Three Thoughts: Vanderbilt goes small ball in opening night victory

Photo by Brent Szklaruk

The Vanderbilt Commodores started their 2017-18 season on the right foot with a 73-54 win over Austin Peay on Friday.

With plenty of new faces on the roster and a fresh new season, Vanderbilt showed some new looks, and also some old problems.

Here are some thoughts from Vanderbilt’s opening night victory.

Changing of the Guards

The Commodores are extremely deep at the guard position. Like, really really deep.

Vanderbilt played a total of five guards throughout this one, and they all shined in their own ways. Saben Lee, Maxwell Evans and Larry Austin Jr. all saw their first action as Commodores, and brought a lot of speed to the game (more on that later).

Head coach Bryce Drew thought Lee controlled the tempo of the game and dictated the offense with his speed when he was on the floor.

“He had a stretch where I thought his speed was the big difference,” Drew said. “We were able to get some turnovers and with his speed, we got the ball up the court very fast and either him finished or Clevon had some dunks in that stretch. Again, I was really impressed with his seven assists. That’s a lot of assists in 20 minutes of play. Hopefully, he’ll be able to continue to do that.”

Lee showed that speed and athleticism with a monster slam dunk in the first half that got the crowd into a frenzy.

That depth allowed them to withstand the loss of Matthew Fisher-Davis, who did not play due to an ankle injury. Senior Riley LaChance led the way for Vanderbilt, but Payton Willis was especially impressive, picking up eight points and adding an assist.

Without impressive size on the blocks, the Commodores will certainly try to use their strength in numbers at guard to control the tempo.

Something’s Still Foul

Vanderbilt’s centers have the skill and ability to make a difference in the game. They just have to be able to be in the game to do so.

Djery Baptiste and Ejike Obinna were limited in this game because of foul trouble. Obinna had two fouls in just five minutes, while Baptiste had four in 12 minutes. Clevon Brown had to play as the big man throughout most of this one.

Brown is a talented player and was extremely impressive in this one. But, he’s more suited as a power forward than a center.

Going forward, the Commodores will need to try and keep Baptiste and Obinna out of foul trouble. They don’t have the luxury of depth like they do at guard. Gone are the days of Jones, Kornet and Henderson. Vanderbilt used to be able to swap skilled centers with ease. It’s not that easy anymore.

Commodore Speed Racers

Yes, Vanderbilt doesn’t have the size that they used to. For the first time in years, there are no seven-footers on the roster. However, what they lack in size they seem to have made up for in speed.

The Commodores showed a type of speed and athleticism that Memorial Gym hadn’t seen in awhile. They were quick in transition and weren’t afraid to push the tempo. With a crop of guards like that, it’s easy for this team to play an up-tempo type of basketball.

Part of that was thanks to Baptiste and Obinna’s fouls, according to LaChance.

“We got a lot of different lineups that we can throw at teams,” he said. “Obviously, our big guys got in foul trouble early, so kind of forced us to play a little smaller, which we’re probably going to have to get used to. We’re dynamic and can do a lot of different things. It worked out for us tonight.”

In past seasons, Vanderbilt didn’t have the right type of lineup to play a speedy game. With seven-footers on the floor, they played a more methodical brand of basketball.

Not anymore.

Drew has this team playing fast. Even when they’re not playing in transition, they’re making quick plays and getting the ball up the floor much faster than usual.

Although, once Fisher-Davis returns to the lineup, Vanderbilt’s size might become a factor again.

“It’ll be nice to get MFD back,” Drew said. “He’ll give us a little more size at the wing, and obviously with his leadership and his scoring ability will be big for us. But, you look on the bench, and we don’t have Luke Kornet and so, we’re going to have to find ways to use our size as an advantage.”

It’ll be interesting to see if this kind of speed game will translate to tougher opponents in SEC play, but it seems Vanderbilt has found a good way to withstand the loss of tall talent and withstand heavy fouls on the big men.

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