Turnovers, transition game key as ‘Dores enter pivotal stretch

Vanderbilt+and+MTSU+last+met+in+December+2012%2C+but+the+%27Dores+last+win+in+the+series+came+at+home+in+January+of+that+same+year.+%28Beck+Friedman%29

Vanderbilt and MTSU last met in December 2012, but the 'Dores last win in the series came at home in January of that same year. (Beck Friedman)

Robbie Weinstein, Sports Editor

Nine games into head coach Bryce Drew’s first season at Vanderbilt, things haven’t gone as planned.

The Commodores, having failed to find consistency on offense or defense so far, stand at 5-4. As clear a sign as the season-opening blowout loss to Marquette was that Vanderbilt had work to do, a home loss to Bucknell and a neutral-site loss to Minnesota have only moved the ‘Dores even further off the postseason pace.

Coming into the season, optimistic observers felt Vanderbilt could sneak into the NCAA tournament for the second year in a row. Instead, however, the Commodores enter a pivotal section of their season needing to up their game if they hope to even compete for an NIT berth during conference play.

Vanderbilt’s next six games feature no clear top-25 teams but no cupcakes, either. With a December 21 trip to Dayton looking like a loss, road games against Middle Tennessee State, LSU and Alabama loom large. The Commodores may need to win two of those three just to scrape their way to a 9-6 overall record heading into a home game with SEC favorite Kentucky on January 10.

That makes Thursday night’s visit to Murfreesboro, Tenn., to take on MTSU a game of huge importance to the Commodores. The Blue Raiders rank as a top-100 team by Ken Pomeroy’s computer ratings, and they recently captured a 15-point road win over SEC opponent Ole Miss.

“It’s definitely tough, the quick turnaround, going on the road,” Drew said after Tuesday’s win over High Point. “We have finals week approaching and our young men are studying hard already and putting a lot of time into finals. Our goal as a coaching staff is to try get them not only physically ready but mentally ready, because they’re going to be strained a lot when we get on that bus on Thursday.”

Aside from the scheduling concerns, this game presents some specific matchup problems for Vanderbilt. In its win over Ole Miss, MTSU forced a turnover on an impressive 24.2 percent of possessions, according to Pomeroy, and made the Rebels beat them in the half-court, allowing only two fastbreak points.

These two trends could be both good and bad signs for Vanderbilt. MTSU ranks 32nd nationally in defensive turnover rate, the proportion of opponents’ possessions that end with a turnover. The Commodores, meanwhile, rank just 253rd nationally in offensive turnover rate while freshman point guard Payton Willis has turned the ball over on a whopping 30.4 percent of his used possessions.

It comes down to this: Vanderbilt turns the ball over a lot, while MTSU excels at forcing these same turnovers. To win on the road, Willis will need to take care of the ball and recognize the intricacies of the Blue Raiders’ unique zone they use on just over one-third of their defensive possessions, according to Synergy Sports Technology.

Of course, turnovers don’t only result in a loss of possession for the offense; those of the live-ball variety often provide the opposition with opportunities to attack on the fastbreak. Transition defense represents arguably Vanderbilt’s biggest weakness as a team: The Commodores’ 1.195 points per possession allowed in such situations ranks in the fifth percentile nationally, according to Synergy.

Partially as a result, Vanderbilt has been forced to slow down its pace of play. The ‘Dores play at only the 273rd-fastest pace in the country, per Pomeroy.

“As a team, we haven’t been able to get up and down the court as fast as we would like,” Drew said Tuesday. “We want to make sure we get a quality shot when we get down the court. Tonight, I think we were able to get some deflections and get some steals. We had eight tonight which is more than we’ve been getting, and it allowed us to get a few in transition like that. Hopefully we’ll be able to run more like this in the future, but our first objective on offense is we want to get a quality shot.”

If Vanderbilt can get the ball into the frontcourt safely and run its offense, however, points should come. According to Synergy, VU’s halfcourt offense ranks in the 75th percentile nationally. So, unlike Ole Miss, the ‘Dores shouldn’t have too many problems finding success once they get into their half-court offense.

Otherwise, giving MTSU’s 95th-percentile transition attack a chance to run out and get easy baskets could spell doom for the ‘Dores.

The responsibility lies with Willis and the Commodores’ other ball-handlers. They can either take care of the ball and get out of town with their best win of the year, or cough it up and lose local bragging rights while making postseason qualification an even steeper climb. A lot rides on this game, and the pressure is on Vanderbilt to play like it.