After starting the season as a dark horse Final Four choice, Vanderbilt Basketball entered conference play with no guarantee that it will even make it to the NCAA Tournament. Mental lapses and blown leads have mired the Commodores at 9-5 with a handful of underwhelming wins and disappointing losses. Suddenly, one of the most talented rosters in program history is threatening to become the most frustrating one as well.
The good news is the team's problems are fixable. The bad news is they are multiple. The Commodores have been stung by several shortcomings in 2015 - some defined by bad luck and others by poor fundamentals. Here's what's been haunting Kevin Stallings's team so far this season.
1. The turnovers that were dismissed as rookie mistakes in 2014 haven't gone away. Vanderbilt has committed a respectably-low 11.2 turnovers per game, but a look at the difference between this team's ball protection against quality opponents and non-conference cupcakes reveals this team doesn't yet handle pressure well.
|No. of Games||Turnovers||TO/Game|
Last year, the Commodores ranked 214th in the NCAA by turning the ball over 12.9 times per game. They've been even worse in losses this winter. Against quality opponents, Vandy's turnover output increased by 45 percent.
The frustrating part of this change is that many of these turnovers are mental errors rather than the product of pressure defense. The Commodores skip passes, throw outlets into the stands, and force drives into the paint when their offense isn't working. Vanderbilt plays poorly when they play frustrated. That leads to short possessions and fast break opportunities for opponents.
2. Luke Kornet is more important than we expected. The Commodores lost their emerging big man to a knee injury in early December, and Kornet's absence has had a significant effect on the way this team plays. After starting the season 6-2 with Luke in the lineup, Vanderbilt has gone 2-3 without him on the court.
|Vanderbilt Basketball Avg. Margin of Victory|
Kornet had shown off a vastly improved post game as a junior, utilizing his 7'1 frame to block shots and cutting his turnover rate in half despite spending more of his time with the ball in the paint. That helped cover up some early struggles from behind the arc and turn him from a stretch four to a more traditional power forward. His presence prevented many teams from attacking the rim thanks to the forest of arms he and Damian Jones could put up. A look at opponent FG percentage shows how valuable he's been as a defender.
Kornet is scheduled to return in mid-January after an MCL tear. Vanderbilt needs him at full strength before it plays at Kentucky on January 23rd.
3. Damian Jones hasn't made the leap. Jones was a projected NBA Draft lottery pick when he told reporters 2015-16 would be his final season as a Commodore. After two months of play, he's not even the best professional prospect on his own team. He has shown flashes of the talent that told scouts he could be a useful NBA post player and a dominant defensive force, but he's too often faded into the background while opposing teams either deny him the ball in the post or force double-teams on him. Jones has been better at passing out of troublesome situations, but a look at his advanced stats showcases his regression this winter:
Jones's PER, true shooting, rebound rate, blocked shot rate, and usage rate have all decreased this season. While his win shares suggest that he's more valuable to the team than he was in 2014-15, he hasn't yet put the team on his back the way that point guard Wade Baldwin IV has. Jones isn't the only player on this team who hasn't followed up on a strong 2014-15 campaign - Riley LaChance is dealing with a slump of his own - but his non-dominance has been a big factor in the team's inability to live up to their lofty preseason standards.
4.. The rebounding sucks, especially for a team with three seven footers on the roster. Points two and three have brought us here, where teams like LSU, Purdue, and Dayton have beaten the 'Dores on the glass like the rented mule of a redheaded stepchild.
|Vanderbilt Basketball Rebounding in Losses|
|Opponent||OReb Margin||Total Reb Margin|
Those second chances have led to some big box score disparities. Purdue attempted 15 more shots (field goals and free throws) than the Commodores. For LSU, the margin was 18. Baylor got 21 more scoring opportunities than Vanderbilt - including 18 field goals. It's tough to beat anyone when they're taking 18 more shots than you are. This team has the size to keep anyone off the glass; there's no excuse for double-digit rebounding margins that don't favor the 'Dores.
5. Science has not yet created the technology to allow Vanderbilt to start five different Wade Baldwins at once. After putting his name on the map with a strong freshman season, Baldwin been a revelation in 2015-16. The sophomore is leading the team with 14.8 points per game, shooting an insane 47.6 percent from three-point range, and dishing out 4.2 assists every night. More importantly, he's been this team's leader late in close games, forcing opponents to key in on his drives starting three feet behind the arc. He's been the team's only consistent run-breaking, clutch-shooting threat. The Commodores need every ounce of him to help steer 2016 back towards a deep NCAA Tournament run.
There's still time to recover. Vanderbilt's problems are mostly fundamental-related rather than tied to a lack of talent. The Commodores have the shooters and the size to ruin anyone's March. Unless they can fix the mental side of their game, the only postseason they'll spoil will be their own.