The Black & Gold Standard is a VandyRadio sports blog featuring nuanced commentary and advanced statistical breakdowns following Vanderbilt men’s basketball games and throughout the year. Robbie Weinstein of The Homefield Advantage will be bringing you the best analysis of Commodore basketball as the team looks to build on the success of last season’s NIT appearance. Check out The Black & Gold Standard for all kinds of new content as the Dores fight through the 2015-16 schedule. All stats courtesy of KenPom.com unless otherwise noted.
After a forgivable, yet troubling, close loss to Baylor on the road, Vanderbilt returns home to face another likely NCAA Tournament team in the Dayton Flyers. As someone who has been going to UD games since I was six years old, you could say I’m familiar with Dayton, its personnel, and its history. So here’s the scouting report, centered around what the Dores need to do to ground the Flyers on Wednesday night.
- Lots of people will continue to question Vanderbilt’s toughness after the Dores got obliterated on the boards by Baylor, and the criticism is pretty deserved, at least in the short-term. Coach Kevin Stallings offered a telling quote that puts Vandy’s struggles on the boards, both historically and on Sunday, in perspective. “Pete Carril said one time that there’s an inverse proportion between good rebounders and how close they lived to the nearest railroad tracks, and I just don’t think we have very many guys who grew up near railroad tracks,” Stallings said. “So it’s just something that we always have to focus on, concentrate on. Of course you go back and you take the things you didn’t do well in the game before and you try to work on them in practice, but rebounding has been an emphasis for us all season long and will continue to be. It’ll have to be.” You can take the quote however you want, but to me Stallings is implying that it’s difficult to find enough tough guys and enforcers who will body up and hit people in the paint when you have academic restrictions that affect recruiting. Dayton, on the other hand, has toughness in spades. Throughout the starting lineup, all you see are mentally and physically tough athletes that know how to win close games and play to contact. UD ranked fourth in the entire country in free throw attempts/field goal attempts last year, and this year they’re 46th. They love to get to the line, but they’ve fouled a lot defensively this season as they adjust to the new rules that limit contact.
- The stats won’t necessarily tell you this, but point guard Scoochie Smith is UD’s best player. Smith is like a coach on the court, and the offense runs smoothly when he runs the show. When he’s stuck on the bench, the Flyers struggle to get good shots. Smith doesn’t foul a lot (2.7 fouls committed per 40 minutes), so it’s unlikely that Vandy will be able to get him in foul trouble. What the Dores can do, however, is try to pressure Smith and force him to become a scorer. Wade Baldwin has the size and quickness to play up on Smith while not getting blown by often, but he has to be wary of Smith’s impressive ball handling skills and court awareness. Similarly, Wade can’t fall asleep off the ball as Smith is a good three point shooter who specializes in spotting up way far away from the basket and launching deep threes off the catch when his defender falls asleep. If Scoochie scooches (i.e. puts his stamp on the game), then this should be a close one.
- Kyle Davis stands at least two inches shorter than Smith, but he actually plays the 2 for Dayton. Davis is the type of disruptive defender that is somewhat rare in college basketball, and he has every tool you want aside from height. I’m not sure whether Davis will defend Wade Baldwin or Riley LaChance, but he should be effective against either, despite his 6’ (at best) height. Davis locked up Providence’s Kris Dunn and threw away the key in the NCAA Tournament last year when he held Dunn to 11 points on 4-13 shooting to go with seven turnovers, so he can shut down anyone in the country. Both Davis and Smith love to reach in and try to slap the ball away from ball handlers, and both are very good at it. Staying aware and attacking both guards when they overextend in an attempt to pick up a steal will help Baldwin and LaChance find a few more driving lanes. Offensively, Davis uses his athleticism to finish at the rim at a high rate both in transition and in the half court, but he’s all left hand and is a career 21% three point shooter who shouldn’t be guarded past the arc. If Vandy ever needs to send a double team or rotate over on defense, the extra defender needs to come off of Davis whenever possible.
- Charles Cooke leads the Flyers in scoring and excels from everywhere on the court offensively. The 6’5” wing isn’t much of a ball handler, but he’s shooting 51% from two and 39% from three while drawing 6.3 fouls per 40 minutes. Cooke’s defensive impact is significant as well, as his defensive rebounding and block rates (15.3% and 4.1% respectively) are quite high for a guard. Big wings have given Vandy trouble this year for whatever reason, so Cooke could get loose. He’s not someone you want to leave open from three.
