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
Vanderbilt finished up nonconference play at 10-3, with the three losses coming by a combined 11 points. Today, Max Herz and Dan Helinek join me to break down the Commodores’ season so far.
1) What was your favorite moment of the season so far?
RW: With 6:18 left in the second half against Baylor, James Siakam’s tip-in gave Vanderbilt a one point lead after Vandy came all the way back from a deficit of eleven points. Despite a less-than-packed Memorial Gym, the crowd got as loud as I have heard it this year with the Commodores making a push against a KenPom top-15 team. After having looked overmatched for portions of the first half, the team showed fight against a strong opponent and the result was an environment and a performance that any Vanderbilt fan should have been proud of. In the wake of a couple down years in which VU had fallen a bit off the radar, the juice was back at Memorial.
MH: We all knew that Riley LaChance earned his offer from Vanderbilt for his shooting ability. His long-range shooting also earned him a starting spot on opening night of his freshman season, which he hasn’t relinquished. Following a tough home loss to Baylor and an eight day break, LaChance’s three point shooting led Vandy to its first home win against a major conference opponent. LaChance scored a career high 26 points in the Commodores’ 81-71 win versus Purdue, shooting 9-13 from the field, 3-4 from three, and 5-5 from the free throw line in 34 minutes. LaChance lighting it up from the right wing all night was quite a spectacle, especially since the undersized freshman doesn’t “pass the look test,” in the words of Purdue’s Rapheal Davis. LaChance’s big game was the individual performance of the non-conference season for Vandy.
DH: Without a doubt it was watching Riley LaChance against Purdue. It’s always fun when the smallest guy on the court drops 26 and looks unstoppable. I also realized during that game that he wears a mouth guard. He looks like such a baby that I thought they were braces for the first month. It’s always good to notice the little things like that guys.
2) What was your biggest takeaway from the nonconference slate?
RW: The young Commodores are slowly learning how to win close games, but that learning curve has already cost the team three wins this year. The 10-3 record looks nice, but with only two top-100 KenPom wins Vandy really has not accomplished all that much as far as quality wins go. The double overtime win over Yale shows this team has fight, and if they can start winning more close games it will go a long way toward success both this year and in the future.
MH: Damian Jones is everything we could ask for and then some. Jones had a quiet 19 point game in the Commodores’ final non-conference game against Yale. A quiet 19 points? That’s right. Jones has led by example so far in his sophomore season, averaging 16.6 points per game and anchoring a group of big men that has been exemplary thus far. Jones has corrected every fault in his game dating back to last season, most notably improving his free throw shooting, managing the task of being double teamed inside, and limiting foul trouble. Vandy’s starting center has been good for double digits night in and night out, and his contributions absolutely cannot be taken for granted. Damian Jones has followed the roadmap put in place by Coach Kevin Stallings ultimately leading to “a big pile of money,” in Coach Stallings’ words.
DH: We can finally shoot again. We have 4 players shooting above 40% from 3, which is just going to open up tons of space for Damian to work in the middle. If I were Kevin Stallings I would exclusively recruit goofy 7-footers who can stroke from 3. Imagine how fun and ridiculous it would be to watch a starting five of all Luke Kornets. Also, respect for Matthew Fisher-Davis. Kid can shoot.
3) What has been the biggest surprise so far?
RW: I have been surprised with just how potent the offense has looked this season. Many assumed that an all-freshman backcourt rotation would produce more headaches than successes this year, but the freshmen have been a huge reason for the team’s offensive success. Wade Baldwin had a reputation as a poor three point shooter but has shot 42% from beyond the arc this year, while Riley LaChance has established himself as one of the premier freshmen offensively in the country, with a ridiculous offensive rating of 130.4 (22nd in the country, per KenPom). Shelton Mitchell ranks among the nation’s best in assist percentage, while Matthew Fisher-Davis has provided yet another three point threat. Once the backcourt’s defense starts to catch up to their offense, Vandy will become one of the most dangerous teams in the country.
