The official student newspaper of Vanderbilt University

The Vanderbilt Hustler

The official student newspaper of Vanderbilt University.
Since 1888
The official student newspaper of Vanderbilt University

The Vanderbilt Hustler

The official student newspaper of Vanderbilt University.
The official student newspaper of Vanderbilt University

The Vanderbilt Hustler

The official student newspaper of Vanderbilt University.

Vanderbilt’s defense vs. Florida small-ball key to quarterfinal win


They say it’s hard to beat a team three times in one season.

Vanderbilt accomplished that without issue Thursday in its 66-41 obliteration of Texas A&M in the SEC tournament second round. It will have to do so again Friday against No. 17 Florida in the quarterfinals.

This time, however, the Commodores will have to earn win No. 3 of the season against a Gators team that’s actually better than them.

Florida ranks in the top 10 nationally in RPI and statistician Ken Pomeroy’s predictive rankings. Bracketologists peg the Gators as a No. 4 seed in the upcoming NCAA tournament, and coach Mike White’s squad is the favorite to represent its half of the conference tournament bracket in the SEC title game.

Of course, Vanderbilt has beaten the Gators twice already this year for a reason. Both times, the Commodores kept Florida’s offense — the third-most efficient in the SEC, per Pomeroy — from exploding while consistently converting at the rim on the other end of the floor.

Normally a perimeter-oriented team, Vanderbilt shot a combined 56 percent from two-point range in its two wins over Florida. Rim protection is the Gators’ relative weak spot on defense, and the Commodores noticed and took advantage.

“I think we’re a confident basketball team right now,” Vanderbilt guard Riley LaChance said after the Commodores’ win Thursday. “We’ve been playing some good games recently. So, you know, we obviously played [the Gators] not too long ago. We’re real familiar with them.”

Part of the reason this weak spot exists is the Gators’ lack of depth at center. Starting center John Egbunu went down with a season-ending knee injury in February, and backup Kevarrius Hayes played only 10 minutes in the teams’ last matchup.

Thus, White has turned to small lineups more often. Florida’s small-ball groups present arguably the biggest hurdle Vanderbilt will face Friday. In their 73-71 win last weekend, the Commodores struggled to defend Florida when it went to small-ball. That problem isn’t likely to go away now.

“Mike has done a terrific job with them, adjusting with the injury [to Egbunu] they recently had,” Vanderbilt head coach Bryce Drew said Thursday. “They’re a tough matchup.”

Hayes registered a minus-9 plus-minus in his 10 minutes last Saturday. Florida didn’t use backup center Schuyler Rimmer, meaning the Gators outscored Vanderbilt by seven points when they went small.

Against those small lineups, Vanderbilt’s Luke Kornet gets pulled away from the basket due to the need to defend capable three-point shooters like Devin Robinson and Keith Stone. With no shot-blocking at the rim, Florida scored without issue when its ball-handlers successfully blew by Vanderbilt’s defenders.

Additionally, the presence of five capable Florida three-point shooters on the court at the same time stretched Vanderbilt’s defense and resulted in plenty of open threes for the Gators. Vanderbilt showed better effort and focus in the second half, but the ‘Dores can’t allow Florida to repeat its 40-point first-half performance from that game.

Defensively, the presence of quicker defenders at all five spots allowed Florida to recover and close out on Vanderbilt’s shooters. The Commodores could hardly find an open shot from behind the three-point line, a rarity for a team that ranks seventh nationally in the proportion of its shots that come from three.

One would think the 7’1″ Kornet has an advantage on offense around the basket against Stone, Robinson and Justin Leon, all of whom stand 6’8″. But data from Synergy Sports Technology shows Kornet has struggled on post-ups in the half court all season: He rates in the 35th percentile nationally on shot attempts in the post with a mere .85 points per possession. Simply throwing the ball to Kornet in the post and expecting a score won’t cut it against any half-decent team.

White and his staff have surely noticed all of this on tape, and it’ll be nearly impossible for Vanderbilt to defend these lineups without an adjustment by Drew and his staff. Adjustments aside, however, the ‘Dores need their best players on the court if they hope to advance to the semifinals. That means Kornet, LaChance and Jeff Roberson must avoid getting in foul trouble, as none of the three have consistent backups.

“We’re not very deep with nine players, so getting in foul trouble is a concern,” Drew said. “… We don’t have as much depth as other teams.”

Luckily, Drew was able to rest four of his starters toward the end of the Texas A&M rout. No Commodore played more than 32 minutes, and Kornet logged only 29 minutes of court time. Florida has had five days off, but Vanderbilt shouldn’t be especially worn down itself.

If Vanderbilt can keep its best players on the court, it has a shot to deal with Florida’s small lineups, even if it must go to a zone. But if the Commodores struggle to scramble around and contain Florida on offense, the game will be an uphill battle.

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