- Kendall Pollard may be undersized for the 4 at 6’6” but he’s got a 6’11” wingspan, jumps out of the gym, and packs 235 pounds of punch. Before the season, I thought he’d give Luke Kornet a lot of trouble with his speed and quickness, but Luke’s improved mobility helps things. It’s also possible that Damian Jones will guard Pollard to start due to DJ’s elite combination of size and lateral quickness. Pollard often grabs the defensive rebound and charges up the court to go coast to coast himself, so Vanderbilt’s big men need to be ready at all times to challenge him at the rim without fouling. Pollard has struggled from the free throw line this year and over his entire career, but his form is vastly improved and he’s a better shooter from the charity stripe than his 45.7% shooting this season indicates.
- Jeff Roberson will match up with Pollard quite a bit, and Jeff has plenty to prove after struggling against Kansas, Baylor, and Stony Brook. Pollard was the Atlantic 10’s Most Improved Player last season, and he’s a load in the paint. Can Roberson keep him in check? “Well, I think that a guy like that is hopefully a guy that Jeff can match up with when he’s in the game,” Stallings said. “When I made references to Jeff being able to guard 4-men from other teams earlier in the season, (Pollard) wasn’t the kind of guy I had in mind. I mean, he’s a high-level player and I was talking about more like the 6’4”, 6’5” guy that’s way undersized that some of our bigs might have a hard time with. Pollard’s a legit-sized 4-man that’s a very, very good player. Jeff will certainly have his turn with having to guard him, and hopefully he can do a good job with it.”
- UD center Steve McElvene (pronounced McElvane for some reason) is the key to the Flyers’ defense. The 6’11” 268 pound redshirt freshman behemoth has similar rebounding rates on both sides to (gasp) Baylor’s Rico Gathers. We all saw what Gathers did to the Dores on Sunday, so Vandy needs to get Big Steve off the court as soon as possible by getting him in foul trouble. This represents a very doable objective, as McElvene commits 6.3 fouls per 40 minutes, although he was able to stay out of foul trouble in UD’s win over North Florida after a week of practice during which coaches impressed on him the importance of not fouling. “Over the course of the game, (Steve) wore (North Florida) out a little bit,” Dayton head coach Archie Miller said of McElvene’s 14 point, 16 rebound, 4 block game against the Ospreys. “The fact that he was able to play as many minutes as he did (28, one away from his career-high), I think you can see the impact of him when he’s in there. He’s very important to what we’re doing, and we’re just trying to keep him really locked in on not fouling and being smarter on defense, being better on the perimeter, which he’s not used to.” Aside from the rebounding, McElvene blocks 10.2% of opponents’ two-point attempts while he’s on the floor, which ranks 31st His elite offensive rebounding certainly helps the Flyers, but he’s not a threat to score in the post against opposing centers. McElvene is the key to Dayton’s defense, so getting him out of the game would really open up the floor for Vanderbilt.
- From the Vanderbilt perspective, Stallings says the Commodores can’t get too focused on fouling any opponent out of the game. “We’re not going to get very far outside of what we do in in an effort to get somebody in foul trouble because I think that just works in reverse,” Stallings said. “… Dayton is exceptional on defense, they’re very, very good on defense so we’ll have our work cut out for us in terms of being able to produce the kind of points and possessions that we want.” Stallings did imply earlier that attacking McElvene would be part of the gameplan, so it’s pretty clear that this will be a part of their strategy on Wednesday.
- At the risk of beating a dead horse, here’s one more McElvene quote courtesy of Archie Miller. “It’s a new opportunity for Steve,” Miller said. “Xavier really gave people a game plan. You’ve got to attack him and move him and go at him a lot. Steve has to be ready early on because people are going to try to get him out of there. He is important. He has to do what he’s supposed to do and our team has to understand how to protect him with help.” McElvene reportedly struggled against Purdue’s big men in UD’s secret scrimmage with the Boilermakers and fouled out in just six minutes of action against Xavier, the only nationally ranked team UD has faced during the regular season. Judging from those results, the Dores could be in solid shape against Big Steve.
