The Black & Gold Standard 2014-15 Vandy men’s basketball recap

Damian Jones and the Commodores' season is over, but there's reason to be excited about the future. (Bosley Jarrett)
The season is over for Damian Jones and the Commodores, but there’s reason to be excited about the future. (Bosley Jarrett)

The Black & Gold Standard is an all-new VandyRadio Blog featuring general commentary and advanced statistical breakdowns following every Vanderbilt Men’s Basketball game. Robbie Weinstein of The Homefield Advantage (along with, on occasion, Max Herz and Dan Helinek) will be bringing you the best analysis of Commodore basketball throughout the season as the team chases a postseason berth for the first time since 2012. Check out the Black & Gold Standard for all kinds of new content as the young ‘Dores fight through the 2014-15 schedule.

The Vanderbilt Commodores ended their 2014-15 season with a road loss to Stanford in the NIT quarterfinals, finishing with a 21-14 record overall. Coach Kevin Stallings has the vast majority of this year’s production returning for next year, but first The Black & Gold Standard takes a look back at the season that was, as Max Herz and Dan Helinek join Robbie Weinstein to break down a six pack of questions.

1)    What did you think was the biggest surprise of the season?

RW: Vanderbilt’s offensive potency this season was quite a big surprise to me. Guard play in college basketball is more integral to success compared to the NBA, and Vandy’s backcourt was a complete mystery coming into the season. I expected some major growing pains from the VU freshmen, and while we did indeed see a lot of inconsistency from this group, the freshmen continued to improve throughout the year and provided the driving force behind an offense that finished the year as the 20th most efficient in all of Division I in scoring 113.4 points per 100 possessions. I never expected the Commodores to build a borderline elite offense so quickly, and VU produced this great output despite a turnover rate that ranked 237th in the country.

Wade Baldwin IV played a big role in Vanderbilt's late season run this year. (Bosley Jarrett)
Wade Baldwin IV played a big role in Vanderbilt’s late season run this year. (Bosley Jarrett)

MH: I was very pleasantly surprised by the rapid improvement of Wade Baldwin’s all-around game over the course of SEC play. At the start of conference season, I was extremely frustrated with his poor point guard play and his consistent ability to put his teammates in bad positions, so much so that I called for a permanent move away from point guard. Coach Stallings stuck with the duo of Baldwin and Shelton Mitchell at the point, and Baldwin suddenly separated himself as the superior player. His shooting and passing vastly improved, and he found plenty of ways to help his teammates score, specifically his roommate Matthew Fisher-Davis. Baldwin averaged 9.7 PPG in conference play, finishing the season with an A:TO ratio of 2.3. His shooting ability from beyond the arc added another dimension to a suddenly deep Commodore attack, as Wade shot 43.9% from 3 in conference play. Wade Baldwin is this team’s point guard moving forward, and is suddenly the go-to leader on this roster with James Siakam graduating.

DH: Damian Jones’ lack of true growth. That’s not to say he didn’t improve (He did drain a three this year! 1-5 baby!), but if he expects to be drafted in the first round next year, he needs to drastically improve his footwork and finishing. Watching him play against Bobby Portis really showed how much work he has left to do. He needs to improve his strength and stop finishing like a guard. Why must every contested shot be taken with your arms at a weird angle and way out from your body?  The big man can do it, and this team will rely on an improved inside game from Jones if they want to make a run in the tourney next year. (Also, still amazed that Riley doesn’t have braces.) I will be grading everything based on a type of dunk from the team. Grade: One of those two-handed bunny hop dunks from Siakam.

2)    What is one thing you’ll remember about this season?

RW: Honestly, I’ll remember the huge number of close losses. I will not, however, look back on this in a bad way, but more so from the perspective of remembering how future Commodore basketball success was built. Many teams, at all levels of basketball, fail over and over again before they find true success, and this Vandy team is no exception. As long as VU learns from all the close losses, I won’t look back on that aspect of the season in a particularly negative way.

MH: I will never forget what James Siakam meant to this year’s team. Siakam gave this talented freshman group the mental preparation skills necessary to play at the collegiate level early, serving as a role model all season long. Bamba led both on and off the court, outplaying every opponent who took the hardwood against him, and giving this young team purpose. Coach Stallings says he doesn’t know what he’ll do without James Siakam next year. With the passion and fight forever instilled in this team by Bamba, it’ll be like Siakam never even left.

