With four straight losses, Vanderbilt headed into a road game against No. 19 Florida in what appeared to be a state of disarray. After the galvanizing 68-66 win, the Commodores again have life as they get set to take on a pair of likely NCAA tournament teams in Arkansas and Iowa State at home this week. The Vanderbilt Hustler sports staff discusses all this and more in our latest Q&A.
1) What do you take from the win over Florida?
Robbie Weinstein, Sports Editor: That Vanderbilt has enough raw talent to beat all but the 15 to 20 best teams in the country on a good day. Unfortunately, as we all know, the team has had far more bad days than good ones to this point in the season. Other than that, I think it’s somewhat meaningful that the Commodores showed the ability to score efficiently against a top defense.
Josh Hamburger, Editor in Chief: The Commodores currently find themselves in 11th place in the SEC, while Florida sits at third. At the very least, the victory proves that Vanderbilt can compete with the SEC’s top teams and that the SEC isn’t a strong conference. That’s not a new finding; it’s simply the state of the conference over the past years. It also proved how important getting to the foul line is for Vandy — it missed just one free throw against Florida, and that was very likely a key part of the narrow, two-point win. They lead the SEC in free throw percentage at 77.5, and that has helped them get easy points.
Cutler Klein, Assistant Sports Editor: The only consistency with Vanderbilt is inconsistency. It’s befuddling that a team can lose four straight games, three of them to opponents that are not very good, and then go out and beat a top-25 team. There’s no rhyme or reason to it; it’s just inconsistency. I guess you can change the coach, but you can’t change the program. This team had been inconsistent under Kevin Stallings and is now inconsistent under Bryce Drew.
Torben Ginsberg, sports reporter: This Vanderbilt team is even more inconsistent than last year’s. While a road victory over the No.19 Florida Gators is impressive, it comes on the heels of a four-game losing streak in the SEC. The win offers equally as much frustration as it does hope, given that we are aware of what this team is capable of if it plays to its potential. The top programs in the country bring their best every night, and the Commodores don’t. At least not yet. Vandy should look to develop a little more night-to-night consistency as the season progresses.
Max Schneider, sports reporter: The win against Florida showed that Vanderbilt can not only compete with ranked opponents, but that it can win the close games. The Commodores had really struggled in tight games down the stretch against Alabama, Kentucky and Georgia, but getting stops late as well as key baskets and free throws were huge. This is still an inconsistent team, but one capable of competing at an extremely high level and challenging the best the SEC has to offer when it stays out of foul trouble and shoots the three well.
2) What have you made of the starting lineup change with Riley LaChance replacing Payton Willis?
Weinstein: I’m fine with it, based on how LaChance has played this year. LaChance easily has been one of the Commodores’ five best players this year, so it makes sense for head coach Bryce Drew to play him as much as possible and throw his best lineup possible on the floor to start each game. Willis isn’t the knock-down outside shooter that LaChance is, so maybe the move can help the team get off to better starts. Regardless, Willis’ defense has dropped off a bit since early in the season, and that was the big advantage he had over LaChance. Now that that advantage isn’t so great, Drew might as well make a change.
Hamburger: It’s clear that LaChance has forgotten his slump last year and has proven that he needs as much playing time as possible. With a 56.9 three-point shooting percentage, he’s second in the nation and the clear go-to when the Commodores need a three. He went three-for-four from beyond the arc against Florida, and his confidence is evident now. He’s getting open and taking those shots, but not forcing it like last year. Willis has been solid, but it seems best to get him some time and let him play behind LaChance. Willis was recruited as a great shooter, but LaChance is the one who is making the shots now.
Klein: LaChance has earned a spot in the starting lineup. Even as Matthew Fisher-Davis has struggled to find consistency, LaChance has been a workhorse in the backcourt. If not for him, this team would be struggling far more than it already is. With how sloppy the frontcourt has been, LaChance has provided stability at the guard position that the Commodores desperately need.
Ginsberg: LaChance’s junior year has been much stronger than his disappointing sophomore campaign. His statistics have improved across the board, and his excellent performance against No. 5 Kentucky earlier in the month seems to have fully reinstated his confidence. Willis might be the better athlete of the two, but LaChance has proven to have a more positive effect on the offense. The freshman point guard has struggled to create his own shot, especially against some of the more athletic guards in the SEC. Willis has the potential to become a productive point guard for the Commodores, but, for now, LaChance should be the starter.
