21-10 and a third place finish in the SEC wouldn't normally signify a disappointing season for the Vanderbilt Commodores. But this is anything but a normal Commodore team.
Vanderbilt started the 2011-2012 season with the most heralded team in school history. The 'Dores were ranked as highly as #7 in the country before play began, thanks mostly to the strength of a strong senior class and one junior sharpshooter. Festus Ezeli, Jeffery Taylor, and John Jenkins were all touted as potential lottery selections as this team became a popular sleeper pick to run all the way to the Final Four.
That hype lasted two days into the season. Vanderbilt was upset - at home - in just their second game of the year by an unheralded Cleveland State team.
This inconsistency has marred the Commodores' season to date. Sometimes this team has shrunk from the spotlight. Other times, they've risen to the occasion. The overall balance of these past few months has been enough to make any Vanderbilt fan scratch their head in confusion.
When Ezeli missed the first eight games of the season due to both a NCAA suspension and a knee injury, it was easy to write off a 5-3 start. Once the big man returned to moderate health, he helped this team cruise to eight straight wins - including victories over Marquette and Alabama in that span. Then, old habits came back to bite this team hard.
The 'Dores lost winnable games against Mississippi State, Arkansas, and, most recently, Tennessee when their lack of killer instinct flared up again. On the other side of the ledger, they got clutch performances against top 25 teams like Marquette and Florida and even turned close losses against #1 Kentucky into evidence that this team can compete at the highest level of play. So which team will be the one that shows up in the two most important weeks of the year?
For Vanderbilt to make any sort of run in the postseason, they'll need to address their biggest concerns. The Commodores are proficient in several areas across the court - zone defense, three-point shooting, drawing fouls - but have some glaring holes that other teams have exploited in upset losses. Simple mistakes and inconsistency have turned this team from a top 15 juggernaut to a 10-loss enigma. Now, they have more to prove than ever before, and the time is nigh to prove it.
So what does this team need to fix?
Weakness #1: Rebounding.
Vanderbilt has the size and experience to match up well against any frontcourt in the NCAA. Ezeli and Lance Goulbourne give this team two athletic bodies who can rebound, score in the post, and defend inside and out. When healthy, the two make up the best PF/C combination in the SEC outside of Lexington.
However, issues arise when Ezeli is forced to help on defense. Whenever guards or opposing wings drive into the lane, this team counts on the big Nigerian to give up his position and work to block shots in the paint. With a Tinsley/Jenkins backcourt, this happens more often than the team would like.
Ezeli alters plenty of shots this way and creates misses, but this strategy opens up an opposing player under the rim. This means more offensive rebounds for opponents, and more second chances for teams to find a way to burn the Commodores. Things like this help Tennessee post a +13 advantage on the glass, or give Arkansas double-digit offensive rebounds.
Vanderbilt doesn't crash the boards too heavily, often putting the burden of rebounding solely on Lance Goulbourne's shoulders. Goulbourne has developed into a presence on the glass, but he can't do it alone. Neither can Steve Tchiengang or Rod Odom. Vandy needs to get more aggressive when they send players into the paint. This team can't afford to stare down any more loose balls. Securing misses and ending possessions has to be a top priority for this team in March, or else they'll be looking at another early exit from the NCAA and SEC Tournaments.
Weakness #2: Protecting the ball.
Somehow, someway, this team still struggles to break a basic full-court press. When opponents isolate Brad Tinsley before half-court, it's a toss-up as to whether or not the possession will end in a turnover. If Taylor and Jenkins are covered, Tins struggles to find a third option and is prone to making sloppy passes across the middle of the court. That is no-mans land against full-court pressure. Goulbourne has become a key part of the press-breaking team as a helping option, but he lacks the handle to move with the ball outside of the paint.
Stallings and his crew alleviated this in last week's game against Florida. By playing Kedren Johnson alongside Tinsley, he gave the team a safety valve to keep teams from moving to double-coverage too early and provided another outlet to move the ball up the court. Johnson, a freshman, responded well to his big minutes in the clutch.
Does this mean that the Commodores will be able to handle full-court pressure in the postseason? Smaller teams will no doubt turn to this strategy to try to rattle Vanderbilt in big games. Can this team rely on their true freshman as a ballhandler on the game's biggest stage? Can Brad Tinsley make solid decisions with the ball and find open teammates for some press-breaking baskets? These are two big questions that the team will have to stare down in practice as the countdown to the SEC Tournament rolls on.
Weakness #3: Ball movement.
Right now, Vanderbilt only has one player who has consistently proven that he can create his own shot. Jeffery Taylor has the quickness and athleticism to shake defenders and create space anywhere from behind the three-point line to the paint. Unfortunately, Taylor has also proven to be famously inconsistent during his time in Nashville.
Vandy has plenty of other scoring options. John Jenkins is the country's deadliest shooter. Festus Ezeli has developed a post-up game that is nearly unstoppable. Lance Goulbourne has scored double-digit points in 15 games this season.
However, for any of those players to be efficient, they need to be battling for position or coming off of screens in order to get open shots. And, in order to take advantage of this positioning, they'll need someone to feed them the ball. Again, Vanderbilt will turn to Tinsley and Johnson to provide that spark.
Much has been discussed over Tinsley's ability to lead this team from the point. Despite his detractors, the senior is a solid ballhandler who is able to pass well in the half-court set without turning the ball over much. Johnson is the better passer between the two, and his court vision is an asset for this team - but he'll need to step up his game as he prepares for the biggest challenge of his basketball life.
The pair will need help from the rest of this team. Taylor and Jenkins will have to be facilitators from the wing in order to find strong entry points in the paint. The team can't afford to skip the ball around the perimeter before taking a long jumper as the shot clock winds down anymore. They'll have to seize the major scoring advantages that they'll have over most teams. If they can't move the ball and maximize this potential, they'll be prone to getting locked in slopfests this postseason. As we saw Saturday against Tennessee, this team can't afford to get caught in many of those.
Weakness #4: Free throws.
Anyone who thinks that this team's problems aren't mental hasn't watched these guys shoot free throws. Kevin Stallings should be putting Cheech Marin on retainer right now, because some of these players have the yips - and badly. Jeffery Taylor's miss-one, make-one routine at the line could end up being the defining factor in another first-round NCAA Tournament loss. Right now, the only players who have earned this team's trust from the stripe are Brad Tinsley and John Jenkins. Taylor - and to a lesser extent, Lance Goulbourne and Festus Ezeli - have to join them on that list.
Can Vanderbilt address these problems in time to turn this season around? They'll (likely) be making their third NCAA Tournament appearance in a row next week, but this senior class has zero March Madness wins to show for it. This team will have to dial up the intensity and hold everyone accountable in what will certainly be a torrid slate of practices heading into another postseason under Kevin Stallings.
This team has the innate ability to compete with anyone. They have the scoring to win a shootout and the defense to win a slow-paced game. However, they won't be able to do either if they're turning the ball over, allowing second-chance points, and settling for bad shots. The blueprint is there for these guys to take advantage of, and they have the personnel to make it happen. With hard work and a little luck, this can still be a Final Four team.
It won't be easy, though.