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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.

Five thoughts: Commodores fall to Northwestern in instant classic

Blake Dover
Vanderbilt’s Nolan Cressler reacts after the Commodores lost to Northwestern 68-66 in the NCAA tournament first round on March 16, 2017.

Vanderbilt’s NCAA tournament first-round game against Northwestern didn’t disappoint — at least for general fans of March Madness.

The Commodores fell 68-66 in an ending that will be one of the most memorable scenes of this year’s tournament. Leading 66-65, Matthew Fisher-Davis intentionally fouled Northwestern’s Bryant McIntosh, an 86 percent free-throw shooter. McIntosh knocked down both foul shots, and Vanderbilt couldn’t answer.

The game will go down as one of the most infamous in Vanderbilt sports history. Here are five takeaways from it.

Fisher-Davis not to blame

Fisher-Davis’ non-intentional intentional foul grabbed headlines Thursday, and rightfully so. The play led after the day’s games had concluded, and it was all over social media. There’s no doubt that this was an all-timer in terms of crucial NCAA tournament brain farts, but it wasn’t the reason Vanderbilt lost the game.

Professional teams in Europe often employ a “foul with the lead” strategy at the end of games, and analytics show that even fouling a great free-throw shooter like McIntosh isn’t as big of a mistake as it seemed at the time. Vanderbilt still got a chance to answer, but Riley LaChance’s 25-foot bomb hit back rim.

However, Vanderbilt would have had a hard time stopping Northwestern on that possession anyways. Luke Kornet, by far the Commodores’ best rim protector, was on the bench after fouling out. Without his defense, the Wildcats would have been much more likely to get to the rim and convert with little time left.

“[Kornet]’s a huge part of what we do on both ends, our defensive scheme is built around him,” Vanderbilt head coach Bryce Drew said. “Anytime we sub him out of the game, it definitely can affect our team in not a good way. And in the end if we had him it may have changed something we would have run at the end of the game with his size and ability to shoot at the end.”

Bad offense hurt the cause

Vanderbilt’s uncharacteristically poor offense was a much bigger reason for the loss than Fisher-Davis’ foul. Northwestern’s defense deserves some credit, but the Commodores looked flustered for much of the game and resorted to more isolation ball than normal. This came despite the fact that Vanderbilt rates as a below average isolation team — it ranks in the 18th percentile nationally and shoots only 28.8 percent on isolation plays, according to Synergy Sports Technology.

Numerous possessions ended in either LaChance or Fisher-Davis pounding the ball and sizing up their defenders before launching long threes off the dribble. These were better shots than what Vanderbilt got in the post from Luke Kornet, but they were hardly optimal. The lack of ball movement manifested itself in a low assist total, as the ‘Dores dropped only nine dimes for the game. Northwestern’s frequent switching of ball screens on defense helped induce many of those isolation possessions, as the Commodore guards tried to attack mismatches on the perimeter.

“If you don’t switch, [Kornet]’s going to pick and pop,” Northwestern head coach Chris Collins said. “We didn’t want to switch everything. We wanted to try to get through, but our philosophy anytime that guard got screened at all we wanted to break it off and switch.”

Non-shooters shoot for Northwestern

Perhaps the biggest factor not under Vanderbilt’s control was the Wildcats’ outside shooting. McIntosh and wing Scottie Lindsey came into the game shooting 30 and 33 percent from three, respectively. The two combined to shoot 5-for-6 from downtown in the first half and finished 5-of-10 for the game. Northwestern as a whole ranked around 200th nationally in three-point percentage and made 6-of-14, despite leading three-point shooters Vic Law and Nathan Taphorn making only one three between them. Vanderbilt hoped to force the Wildcats’ non-shooters to score over the top of its defense, but the problem was that they actually converted. That’s something that Drew surely can live with. The game plan was sound; Northwestern simply made shots.

“I thought today [McIntosh] shot the three pretty well,” Drew said. “He hasn’t shot it that well through the year. When he started making threes his confidence was building and he took that to two-pointers in the second half.”

Season a success

Without a deep run, making the NCAA tournament once doesn’t move the needle much for a program. Stringing together consecutive appearances does, and the Commodores did so despite looking nothing like a tournament team for much of the season.

After three years of missing out, Vanderbilt got fans and recruits re-accustomed to seeing the Star V logo pop up on the bracket on Selection Sunday. That’s critically important to the future and momentum of Drew’s program, and it’s something that only Kentucky can boast among other SEC schools. That’s right, Vanderbilt and Kentucky are the only SEC teams to have made each of the last two NCAA tournaments. That matters.

“I think the whole team sees where we were to where we are now,” Drew said. “We don’t want the season to end. I think that’s a good sign it’s been a great experience for everybody.”

Dynamic point guard needed

Replacing Kornet will be an impossible task, but it’s clear from the way Vanderbilt’s offense broke down against Northwestern that the ‘Dores could use a quick, athletic ball handler who can consistently beat opponents off the dribble. The Commodores threw together an impressive offense without such a playmaker this year, as they now rank 52nd nationally in Ken Pomeroy’s adjusted offensive efficiency. However, the addition of a couple of dynamic penetrator would help Vanderbilt weather shooting droughts that occasionally killed the team this season.

Luckily, Drew has at least one such player joining the team next year. Saben Lee, a 4-star point guard from Tempe, Arizona, projects as a possible NBA prospect and is known for his quickness, defense and finishing at the rim. Lee conceivably could start for Vanderbilt as a freshman, and he’ll provide an immediate impact on the Commodores’ late-shot-clock and transition offenses, as well as their defense against ball screens.

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Blake Dover, Author

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