Schneider: This was the right move all along. LaChance is the experienced player, he handles the pressure and he’s really overall better than Willis is at this stage of his college career. LaChance gives the starting lineup a sense of leadership and consistency, as he has been the most consistently productive guy the Commodores have had thus far. He’s shooting 57 percent from three and gives this team a scoring weapon and a guy who can run the offense. Willis looked unprepared for the big moment, whereas LaChance thrived in it, so as Drew continues to experiment with the lineup, LaChance will be a lock to start going forward.
3) Luke Kornet has scored in double figures in each of his last seven games. What does his resurgence mean for the team, and what do you make of his improved play?
Weinstein: Well, Vanderbilt ranks second in Ken Pomeroy’s adjusted offensive efficiency in SEC play despite playing the league’s third-toughest schedule through seven games. The Commodores would be among the SEC’s best offensively even with out peak Kornet (although that’s more due to the league’s bad offenses than anything else), but his improved play gives them much more margin for error. Vanderbilt can get away with playing slightly worse defense if its offense continues to hum along, whereas the offense wasn’t so reliable early in the season. Drew will have to hope that Kornet’s ability to draw defenses’ attention can open things up for Jeff Roberson, whom continues to endure a brutal shooting slump.
Hamburger: Is there anybody who didn’t think Kornet was the key to a successful Vanderbilt season? But it’s coming in a way that’s a little different than expected from a center. In the past two games, he’s only had four rebounds in each and has only two games all season with more than 10 rebounds. Perhaps the lack of height on the team is hurting that cause, but his shooting is pulling him through. He’s shooting extremely well, especially on three-pointers — in the past seven games, he’s hit 42.9 percent of these shots after a slump to start the season. I still think that his defense and rebounding needs to improve if the team wants to consistently stay in games.
Klein: Kornet has eased into his role as the team’s primary big man, and it’s been great to see his progress this season. Without a strong and healthy Kornet, this team cannot control the paint and cannot control the game. His resurgence means everything to the Commodores, especially because Djery Baptiste has yet to figure himself out. You can see it when Kornet is banged up or in foul trouble: The team can’t seem to put anything together. This team lives and dies with Kornet.
Ginsberg: Kornet’s recent play is evidence of the fact that he is beginning to step into a more established leadership role on the team. While Fisher-Davis leads the team in scoring, it is Kornet who is the most important player. He is the only big man on the roster that is a plus defender (sorry, Djery) and his three-point shooting is critical for the spacing on offense. It is encouraging to see that Kornet has played well recently, despite the team’s recent struggles.
Schneider: Kornet struggled early in the year, shooting below 40 percent from the field, an unacceptable number for a seven-footer, but Kornet is the most important guy on this roster. He’s the only capable big on the roster, and when he’s able to score on high-percentage looks, he poses a big threat and can score from anywhere on the floor. If he can cause defenses to have to collapse inside, he’ll be able to create open looks from the best three-point shooting team in the conference. Kornet is also taking and hitting more threes, and he’s been a reliable threat from deep that enables this team to spread the floor and clear out the paint.
4) Vanderbilt is currently 9-10 overall. Where do you put its chances of finishing the regular season above .500?
Weinstein: I doubt it’ll happen; let’s say there’s a 35 percent chance. Inconsistency is in this group’s DNA (just look back to the last two seasons), and a great win at Florida doesn’t do anything to change my perspective on that. The remaining schedule is difficult, as Missouri is Vanderbilt’s only non-top-100 KenPom opponent remaining — and that game is on the road. There are no guaranteed wins on the schedule, so I think we’ll continue to see up-and-down play from the Commodores. As of right now, I say they end up at 14-17 or 15-16.
Hamburger: I think there’s a decent chance they finish above .500. Their current RPI is 57. There are 12 games remaining, and seven of those teams are ranked better than Vanderbilt. I think the Commodores can pick up wins over the five teams they are ahead of — Texas A&M (twice), Missouri, Tennessee and Mississippi State. Then out of the seven other games, I think they can pull off two to three wins, including Ole Miss and one of the Arkansas games. However, my feeling is that they’ll finish within one game of .500, whether it’s just below or above. That’s what we should expect at this point, and finishing .500 or above seems like a good morale boost — just look at the football team.
Klein: It depends: Which Commodores team will show up? Will the team keep playing like it did against Florida, or struggle like it did against Tennessee? Will they get hot from beyond the arc like they did against Auburn, or go cold like they did against Alabama? To be perfectly honest, .500 is right about where this team deserves to be.
Ginsberg: Thirty percent. Yes, Vanderbilt proved it can beat good teams with the win over Florida on Sunday. But Florida might not actually be that good — it has yet to beat a ranked opponent — and the schedule for the Commodores is not too easy down the stretch. Two matchups with a good Arkansas team, the Big 12/SEC Challenge game with Iowa State and games against Kentucky and South Carolina are just some of the tests that Vandy will face down the stretch. I expect a couple of upsets from the Commodores as the season goes on, but going .500 would be a huge success.
