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.
Never too high, never too low. If there is anything Vanderbilt players, coaches, and fans learned last season, it’s that things are rarely as good or bad as they seem. After Vanderbilt fell 72-67 at home to Dayton Wednesday night to drop to 6-3 on the season, this lesson holds incredible relevance for the current Commodore squad. Here’s what I took from this game, and why I’m not overly concerned about the Dores going forward.
- There were three main concerns that I took from this game: the lack of rebounding, depth, and scoring inside without Luke Kornet; the continued inability to win close games; and the fact that VU’s last two chances for quality non-conference wins come on the road. Long-term, the Dores’ repeated failures in close games carries the most significance. Vanderbilt is 0-7 in its last seven one-possession games against power conference foes, and that doesn’t even include the overtime loss to LSU last year and this loss to Dayton out of the Atlantic 10. I don’t know the answer to why these struggles have carried over from last year, but at this point it would be disingenuous to pretend that the Dores aren’t in their own heads. Vandy got dominated inside by UD to the tune of 15 offensive rebounds and 40 points in the paint (plus 22 free throw attempts). Coach Kevin Stallings lamented the loss of Luke to injury after the game, hailing the junior big man as his team’s toughest, most physical player. Luke represented the biggest advantage Vanderbilt had over Dayton, and once he was ruled out the Commodores were certainly the underdogs in this game, despite what Vegas might have said (as an aside, I predicted a 7-12 point win assuming Luke played but went on record multiple times to friends before the game saying Dayton was the favorite with Luke out). I’ll get to the résumé implications of the loss later, but VU should be fine once Luke gets back and has enough ability to succeed without him against the upcoming schedule.
- Stallings seemed slightly concerned Tuesday about his team’s ability to guard Dayton’s Kendall Pollard, who was previously off to a slow start this year. Jeff Roberson unsurprisingly got the primary assignment, and Pollard proceeded to steal Jeff’s lunch money. Pollard is known for his chest-thumping routine after dunks, blocks, etc. and Damian Jones looked noticeably annoyed with him after an early Pollard and-1. I think this lit a bit of a fire under Damian, who displayed more emotion than usual throughout the game including on his monster slam on Steve McElvene. Vandy could use a little bit more of that Pollard chest-thumping attitude, but Damian provided a little of it during this game. He played hard, and he played well.
- Despite a rough final minute or so, I thought Wade Baldwin played a great game. His 18 points tied for the team lead with Damian, and despite shooting 4-12 from the field Wade was able to get to the free throw line 11 times, making 10 of his attempts. Dayton coach Archie Miller attached noted defensive stopper Kyle Davis to Wade for most of the game, and I thought Wade did a decent job overall of using his significant size advantage to manufacture open looks. When Dayton made the mistake of having Scoochie Smith, the worst perimeter defender out of its three starting guards, on Wade, he immediately took advantage by making the defense scramble. UD got away with playing freshman big man Sam Miller last night for way more minutes than it should have, and Vanderbilt really didn’t seem interested in attacking him. For context, Miller had fallen out of Dayton’s rotation against North Florida after a poor showing in Orlando at the Advocare Invitational. The sequence that sealed this game came from about six minutes remaining to three minutes left, when UD ran with Miller and fellow freshman Xeyrius Williams despite a narrow lead. Vanderbilt failed to attack this combination like Xavier did a couple of weeks ago, and it cost it the game. Dayton, on the other hand, immediately went at Samir Sehic when he came into the game and got a Steve McElvene layup out of it.
- Getting back to Damian, I thought he did a nice job against McElvene on offense. UD’s big man wasn’t the defensive presence he has been at times this year, but he did finish with 10 points and 9 rebounds while hurting Vanderbilt on the boards. Damian, however, scored against McElvene in the post with ease, showing off his improved footwork and superior athleticism. More rebounds for Damian would be good, but I thought this was a nice overall game for him with only one turnover and three fouls in 33 minutes of play.
- Vanderbilt’s perimeter defense needs to improve quite a bit, or they need to get better at hiding Matthew Fisher-Davis and Riley LaChance. MFD has most of the tools you would want in a good wing defender, so maybe he will improve over the course of the season. I didn’t think that either of these two, or Nolan Cressler, helped the defense last night.
- Toughness and effort are legitimate shortcomings that hurt Vanderbilt in this one, but the officiating isn’t. Dayton fans felt the officiating favored VU, and Vanderbilt fans felt it favored UD. The reality is that while this was a physical game, I didn’t think there was an especially big amount of missed or incorrect calls. What isn’t getting enough attention, however, is that Dayton was just the better team and that the talent gap isn’t a large one. I had UD ranked ahead of Vanderbilt to start the season before Pierre, UD’s best player, got suspended, and now of course VU is playing without one of its three best players. As great as Wade Baldwin is, the Flyers had and will continue to have the advantage between these two teams in the backcourt. Without Luke, the frontcourt was fairly even. I do think that Vanderbilt would have won if Luke hadn’t gotten hurt, but that doesn’t matter. Dayton has positioned itself to be as high as a 4 seed, so they’re a very good team.
- Even without the win, Dayton projected to land in the top half of the NCAA Tournament bracket with Pierre likely returning soon. This was another missed opportunity for Vanderbilt, and the Dores still don’t have any top-50 wins. Purdue is rolling, so VU’s game at Texas at the end of January now becomes extremely important thanks to the SEC’s poor play this season. It appears that VU has two games against each of the other three top-4 SEC teams, so that really helps save their résumé here if they can win three or more of those six games. I predicted a 21-10 regular season with a 9-4 non-conference record, so really VU has lived up to my preseason expectations for them. With that record, I projected the Dores as a 5 seed assuming a solid showing in the SEC Tournament. VU’s chances of grabbing the geographical protection that comes with being a 3 or 4 seed are slim considering the injuries they have, but I didn’t anticipate that type of seed anyways.
- Vanderbilt shouldn’t have much trouble with Wofford or Western Michigan even without Luke, and LSU has been underwhelming to start the year. Road games against Arkansas and South Carolina will be tricky at the least, but winning one of those two games without Luke would put the Dores in perfectly nice position heading into the meat of the conference schedule. VU can probably get away with holding Luke and Camron Justice out until the home game at Florida, but they’ll both obviously try very hard to play against UT and UK if they’re ready and able. Stallings said sometime in January represents the target date for Justice’s return, while Luke is looking at “somewhere in the neighborhood of six weeks.” The NCAA Tournament committee will be understanding about any losses, including Wednesday’s, that came with Luke and Camron out, as long as Vandy proves themselves against good teams when the two do return.
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