Toughness key for Vanderbilt in visit to Dayton

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Bosley Jarrett

Vanderbilt hosts Dayton at Memorial Gymnasium on December 9, 2015.

Robbie Weinstein, Sports Editor

The start to the season has been an ugly one for Vanderbilt basketball, and it could get uglier Wednesday night if the Commodores aren’t ready to play.

At 6-5, Vanderbilt returns to the scene of the crime from last March as it pays a visit to Dayton. University of Dayton Arena played host to the ‘Dores for their NCAA tournament blowout loss to Wichita State to end last season. Now Vanderbilt must deal with a hostile opposing crowd as it faces the arena’s home team, one that defeated the Commodores 72-67 in Nashville last year.

Head coach Bryce Drew has denied claims that Vanderbilt might be a bit soft, while players such as Jeff Roberson admit that this sometimes is the case. After looking rather soft in taking a beating at Middle Tennessee State two weeks ago, the Commodores need to show improved poise and resolve if they are to hang with 7-3 Dayton.

“It can be at times,” Roberson said on whether toughness is an issue for the team. “I think more than anything it’s a mental thing. We have guys who are capable of being tough; I feel like if he just put our minds to that, it’s something we can accomplish.”

The Flyers’ depth and talent level have taken hits due to injuries, an NCAA ruling that didn’t go their way and even the death of a player. Center Steve McElvene died suddenly in May from a heart problem, while the NCAA decided highly rated incoming freshman Kostas Antetokounmpo must sit out the year as a partial qualifier. Starting small-ball big men Kendall Pollard and Josh Cunningham have both missed most of the season so far with injuries; Pollard will play Wednesday, but Cunningham remains out.

These personnel losses have translated to Dayton’s on-court play, as it has yet to acquire a true quality win and looks to be in precarious position for an NCAA at-large bid as the Atlantic 10 has struggled this year. However, the Flyers did win at Alabama in November and are 14-3 in their last 17 game against SEC opponents, most of which were mid-to-lower-tier teams similar to what this year’s Vanderbilt squad looks like. Winning this game will still be an uphill battle for the ‘Dores.

When MTSU strung together multiple baskets in a row in Murfreesboro, Vanderbilt looked shaken and reacted poorly. The Blue Raiders got countless run-out dunks off of steals to rile up their crowd, and the Commodores can’t afford to turn the ball over against Dayton and risk the same results.

The Flyers rank 51st nationally in the percent of their defensive possessions that result in a turnover, according to KenPom.com, and they like to run: They get out in transition on 21.5 percent of their offensive possessions, per Synergy Sports Technology.

Dayton guards Scoochie Smith and Kyle Davis both rank higher than 80th percentile in transition offense; Davis is also one of the best finishers in college basketball, shooting 68 percent on two-point shots. Similarly, Pollard is known to push the ball in transition himself after defensive rebounds, which will challenge Luke Kornet and Vanderbilt’s transition defense. The ‘Dores have one of the worst transition defenses in college basketball, ranking in the first percentile while allowing 1.25 points per possession, according to Synergy.

Dayton’s ability to have five players on the court who can push the ball after a rebound means Vanderbilt needs to shoot well from the perimeter, limiting long rebounds after three-point attempts. Opposing teams have shot 35.5 percent from three against Dayton this year, so the Flyers haven’t been especially consistent tracking shooters.

Similarly, freshman point guard Payton Willis must take care of the ball. This could be a tall task in what could be the most hostile environment Vanderbilt’s faced this year, and Willis continues to have turnover problems; he’s turned the ball over on an unimpressive 28.6 percent of possessions. Compounding this issue is the fact that Dayton’s press has been strong when called upon this year, and head coach Archie Miller suggested the Flyers could start the game off in their press so as to avoid early-game problems that have plagued his team all year.

“Our press has been good to us when we put it on,” Miller said during his coach’s show on WHIO Radio in Dayton. “… The first four minutes of every game have typically, statistically right now through 10 games, been our worst four minutes of any segment of the game. Maybe it’s so much to speak of the first four minutes that it’s gonna stay on the whole first four minutes and see if we can’t get playing really hard and see if we can’t disrupt a little bit.”

Coming off a 67-64 neutral-site loss to Northwestern in which they trailed by 23 points at halftime, the Flyers figure to be motivated and energized Wednesday. Miller said he had his team watch the entire game at practice this week, which isn’t something teams typically do.

There’s little reason to think a desperate Dayton team won’t be the aggressor right from tip-off, and Vanderbilt must fight back.