Schneider: The chances are relatively strong if they can find some consistency in their game. With games against teams such as Ole Miss and Missouri that are really struggling, Vanderbilt has a very solid chance to break .500 if it can take care of business. Wins against Kentucky, South Carolina and Iowa State will be tough to come by, especially against UK in Rupp Arena, but if it plays its best brand of basketball, Vanderbilt can challenge anyone. It’s definitely going to take Coach Drew to really iron out a lineup that he feels comfortable sticking with, but .500 should be a benchmark for a team that was slow out of the gates. I’ll give Drew the benefit of the doubt and assume that his team is talented enough to win enough games to break that mark.
5) The Commodores face two likely NCAA tournament teams this week as Arkansas and Iowa State come to town. How do you see those two games going?
Weinstein: As a program, Arkansas traditionally has been terrible on the road. Vanderbilt certainly has the firepower to outscore the Razorbacks’ impressive offense, and if Arkansas doesn’t make outside shots for whatever reason then the ‘Dores should win. One concern could be Arkansas center (and preseason SEC Player of the Year) Moses Kingsley. If Kingsley gets Kornet in foul trouble, Vanderbilt will face an uphill battle. All things considered, I’ll take the Commodores to win that game.
Unlike Arkansas, Iowa State rates as a top-25 team according to Pomeroy and has a more balanced team. Monte Morris will cause Vanderbilt headaches, as will Deonte Burton. I don’t see Vanderbilt winning this one, although fans can rejoice about one thing: Iowa State ranks second-to-last in the entire country in the ratio of its free-throw attempts to field-goal attempts. Vanderbilt ranks 209th in the same category, so that means there probably won’t be a ton of fouls called or many free throws.
Hamburger: These teams are both good, but I think Vanderbilt will keep these games competitive. Arkansas doesn’t really have any great wins. Its best win is probably Tennessee, which is nothing special. Iowa State likewise hasn’t beaten anybody impressive. While these teams don’t have the signature wins, they haven’t lost their clearly winnable games, save Arkansas’ loss to Mississippi State. I think the Commodores can pull off one victory this week, but I don’t think there should be any disappointment if they can’t win either. As I said before, I think Vanderbilt takes one game from Arkansas, and when better than now after beating Florida in their last game.
Klein: If Kornet can stay out of foul trouble and Fisher-Davis doesn’t take a trip to Brick City (he seems to have a timeshare there), then they can win both games. But if the Commodores commit needless fouls, go cold from downtown and struggle on the defensive end, these games could get ugly. Basically, they should draw upon the Auburn, Kentucky and Florida games for inspiration. Those other games might as well not exist for them.
Ginsberg: Arkansas has been pretty consistent all season, generally winning the games it should and losing when you’d expect it to. They boast a very balanced offensive attack, with five players averaging at least nine points per game, and a stingy defense that allows just 60.7 points per game, best in the SEC. Vandy will need to shoot the lights out from three in this game if they want to break down the Razorbacks’ defense.
Iowa State, meanwhile, has had one of the toughest schedules in the country to date, which makes its 12-6 record slightly misleading. Three of those losses were against Gonzaga, Kansas and Baylor, by a combined eight points. The Cyclones have a lethal scoring backcourt, with Morris and Naz Mitrou-Long combining to average over 32 points per game. LaChance and Fisher-Davis are going to have a very difficult time matching up with that tandem, so expect a lot of that zone we’ve been seeing from the Commodores recently. Outside of Kentucky, this might be the most difficult matchup remaining on Vanderbilt’s schedule.
Schneider: Arkansas is the more winnable game of the two because it’s a familiar team, and I think Vanderbilt will pull this one out. Like Vandy, the Razorbacks are centered around their lone big man, Moses Kingsley, along with a number of undersized guards who aren’t nearly the shooters that Vanderbilt’s are. If Kornet and Roberson can slow down Kingsley in the paint, they have a really good shot on Tuesday.
Iowa State is a different story. Vanderbilt really struggled out of conference, especially with three-point shooting teams, and that’s exactly what Iowa State is. Mitrou-Long and Matt Thomas will burn them from outside if they give them the chance, and Morris is one of the top point guards in the country. It’s going to take a different game plan to knock off Iowa State, but the Cyclones no longer have Georges Niang nor Jameel McKay to cause trouble for this interior defense. Arkansas is the first step, however, and a very winnable one at that.