DH: This is far and away the best shooting team we have had in my four years here, and the crowd knew it too. There’s nothing quite like the collective anticipation that fluttered through the stands whenever MFD, Riley, or even Goofy Luke got the ball with any space beyond the three-point line. If their shooting improves, people might as well start putting up three fingers at the beginning of each possession in anticipation. Things are gonna get ridiculous at times next year. I also don’t know if I’ll ever get the image of Luke getting smashed in the face out of my head. Get better big guy.
Grade: Angry Damian Jones one-handed monster slam.

3)    What’s the biggest weakness that the team needs to improve upon heading into next year?

RW: I’m going to cheat a little bit here and combine a few weaknesses into one broad category: toughness. Vanderbilt needs to improve defensively and on the boards, all while also finding someone who can step in for James Siakam as a leader. Really, Siakam brought all three of these traits to the table and for that reason (plus his elite offensive efficiency) I think the loss of #BambaMentality could have a more significant effect on the team than many will predict. Siakam led the team in offensive rebounding rate by miles (18th in the country) and finished second in defensive rebounding rate, block percent, and steal percent. D’Jery Baptiste needs to step in and provide shot blocking and post defense right away, and nearly everyone on the team needs to put on some weight and get ready to hit some people next season. Unlike some VU teams in the past, I think this group is very willing to battle and step up to the plate physically. They need to help themselves, however, by getting stronger and showing a consistent commitment to defending the three point line.

MH: This team needs to learn how to finish out every game. The recurring nightmare of going cold down the stretch and falling to Tennessee cannot occur a third time next season. This will sort itself out as the team matures, but anything that can be done to speed up the process must be instituted.

DH: Vandy really doesn’t have a guy on offense that scares you when he starts to drive, and I don’t know if they have that on the current roster. Wade is great, but he’s not that guy, and Shelton gets out of control too easily. That would help the O tremendously, but it won’t matter if they can’t defend. The perimeter D was nothing short of abysmal for large stretches this year. These young guys sagged in way too much on the perimeter this year. I don’t know if it was by Coach Stallings’ design or because they never got used to playing against people that could shoot as well as they could, but nothing irked me this year as much as watching MFD or one of the other perimeter guys lunge towards shooters in closeouts when it would have been obvious to most blind geriatrics that they would never get there in time. Grade: Riley flailing at the rim as the ball slips out of his hand and happens to go in. He touches the rim afterwards, so it’s a dunk. Thinking…can Riley slam? I need more than anything in the world to know if this is possible. Someone please send me a video.

4)    What do you see as the team’s biggest strength right now and heading forward?

Matthew Fisher-Davis represents only one of the elite three point shooters on the Commodore roster.
Matthew Fisher-Davis represents only one of the elite three point shooters on the Commodore roster. (Bosley Jarrett)

RW: Shooting. Nothing makes a team harder to guard than great outside shooting, and Vandy has more than enough good to great passers to help facilitate excellent offense. Many teams have been shut down in the NCAA Tournament this season due to a lack of shooting on the court, as they become easy to gameplan for and even easier to defend considering the amount of contact that’s allowed (Providence, San Diego State, and SMU all come to mind). Vanderbilt could conceivably carry seven 40% three point shooters on the roster next season, meaning no lead will be safe against the ‘Dores.

MH: It’s gotta be three point shooting. In the NIT, Baldwin, Fisher-Davis, Luke Kornet, and Jeff Roberson exploded from beyond the arc, even as Riley LaChance struggled to make shots. In just one season, the team has gone from leaning on Damian Jones to score all of its points to leaning on a bevy of guards to carry the offensive load. If Roberson and Mitchell can iron out their shooting and begin to shoot more and with confidence–the good old Luke Kornet freshman to sophomore year progression–this team will be scary from beyond the arc and Damian Jones will have plenty of room to work with inside.

DH: SHOOTING. Are you kidding me? How was this even a question? The whole team isn’t goofy, or huge, or all great at anything else besides shooting…except for you Shelton Mitchell. Stop shooting 3s. Stop it. Grade: Wade Baldwin with his chest out slam. Apparently we do do that here.