- After its starters, Dayton doesn’t have much depth at the moment. The Flyers’ freshmen have been inconsistent and probably won’t play much in this game, with the exception of athletic 6’8″ forward Xeyrius Williams. Williams can guard all three frontcourt positions and makes his name as a defensive player. At this stage, he’s not an offensive threat that Vandy needs to worry about, but he doesn’t make many mistakes on that end either. The Flyers’ sixth man is combo guard Darrell Davis, the Atlantic 10’s three point shooting leader by percentage as a freshman last year at 45%. Davis has been mired in a shooting slump this season, making only 7-29 from three, but he’s going to break out at some point so Riley LaChance and co. can’t afford to fall asleep on him.
- Looking at UD overall as a team, its two major weaknesses have been turnovers and three-point defense. The Flyers have thrown the ball out of bounds or right to the other team countless times this season, but Miller cut the rotation down against North Florida which helped eliminate most of those mistakes. I would be surprised if Dayton finishes with more than about 15 turnovers Wednesday, despite what the cumulative stats say. VU can take advantage of the questionable three-point defense, obviously. Dayton has struggled to make multiple defensive rotations in a row, so getting good penetration from Wade Baldwin as well as good ball movement should combine to yield open shots. Again, some of that bad Dayton defense from behind the arc was due to freshman mistakes, and those guys (Ryan Mikesell, Sam Miller, and John Crosby) are mostly out of the rotation and probably won’t even combine for 15 minutes against VU. If they do, it’s advantage Vandy.
- Dayton doesn’t play at an especially fast pace (152nd nationally in adjusted tempo), but one idiosyncrasy of the Flyers’ is that they like to run after opponents’ made baskets. The idea is that you can strike quickly while the other team lets its guard down following a bucket. Dayton will push the ball down the court fast with Scoochie Smith or even Kendall Pollard, while Kyle Davis and Charles Cooke cut to the basket from the wings. UD has gotten a lot of easy layups out of this strategy this season, so VU needs to get back on defense after makes. If Dayton doesn’t have an advantage, it has at least one foundational set as well as some counters that it can easily flow into out of transition, so there won’t be any opportunity to relax on defense. Most of these sets end in post-ups for Pollard or spot-ups for Cooke, so those are the two main guys to focus on off the ball in the half court.
- One of Dayton’s biggest strengths is its experience winning close games. This gets back a bit to UD’s toughness, and the Flyers are 11-5 in their last 16 close games that have come down to the last minute, as judged my me when I watched those games. The genesis of this trend can be found in UD’s Elite 8 run in 2014, so if you include the two close wins over Ohio State and Syracuse that 11-5 record bumps up to 13-5. Similarly, Dayton has won its last two road games against ranked teams, a pair of close games against Saint Louis and VCU that came down to the final few possessions. Sensing a trend here? VU hasn’t proved they can win close games against really good teams, so it’d be best for them to prevent this from becoming a close game in the first place. “They’re a top-level team without any question,” Stallings said. “You’re talking about a team that’s got three starters back (at the moment) from a squad that went to the (NCAA round of 32) a year ago, that went to the final eight two years ago, so I don’t think there’s any question about the quality of their program, the quality of what’s going on competitively in that program. They’re putting together really, really good teams year in and year out.”
- From a résumé standpoint, Dayton projects to fall somewhere between about 20 and 40 in RPI as well as KenPom at the end of the year. Top-50 wins, of course, represent the foundation of any strong NCAA résumé. “I think if you’re gonna have a special year, you have to win games like this, or games like Baylor, games like Kansas,” Stallings said. “The more of those games that you can put together in the win column, the better your résumé looks at the end and the better you feel about yourself at the end.” UD should dominate the A10 assuming Dyshawn Pierre, solidly the team’s best player, returns from suspension on December 22. The NCAA Tournament committee knows Pierre isn’t playing against Vandy, so the Dores won’t get full credit for a win if they do come out on top. The RPI boost from when Dayton gets rolling after Pierre’s potential return, however, will be baked in to VU’s RPI and KenPom ratings and therefore will still provide a sneaky little lift to the Dores’ profile. I’d be shocked if Dayton loses 10 games before the NCAA Tournament, and they could even get to 28 or so wins before that point if everything falls right. This is probably the Dores’ third toughest home game of the year, so they’ll need to play like it. I’ll take VU by about 7-12 points, with a slightly lower final score than KenPom’s 74-65 prediction. I think Pomeroy’s projected 17% chance of a Dayton win is too low, but the margin sounds roughly accurate based on what I’ve seen from both teams. UD fans travel extremely well and will certainly have some red in the house, so it should be a fun and energetic atmosphere.
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