Improvement evident, but ‘Dores must adjust to beat Gamecocks

In Features by Robbie Weinstein

Finally, a quality win.

After two months of sluggish play, Vanderbilt is on the board. With a closer-than-necessary 76-75 home win over Alabama on Tuesday, the Commodores inched back toward .500 at 6-8 and 1-1 in SEC play.

While Commodore fans suffered through an ugly last few minutes, the win represented an encouraging performance overall. Whether Vanderbilt can carry this forward remains a question, but there’s finally evidence that head coach Bryce Drew has the team’s offense back around where it should be.

“This was definitely a game that we needed,” Drew said after the game. “… I think some is guys are getting more used to playing with each other. We’ve cut the rotation more, so guys feel a little bit more comfortable.”

Vanderbilt’s 1.07 points per possession against a strong Alabama defense counts as a major accomplishment for the team. Even after the disappointing defensive performance, the Crimson Tide still rank 33rd nationally in Ken Pomeroy’s adjusted defensive efficiency. Freshman Saben Lee provided the spark with 23 points in 27 minutes, beating his man one-on-one and forcing the defense to rotate.

“[Lee] gives us something different than a lot of our other guys,” Drew said. “He gives us that burst of speed, that he can get by his man and get to the rim. So there were some times that they played really good defense, the shot clock was getting down, he had the ability to hit a gap and get fouled or be able to finish. If he can continue to do that, that’ll help our shooters be able to get open shots hopefully.”

Lee has averaged 13.9 points per game on 48 percent shooting over his last seven games, and it looks like the ball should be in his or Riley LaChance’s hands for as close to 40 minutes per game as possible. The 6’2” Lee did a decent job of staying in front of Collin Sexton on defense, and he even guarded 6’5” John Petty at times, as well.

Vanderbilt appears to be improving when it comes to playing the scouting report, as its perimeter players didn’t give Petty many open shots or straight-line drives. Holding the freshman to two points — more than 11 below his average entering the game — played a big role in the win.

A big talking point after the came was Vanderbilt’s inability to break Alabama’s late-game press. The Tide forced three Commodore turnovers in a 24-second span with less than two minutes remaining, and all three led to Alabama baskets.

Lee noted that Alabama’s length and athleticism can be difficult to play against, but Vanderbilt’s three skilled seniors should do better. LaChance and Jeff Roberson combined for two of those three giveaways, and they didn’t appear to contribute much when it came to cutting, setting screens, and organizing teammates off the ball.

“We were thankful that we can win and learn and have a lot of stuff to work on at the end,” Drew said. “Alabama’s very long and athletic and very quick to the ball. So we’ll go back and watch the film and try to get better.”

Any improvement from practice will be put to the test immediately. South Carolina remains one of the country’s premier defensive teams, and the Gamecocks are playing faster this year than last.

Knowing the advantage Colonial Life Arena provides (and that Vanderbilt specifically has struggled there recently), I expect head coach Frank Martin to try pressuring Vanderbilt’s ball-handlers throughout the game. South Carolina forces turnovers on 21.7 percent of its opponents’ possessions (50th nationally), and its quick perimeter defenders could cause the Commodores problems.

Having said that, Vanderbilt should be in position to win in Columbia if it can avoid these turnovers. South Carolina ranks worse than 200th in most offensive categories and has no strengths outside of offensive rebounds and drawing fouls.

Now that Drew has gone away from his small-ball lineup (Vanderbilt played all 40 minutes against Alabama with a real center), Vanderbilt isn’t so vulnerable on its defensive glass. The Gamecocks are uncharacteristically allowing opponents to shoot 36 percent from three, so the ‘Dores should have opportunities from deep.

With a win, all it would take is a split against Tennessee and Kentucky next week in Nashville for Vanderbilt to take a 3-2 record into games against softer competition in Mississippi State and LSU.

The door is cracked open for Vanderbilt to start gathering legitimate momentum, but it will take a clean and disciplined game at South Carolina on Saturday night.

Robbie Weinstein is a recent graduate of Vanderbilt now studying at Northwestern’s graduate journalism program. A native of Dayton, Ohio, he served as the sports editor for the Vanderbilt Hustler during the 2016-17 school year and has covered Vanderbilt basketball for three years. He currently works as a game-night PR assistant for the Chicago Bulls.