In our third week of play, the SEC is getting fat in the middle already. Only one team is undefeated (#10 Texas A&M) and only one team is winless (Mississippi State). Tennessee is a good example of the league's competitiveness as we almost beat the former and almost got beat by the latter. Nine teams are between 4-2 and 2-4.
We thought coming in Vanderbilt would be part of the SEC's top tier along with Texas A&M and Kentucky. Instead South Carolina's persistence and LSU's resurgence have them staking their claim in that top group, while Vanderbilt stumbled to an 0-3 start before bouncing back against the state of Alabama. To help answer the "What's going on with Vanderbilt?" question, we turn to our resident bipartisan voice:
Volundore: Well...where shall we start?
As mentioned in our SEC preview, the Dores went most of December without Luke Kornet and Camron Justice. Their absence threw things off in the rotation. Josh Henderson, who got all of 2 minutes against Kansas because he's slow and lumbering and shouldn't be playing against real teams, was suddenly getting 15 minutes of run a night. Wade Baldwin started pressing and turning it over a bunch. Riley LaChance looked absolutely gassed. Kornet and Justice are both back now (Kornet turned in a triple double against Auburn last week), but Vandy is still searching for that rhythm they had early on in the season.
Another relatively easy thing to blame: the schedule. In the first 5 games, Vandy played teams averaging 170 in KenPom. Over the next 10, that ramped up considerably to an average ranking of 86, including a neutral site game against #11 (Kansas) and roadies against #21 (Baylor) and #9 (Purdue). That the opponents got harder at the same time that the rotation took two hits was an unfortunate confluence of events.
Finally, I think the collective "we" overreacted a bit to Vanderbilt's 10-4 close to last season with such a young team. They didn't play anybody ranked higher than #41 in KenPom, and they lost that game (to Stanford in the NIT quarters). There were some nice wins, but we probably shouldn't fool ourselves into thinking that was a murderer's row. Also, because of the abundance of youth, I think it was easy to extrapolate and convince ourselves that Vandy was ready to take another step, but it has not happened. LaChance is shooting worse and scoring less. Kornet has stepped up his rebounding, but has tanked on shooting 3's (40% last year, 23% this year). Damian Jones is scoring less and fouling more. Nolan Cressler, a transfer from Cornell, is scoring 11.5 fewer points per game than he did in the Ivy League. Wade Baldwin has stepped up his game, but is turning it over more. This is a talented bunch, but nobody made a great leap forward in the offseason.
Put all of that together and you get...well, this. Vandy still finds itself on the fringe of the NCAA conversation, but it's been a disappointing season, for sure. There's still time to find some big wins (home-and-homes with UK and Texas A&M loom) and right the ship, but those in black and gold are markedly less confident that this group can achieve big things than they were 7 or 8 weeks ago.
Will: Tennessee's first road win did come at the expense of the league's aforementioned winless team, but I liked what the Vols did in the last five minutes. They have struggled to close out against better teams, but the plays they made in Starkville had as much to do with sound decision making and smart basketball as having better basketball players than the opposition. I'm sure there's a Vanderbilt joke in there somewhere, but Tennessee may need all of the above to get the best of their in-state brethren this time.
Last year's most memorable performances came against the Commodores: in Memorial Tennessee erased a five point deficit with 15 seconds left to force overtime, beating Vanderbilt there 76-63. And in the SEC Tournament, the Vols finished the game on a 20-2 run to turn a 12 point deficit with seven minutes to play into a 67-61 win. If Tennessee is going to get another big win against Vanderbilt, they'll need to do so against essentially the same team, the cause for so much optimism coming into the year in Nashville. Guards Wade Baldwin and Riley LaChance, wings Jeff Roberson and Matthew Fisher-Davis, and seven footers Damian Jones and Luke Kornet score between 8.4 and 14.4 points per game. Despite the rough start I'd still put Vanderbilt's top six players against anyone else in the league. The Dores, still dead last in Ken Pomeroy's luck ratings, are 22nd in his defensive ratings. The small ball Vols have played good defensive teams and been at a disadvantage in the post, but not the combination of the two quite like this. How might Tennessee find success against Vanderbilt?
Volundore: Ah, being dead last in luck...KenPom's way of saying, "your numbers say you should be much better than you are, but you keep finding novel ways to lose." Lest you think this is just a Vanderbilt problem...Cuonzo's last team was #341 in luck. Have I mentioned that it's been a rough few years for sports in Volundoreland?
Anyway, I made an observation in an Anchor of Gold postgame thread a few weeks ago that I was simultaneously encouraged and disheartened by the fact that Vandy's problems vary so wildly from game to game. On the one hand, it makes you think there's still a chance the team can pull it all together and achieve those lofty goals because there's no one fatal flaw. On the other hand, how can you be confident they'll ever get it all together?
Against Kansas, it was an inability to stay in front of athletic guards that beat the Dores. In Waco, it was 17 turnovers and giving up 20 offensive boards that did them in as they blew a 13-point second half lead. At home versus the Flyers, it was the offensive glass again that contributed to Vandy losing a 15-point first half lead. Against Purdue, it was Damian Jones foul trouble and being ground into submission by a strong defensive team. Ben Simmons was able to Ben Simmons them. In Fayetteville, it was 26 turnovers. Against South Carolina, it was an uncharacteristically poor shooting streak in the second half.
It's hard to find one consistent theme, but turnovers and hitting the offensive glass are up there a couple of times. I'm not sure the Vols have the personnel to consistently expect success on the latter, but they've been dangerous against good teams in A&M and UGA when they've sped it up and forced turnovers. I think the Vols will also have to pick their poison: are they going to crash into the post to rake at the ball when Jones and Kornet have it in there, or are they going to stay home on 3-point shooters? Vandy is 14th in the nation at 40.9% from deep, and even if he can't always harness it, Jones has an NBA body inside.
I'll be curious to see how Barnes approaches a game that Vandy absolutely has to have in their renewed push for an NCAA berth.
We've got the late shift this time, 9:00 PM ET on the SEC Network. Go Vols.