MH: Ok, so the fact that Carter Josephs has played just 13 minutes this season is by no means the biggest surprise of the non-conference season, but his lack of playing time has puzzled me. As a sophomore, Josephs zoomed past senior Kyle Fuller at the end of the 2013-14 campaign to become Vandy’s go-to point guard. Coach Stallings was so impressed with Josephs’ contributions that he awarded the former walk-on with a well-deserved scholarship at the team’s first meeting in the Fall. As the only non-freshman point man on the roster, it looked as if Joseph would see court time if Shelton Mitchell and Wade Baldwin struggled. This hasn’t happened. There have been multiple games in which Mitchell and Baldwin have struggled to get the ball over the time line and properly run the offense, which are Josephs’ greatest strengths. Though I like the way Stallings has subbed players so far this season, I believe Carter Josephs should have a greater role on this team.
DH: Nearly Upsetting Baylor. It would have been a huge win for the team and for our tournament odds, but I was surprised we were in the game the whole time. These freshmen are good.
4) What is the biggest aspect the team must improve upon?
RW: The defense hasn’t been great, but cutting down on turnovers is an easier adjustment to make mid-season. Vanderbilt’s turnover percent of 20.7 ranks 228th nationally, and this is arguably the biggest factor preventing the offense from going from really good to great. The ‘Dores have been an extremely efficient shooting team this year and have consistently found high quality shots, so each turnover takes away a good scoring chance for VU while often providing a great chance for the opposition.
MH: Perimeter defense. A combination of inexperience and size has made Vandy vulnerable to open looks from three so far this season. Riley LaChance, Shelton Mitchell, Matthew Fisher-Davis, and Wade Baldwin must develop their ability to challenge shooters and create contested looks late in the shot clock. This is an area where the team has slowly improved over non-conference play, so look for more tight defense from the Commodores if they are to have success in SEC games.
DH: Rebound the ball ya dinguses. We cannot be playing a frontcourt this big, both 6’11” plus, and a hustle/do it all guy like Siakam and be 128th in the country in rebounding.
5) This season will be a success if…
RW: This season will be a success if Vanderbilt gets a first round home game in the NIT and wins at least one game in said tournament. The NIT provides quality opposition and it would be great for Vandy’s young team to get some postseason experience. The Commodores would certainly be motivated, so it stands to reason that they could make a deep run in the NIT if they can get there.
MH: This season will be a success if Shelton Mitchell becomes the leader he is destined to be. From game one, it was obvious that Shelton Mitchell was Vanderbilt’s point guard of the future. His 15 points and 8 assists in 46 minutes (!!!) against Yale were one last reminder of that fact as we hit SEC play. If Mitchell can eliminate the majority of his bad decisions while running point and put his teammates in a position to succeed, Vanderbilt could be a top four team in the SEC. In two years, Mitchell will be the leader of this team. If he can embrace that role in his freshman season, the Commodores will be in a very good place.
DH: We reach the postseason. We don’t need to make the tournament, but not being in the NIT would be a huge disappointment at this point. Also if we could get a photo of Riley and Shelton switching jerseys with Damian and Luke I’d be ok no matter what happens on the court.
6) What is your prediction for the rest of the season?
RW: I think 21-13 after the SEC tournament is reasonable. This would include a 9-9 conference mark with two wins in the conference tournament at Bridgestone Arena, and Vandy would probably be in line for something close to a 3-seed in the NIT. Additionally, I predict Damian Jones will finish the year as a projected mid-to-late first round draft pick and will have a very tough decision to make regarding his future.
MH: Many wins to smile about, and a few bad losses to kick yourself about. Vanderbilt will challenge and maybe beat some big time teams (remember #1 Florida at home last year?), but will lose some very winnable road games due to inexperience. If the highs outnumber the lows, which I firmly believe they will, Vanderbilt could find themselves closer to the top of the SEC than most outsiders expect.
DH: We will continue to bomb 3’s, but a couple of close loses at home will keep us out of the tournament. It’ll still be fun to watch though. Also, Shelby will come into a game and make four 3’s to spark a comeback, ‘cause that would be the greatest.