’s toughness. The words seem pretty harsh for a team that’s started its season brightly, but with the Crimson Tide giving up 81 points (the most they’ve allowed in a home defeat in Grant’s tenure), it’s tough to blame him. “At some point as a basketball player, as a team, you have to have a toughness about you,” he said. “Whether that’s something that can be developed, we’ll find out.” The Flyers made eight three-pointers in 19 attempts against Alabama, and shot almost 50% from the field overall. Point guard Kevin Dillard was the star, scoring 25 points and dishing out eight assists. A weak Alabama interior would be understandable given its lack of depth and injury troubles, but for a team so stacked on the perimeter, the Crimson Tide should be winning the backcourt battle almost every night.
  4. You couldn’t fault Missouri’s Negus Webster-Chan for being a little loud these days. The freshman came to Colombia without a lot of hype, but is now an unexpected starter for the 12th-ranked team in the country. That’s not his style though. “I was mostly quiet on the floor and let my game speak,” he told the News Tribune. “Coach likes his players to talk and I’m talking now.” Webster-Chan’s sub-30% field goal percentage indicates that he needs to work on his shot (or his shot selection), but he’s an energetic player who fits in a Tiger offense that has plenty of other scoring options around him.
  5. In what seems like a daily topic on the M5, let’s talk about another terrible SEC team at the bottom of the conference. Today’s “winner”: Auburn. The Auburn Villager‘s Griffin Gotta published an intelligent piece analyzing the Tigers’ struggles this season. He writes that coach Tony Barbee’s team has been in most of their games at the end, but aren’t able to execute in “winning time” (an expression I’ve only heard of in reference to the fantastic 30 for 30 documentary). Auburn ranks 323rd nationally in three-point defense, allowing opponents to shoot almost 40% from beyond the arc. In an end-of-game situation, allowing open long-range looks can let a trailing and desperate opponent back in to the game quickly and, when the Tigers are on the comeback trail, a conceded three can completely kill momentum.
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Vanderbilt’s Answers Begin at Point Guard

Posted by Brian Joyce on October 17th, 2012

After a historic SEC Tournament championship run, Vanderbilt watched as three Commodores were selected on NBA Draft night. Though senior Brad Tinsley was not one of them, his departure left a monumental void at the point guard position. Tinsley, a frustrating player for ‘Dores’ fans at times, remained a steadying influence for Kevin Stallings’ club with 9.0 points, 4.1 assists, and 2.6 rebounds per game last season. His senior leadership anchored one of the best offensive squads in the conference, thus finding a suitable replacement will not come easily. The Commodores find themselves in a year of transition, and the question that will prove most crucial to Vanderbilt’s adjustment will be whether Stallings can find consistency and production at the point.

Is Kedren Johnson the answer for Vanderbilt? (Mark Humphrey/ AP)

The Commodores have two talented and eager options in the backcourt. Junior Kyle Fuller, coming off a disappointing sophomore campaign, has the skills to develop into a strong contributor. He is quick enough to penetrate the lane, and makes good decisions with the ball. Fuller has shown that he is capable but will need to provide more consistent effort to see extended minutes. He never scored more than five points all of last season, and also never seemed to get into his comfort zone on the court.

The likely candidate to begin the year as the starter is sophomore Kedren Johnson. Johnson has good size at 6’4″ and has shown flashes of becoming a solid long-term player for the ‘Dores. He averaged just 3.1 points per game last year, but worked his way into more consistent playing time late in the season. In fact, Johnson played double figure minutes in his last 11 games. It is clear that Stallings trusts Johnson with running the offense, but he will need a big step up from the young player this season. Vanderbilt needs a leader it can trust, and with the top six scorers gone from a championship team a season ago (and also 87.7 percent of the scoring), the ‘Dores might need Johnson to step into that role quicker than expected.

Brian Joyce is a writer for the SEC microsite and regular contributor for Rush The Court. Follow him on Twitter for more about SEC basketball at bjoyce_hoops.

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Ten Tuesday Scribbles

Posted by zhayes9 on November 23rd, 2010

Zach Hayes is an editor, contributor and bracketologist for Rush the Court.

Pitt has a team capable of reaching that elusive Final Four

1. I had an opportunity to attend the consolation and championship games of the 2K Sports Classic last Friday and learned a great deal about the four teams participating- Pittsburgh, Texas, Illinois and Maryland. The Panthers were one of my preseason Final Four teams and did nothing to give me second thoughts on that prediction. Ashton Gibbs is a true playmaker at the end of the shot clock, Jamie Dixon has an incredibly deep frontcourt and the Panthers play heady, smart, hard-nosed basketball for 40 minutes. It’s possible we overrated Illinois a bit coming into the year. They lack a bruiser down low that can post up on the block and demand the basketball. Mike Tisdale’s the same player he’s been his entire career at Illinois, a capable mid-range jump shooter that lacks any sort of physicality and is often mired in foul trouble because opposing power forwards constantly out-muscle him. Maryland looks like a middle-of-the-pack ACC team that should sneak into the NCAA Tournament because Gary Williams always receives max effort from his teams and Jordan Williams is a force in the post, although he needs to avoid silly fouls and demand the basketball more often. The team that needed to convince me they were a contender after last season’s disaster is Texas. The Longhorns are a top-20 team with a duo of physical, lockdown defenders on the perimeter in Dogus Balbay and Cory Joseph, an athletic low-post presence in Tristan Thompson and an explosive scorer in Jordan Hamilton. A shortened rotation and accepted roles has helped Rick Barnes develop improved chemistry, as well.

2. The story of the first two weeks of college basketball might just be Minnesota. The Big Ten was the best conference coming into the season with Michigan State and Ohio State shaping up to be Final Four frontrunners, Purdue and Illinois mainstays in the polls and Wisconsin as solid as ever. Minnesota was a team that nobody could quite get a handle on, especially considering it was impossible to predict just how much the additions of Trevor Mbakwe and Al Nolen would help Tubby Smith.  After three statements wins in Puerto Rico over Western Kentucky, North Carolina and West Virginia, the Gophers appear to be yet another contender primed for a deep March run out of the absolutely loaded Big Ten. Al Nolen was superb in the championship game against West Virginia locking down the Mountaineer’s point guard duo of Joe Mazzulla and Darryl Bryant on defense and splitting the West Virginia defense with dribble penetration that either resulted in free throws (11-12 on the night) or open looks for sharpshooting teammate Blake Hoffarber. Where the Gophers have forged their identity, though, is inside with a plethora of size and length. Ralph Sampson, Colton Iverson, Mbakwe and big bodied Mo Walker provide Smith a frontline that can go toe-to-toe with any in the nation. Just wait till they get Devoe Joseph back.

3. The most crippling defeat for any team with NCAA Tournament aspirations could have come Monday afternoon at the Maui Invitational for Wichita State. The Shockers inability to contain Kemba Walker (29 second half points) cost them a chance to pick up a quality win over a Big East opponent and a shot at potential #1-seed Michigan State in the semifinals. Why is this so devastating? One, Wichita just blew their best chance for an RPI/SOS booster. The only other challenging non-conference game on the slate is a road trip to San Diego State, where it’s extremely unlikely the Shockers leave with a victory. Merely the addition of the Spartans on their schedule would improve Wichita’s power rating dramatically. Instead, it’s increasingly likely Gregg Marshall’s team will have to win the MVC Tournament. This task is very possible; after all, the Shockers are the prohibitive favorite, a senior-laden squad with talents like Toure Murry, David Kyles and J.T. Durley. Marshall’s goal in Maui was to pick up two quality wins for the resume in March. That chance has gone by the wayside.

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