Eight games into the SEC season, Vanderbilt sits at 4-4 and with one glaring flaw: an inability to stop opposing scoring guards. Bruce Ellington shot his way past the 'Dores in the teams' first meeting before getting shut down by Jeffery Taylor Saturday. Rotnei Clarke lit VU up for 36 points in Memorial Gym during a double-digit blowout. Marcus Denmon hit his stride in December to keep Vanderbilt from what could have been their most impressive win of the season.
The temporary solution has been to slide Taylor over to cover the team's biggest threat in the backcourt, regardless of size. While this works against shallower teams like the Gamecocks, it creates holes at the forward positions that other teams can exploit. Opponents like Tennessee, Kentucky, and other SEC squads with scorers in the backcourt and on the wing create significant matchup problems for the 'Dores. Any team with a shooter who can dismantle Kevin Stallings's zone defense paired with a scoring forward will serve to be a major test for this Vanderbilt team. Simply put, Vandy's backcourt has been a defensive liability in 2011.
However, there's one guy on campus who could have solved some of Vanderbilt's backcourt woes. A 5'11" hustle player whose quickness and physical defense would disrupt guys like Clarke and Ellington, and whose lack of offense could be absorbed by the scoring of John Jenkins, Jeffery Taylor, and Festus Ezeli. The backcourt's leading scorer in the 2008 NCAA Tournament: Jamie Graham.
Graham, a two-way athlete for the Commodores' football squad, walked on to Kevin Stallings's team in 2007 and slowly worked his way into the fringe rotation thanks to decent ballhandling and intense effort as a defender. Despite giving up size to opposing guards, Graham used his strength and quickness to stay in front of his man, effectively shutting off the lane and limiting open looks from behind the arc. After a slow start coming directly from football season, the freshman eventually earned seven minutes per game down the stretch in SEC play and provided instant energy off the bench. Unfortunately, football took precedence for Graham after his redshirt freshman season, and he left the basketball team early in the 2008 season.
However, his burst and commitment to defense is exactly what this team needs now. Vanderbilt's depth at the 1-2 has haunted them in losses, and the lack of an impact defender in the backcourt has torched this team, making them a fringe Top 25 candidate. Graham's presence could have changed that. He wouldn't be an option for every game, but he'd be an asset in breaking the momentum of opposing shooters like Rotnei Clarke and Bruce Ellington.
In a conference filled with small, lightning-quick guards like Ellington, Erving Walker, and Melvin Goins, a player like Jamie Graham would be a real asset for these Commodores. It'll be better next year with the arrivals of Dai-Jon Parker and Kedren Johnson, but for now, it's one of Vanderbilt's biggest weaknesses. Until then, we'll just have to cross our fingers and hope that Brad Tinsley and John Jenkins can stay in front of their men long enough for Festus Ezeli to slide into the crease and erase some shots.