5)    How much of a success did you think this year was?

RW: There’s little doubt to me that this season was a significant success for the Commodores. Preseason predictions called for anywhere from a ninth to thirteenth place finish in the SEC, and VU ended up seventh. The ‘Dores won 20 games against Division I teams and even played their best ball coming down the stretch, something that shouldn’t be overlooked. If the goal for this season was to set up next year’s team for a return to the NCAA Tournament, then that goal absolutely has been accomplished. Now let’s hope there are no unforeseen departures this offseason.

MH: It was mostly a success. The team knows it could and should have achieved a bit more, but the strong ending to the regular season to earn three more games in the NIT put a very positive seal on this year of basketball. This team is primed to contend from the beginning next season, and will compete for a top four spot in the SEC standings. The team’s four highly-touted newcomers enter Memorial Gym ready to win, and won’t have to be leaned on as much as this year’s freshmen. A starting lineup of Baldwin, LaChance, Fisher-Davis, Kornet, and Jones has much more experience than this year’s opening day starting five, showing how far along this team is despite its (still) minuscule average age.

DH: It was all just kinda…meh. The losses at home to Tennessee and LSU were sadly predictable (If you’re as smart as I am that is), but they took a lot of the joy from the team’s successes. The squad made it to the NIT like we pretty much all thought they would at the beginning of the year even if it was by the slimmest of margins. I guess it was successful that the team didn’t implode, or that these guys all listened to their teachers from when they were younger and stayed in school? Frankly, I absolutely don’t care at all about the NIT, so the season was over for me when they lost in the SEC Tournament. Grade: An MFD dunk. It’s nice, but there’s not much visible emotion behind it.

6)    Give us one bold prediction for the 2015-16 Vanderbilt season.

Wade Baldwin's growth this year can be seen when comparing his advanced stats profile (middle) to those of star lead guards D'Angelo Russell (top) and TJ McConnell (bottom).
Wade Baldwin’s growth this year can be seen when comparing his advanced stats profile (top) to those of star lead guards D’Angelo Russell (bottom) and TJ McConnell (middle). Graphics courtesy of KenPom.com

RW: A Vanderbilt Commodore will be named 2016 SEC Player of the Year and VU will produce at least one first round draft pick. These could be the same player, or they could be two different guys. I suspect a breakout season is coming for one of Wade Baldwin, Riley LaChance, and Luke Kornet, as one of them will ascend to star status. Baldwin’s advanced stats profile from this season is stunningly similar to that of Ohio State star and probable top-5 2015 draft pick D’Angelo Russell, and better finishing would put him right in the ballpark of Arizona’s TJ McConnell (yes, I know that IV and McConnell don’t have similar styles) I’m all aboard the Wade Train.

Will Vandy's Luke Kornet establish himself as an NBA prospect in 2015-16? (Bosley Jarrett)
Will Vandy’s Luke Kornet establish himself as an NBA prospect in 2015-16? (Bosley Jarrett)

MH: Luke Kornet becomes a very legitimate NBA draft prospect. The sophomore has gone from a lovable oddity on the court to a major contributor in just two seasons, and brings a unique dynamic with his three-point shooting skills and a seven-foot high release. He improved remarkably in every facet of his game from his freshman year to this past season, and I expect even greater improvement from year two to year three. With more weight, even more confidence, and a well-earned starting role, Kornet will garner plenty of national attention in 2015-16.

DH: This team gets a top 6 seed in the NCAA Tournament next year. Them getting in shouldn’t be a question, but can they finally get back to the Sweet Sixteen? Are you kidding me? This is still Vandy. Wait for the spectacular failure against the 11 seed, but enjoy the ride while they get there. Grade: Shout out to James Siakam. You’re listed at 6’7”, but you’re 6’3” at best and still finished 18th nationally in offensive rebounding percentage. It has been a pleasure to watch you play this year.

Check out VandyRadio’s comprehensive Vanderbilt sports blog series. Building the Masonic Tradition covers Commodore football, The Black & Gold Standard covers VU hoops, and Eyes of the Hawk covers Vandy baseball. VandyRadio.com is your home for year-round coverage of your favorite Vanderbilt teams.

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