Content provided by Vanderbilt Sports Line.
Vanderbilt advanced to 3-1 with a 72-65 win over North Carolina last night. This was a great win for the ‘Dores as they left Puerto Rico with a productive tournament performance. Make no mistake, your early season performance matters, and you could make a good argument that this team is ahead of last year’s squad, who struggled in the Maui Invitational.
The general consensus seems to be that UNC is overrated, and that may be true, but you can’t take away Vanderbilt’s play in this game. They did a great job defensively, which overcame what I would argue was an average offensive performance. Despite being outrebounded on the offensive glass and in the game, they had huge performances when it counted from Lance Goulbourne and Festus Ezeli, who really owned the post in the last 10 minutes of the games. Taylor was great against freshman phenom Harrison Barnes and made several tremendous plays on transition defense taking away point blank shots for UNC. Perhaps most encouraging was the way we moved the ball. We had 14 assists from 6 different guys in this game.
What’s being ignored in the discussion is the fact that Vandy hasn’t even come close to it’s offensive peak yet. Vandy never shot over 50% from the field the entire tournament, and John Jenkins wasn’t his usual lights-out self except for the second half of the West Virginia game. Also, Taylor showed flashes of why he can be a legitimate SEC Player of the Year, but hasn’t put it all together yet. Concerns about his outside shot should be alleviated, as he is shooting .583 from three this season. The only thing left for Taylor is to realize just how difficult to guard he truly is. Finally, Vandy did not do a good job finishing around the basket on some easy put backs and drives in this tournament. I fully expect that a lot of those point blank shots will start falling as the season progresses and the team gets into the flow of season play. The same goes with Jenkins three point shooting.
But for the completely fixable issues on offense, the defense was quite solid for the whole tournament. Some of this has to do with the lack of outside presence (aside from Casey Mitchell of West Virginia), but there’s no doubt that we are a difficult match-up, particularly against average perimeter teams that rely on their big men (our 2-3 zone was fantastic all tournament). If we can put together 40 minutes on the glass, we’ll really frustrate a lot of the offenses in the SEC.
From Vandy’s perspective, perhaps the most pleasant surprise was the play of Festus Ezeli in the post. Big Fez is light years improved, doing a great job defensively in the post and asserting his will against a solid big man in Tyler Zeller. Fez still has some trouble with his body control at times and racks up a few fouls, but his footwork is so much more efficient and crisp underneath. Additionally, he showed how effective he can be offensively in that UNC game. He was an incredibly efficient 5-7 from the field, not to mention he shot 5-7 from the free throw line. That kind of production will absolutely help us to avoid a drop-off from A.J.
We also found out that we are much deeper than last year. While the players remained the same, Goulbourne and Stevie Thunder are vastly improved, and Kyle Fuller and Rod Odom are ahead of most freshman we’ve had in the past. I was particularly impressed by Fuller and Odom in this tournament, and feel quite confident that they can contribute significant minutes without much drop off.
Consistency is still a concern with this squad. From game to game you kind of wonder which team you’re going to get, but with such a small sample size it’s hard to tell whether that will plague us for the entire season. But when we’re clicking on all cylinders, you’d be hard pressed to find a more balanced and experienced team in the SEC, perhaps even in the country. With that said, if these Commodores continue to improve as is the trademark of many Stallings squads, and avoid the late season drop off that has been plaguing us the past 3 years, this could be our best squad yet.