Last night's loss to Xavier embodied everything bad about Vanderbilt basketball - even though the team's put together some of the best basketball of their 2011-2012 season. The Commodores not only squandered a double-digit lead in the second half, but they did it in the most Vandy-esque way possible. They turned the ball over, gave up rebounds, allowed an opposing guard to get hot against them, and wrapped it all up behind an utterly stagnant offense.
That's right, I've got a lot of problems with this team. And now, you're gonna hear all about it.
Judging by the postgame thread (68 comments and counting, an AoG record), you've got lots of problems with these guys too. Vanderbilt has been disappointing even when you adjust for Festus Ezeli's absence. The team has looked soft, and even when they bring their fire - as they did in the first half against the Musketeers - they lack the extra gear they need to put even decent teams away.
Xavier's overtime win pinpointed a lot of the problems with this team. Unfortunately, many of them start with the coach. Kevin Stallings, the architect behind Vandy's recent basketball renaissance, is taking a lot of heat for last night's loss. Much of it is deserved. Stallings's stubborn tendencies came out in last night's loss. His questionable substitutions and conservative timeout calling played a key role in Vanderbilt's second-half collapse. While he should be praised for motivating the team to play the best defense of their young season, the magnitude of Monday's loss has focused a magnifying glass right over Stallings's position at the head of the Commodore bench.
So what exactly are my grievances after last night? Let's take a look.
Those bench rotations.
Vanderbilt led the #12 team in the country by nine points in the second half, had a huge head of steam rolling in their direction, and were playing behind in one of the fiercest home-court advantages in the country. Rather than stomp out the Musketeers, Stallings let off the gas, swapping out his starters for a lineup that featured Kyle Fuller, Dai-Jon Parker, Rod Odom, and Josh Henderson alongside John Jenkins.
Just over two minutes later, Xavier led by one point.
Every Vanderbilt fan in the country knew what was happening. Fuller and Parker are decent athletes who can hold their own alongside another steadying force in the backcourt, but can't efficiently coexist at the 1 and 2 yet. Rod Odom is in the midst of a strange regression from his freshman season that might be related to having to adjust to more minutes at power forward. Josh Henderson is a developing post prospect who can look very much like a redshirt freshman on the court.
Alongside Vanderbilt's eighth-through-11th best players was Jenkins, the player that opponents constantly gameplan to double-team and deny touches in crunch time. Simply put, this lineup was custom made to spur a Xavier run. Vandy's deep bench is filled with still-improving players that can be a huge asset to this team. They are players who can thrive off the open looks and help defense that players like Jeffery Taylor and Steve Tchiengang provide. What they can't do is extend a lead on their own.
The Fuller/Parker/Odom/Hendo experiment crashed and burned spectacularly last night. John Jenkins was unable to be the steadying force that the team's youngsters needed while fighting through tough coverage, and the Fuller/Parker backcourt couldn't stand up to Xavier's on-the-ball pressure. The result was a helpless two-minute stretch that evaporated Vanderbilt's lead while the crowd impotently pled for a timeout that never came. In one fell swoop, a bad rotation turned a potential blowout into a tight game and crumbled the confidence of this team's bench.
Where was Kedren?
Kedren Johnson's first half was impressive. He ran the court well, got into the lane with efficiency, and showed great court vision and the ability to create baskets through his passing. He played sufficient defense and helped limit Tu Holloway to three points in the first half. The freshman had three assists in just nine minutes of play for the night.
And that's the problem.
Johnson was a breath of fresh air on a night where Vandy's other point guards, Brad Tinsley and Kyle Fuller, struggled. So why didn't he see action in the second half when Vanderbilt's offense went stagnant? The freshman was a ghost when this team needed someone to facilitate the offense, not appearing until the very end of overtime when the outcome of the game had essentially been sealed.
Some fans are calling for Johnson to take over the starting role from Tinsley, but those calls are premature. Tinsley is still a steadying presence who doesn't turn the ball over and provides leadership from the point. Additionally, he's got a history of falling into slumps when challenged for playing time of being moved to the bench (see 2009-2010). He needs to be the starter, especially for a team in the midst of a struggle. However, Johnson is by far this team's best newcomer, and he's earned a more prominent role in this team's rotation by virtue of that.
The Tinsley Offense.
Vanderbilt's set-up in the final minute of close games has become a familiar refrain.
Last night was no different. Tinsley dribbled to his right towards Jeffery Taylor, who had space between his defender and the ability to cut into the lane for an open shot. Tinsley ignored him and went up for a jumper anyway, getting stripped on the way up. Only Lance Goulbourne's quick thinking prevented a potential distaster that could have rivaled last year's Missouri loss.
The problem drew heavily from last year's woes - Vanderbilt can't execute efficiently in the final minute of the game. Against Xavier, this spread to the final four minutes of regulation. The Commodore offense was reduced to bad John Jenkins shots and fruitless attempts to draw fouls. When the team can't get either to work, they end up on the ass-end of a long scoring drought. An underperforming Musketeer team was able to take advantage of this, and that's what led to Vandy's demise.
Vanderbilt consistently shows that they can move around without the ball to create easy baskets. They did it throughout the first 30 minutes of Monday's game. However, something for this team just doesn't click in that final minute of play, and every key shot turns into a contested jumper from outside the paint. It's a recipe for disaster for the Commodores, and it will haunt them in the postseason unless they can fix it.
So there's my list of grievances as we enter this year's Festivus season. Even when this team plays with heart and fire, they still can't get out of their own way in crunch time. Make no mistake, Vanderbilt absolutely should have won last night's game against Xavier, and while the Musketeers are a great team, it was the Commodores' mental issues that ultimately unraveled them.
What are your problems with this team's loss to Xavier? Post them in the comments below.