Frank Erwin Center | Austin, TX | Tip: 8 P.M. CT | TV: ESPN2
LRT Consecutive Game #262
Despite preseason expectations of doom and gloom on the Forty Acres, Rick Barnes and the Texas Longhorns have quietly taken care of business in the first month of the season. Although it took a fair number of second-half comebacks, the young Longhorns are off to the program’s best start since 2011.
While the Longhorns have beaten some solid mid-major opponents and took a very good BYU team to the wire, they have yet to take care of good competition. The next three weeks will provide Texas a chance to do just that, with road games against Temple and North Carolina to go along with a home tilt against top-ranked Michigan State. Tonight serves as a good warm-up for that tough slate, as the Horns host a Vanderbilt team expected to finish in the middle of the SEC pack.
Vandy sits at 4-2 coming into the game, with both losses reminding Commodore fans of the many frustrating ways their team lost last season. At Butler, Vanderbilt had a chance to win at the end of regulation, but gave it away on a travel and then wilted in overtime. Facing Providence in the Paradise Jam just three days later, the Commodores blew a 16-point lead with 10 minutes left. Vandy scored just one basket down the stretch, allowing the Friars to go on a 27-4 closing run to win the game.
By the Numbers
Vanderbilt has upped the tempo considerably this season, although that’s not saying much. Last year’s squad was one of the 20 slowest in the country, so this Commodore team is really just closer to the national average. Vandy is very patient with the basketball in the half-court, but they are always looking for opportunities to push the tempo after defensive rebounds. For a Texas team that has taken some poor shots and fueled opponents’ transition games, that could be a problem.
The Commodores love to spread the floor out and attack with the bounce, especially off of ball screens by the forwards and centers. While last year’s team also frequently fired it up from the perimeter, the summer departure of Kevin Bright has cut into Vandy’s long-range attack. The ‘Dores still have a good bunch of long-range shooters, but they have gone from taking almost 44% of their attempts from beyond the arc last season to shooting threes just 29% of the time this year.
One statistical category which could swing tonight’s result is the turnover department. Vanderbilt has frequently struggled at controlling the basketball, with errant passes often costing them possessions. Those problems played a key role in the meltdown against Providence, and it has led the team to waste 19.5% of their possessions on the year. Against a Texas team that thrives on the fast break, Vanderbilt has to avoid those same mistakes, especially those of the live-ball variety.
On the other end, the Commodores also don’t force their opponents into miscues, as Vandy’s defense causes turnovers just 14% of the time. Texas has done a pretty good job hanging on to the ball, especially with such a young lineup. If Vandy is wasting their own possessions and unable to get them back from Texas, it could be difficult for the ‘Dores to pull off the road win.
Finally, we’d like to provide a PSA for viewers of tonight’s game. While it has been extremely difficult to watch the Longhorns stumble through their attempts at the free throw line, this one is going to be painful to watch at both charity stripes. Vandy has actually posted an even worse free-throw mark than Texas, hitting just 60% of their attempts on the year. With Texas making only 61.4% of their own free throws, it is going to be an adventure every time these teams head to the line.
Meet the Commodores
Vanderbilt is led by a sophomore transfer who is going to have quite a few fans in the house tonight. Eric McClellan (No. 1) is a product of Austin High, and he arrived in Nashville by way of Tulsa. McClellan is a quick, aggressive guard who consistently gets to the rim. He cradles the ball well when he goes up in traffic, not only avoiding blocked shots and drawing contact, but also making sure he gets the shot off.
The Commodores repeatedly set screens for their point guard on the wings, and he needs very little time or space to get around the corner. However, he’s just 3-for-18 from behind the arc, so Texas should be content to simply go under those picks tonight. Butler also found some success by blitzing those screens with their bigs and forcing McClellan away from the hoop. If the Longhorns can rotate well and help guard the Vandy big men as they roll to the basket, that is also a good option.
Senior guard Kyle Fuller (No. 11) earned the start in the team’s most recent game against Loyola-Marymount, but that marked just his second starting nod in six contests. He typically comes in as the backup point guard, but Coach Stallings has experimented with having his two best ball handlers out there at the same time. Like McClellan, Fuller is also aggressive with the bounce and gets defenders on their heels. He consistently gets to the line and knows how to set up his teammates in a position to score.
In the four games where Fuller came off the bench, Dai-Jon Parker (No. 24) started at the two. Parker is a great long-range shooter who has hit seven of his 14 attempts on the year. That number isn’t skewed too much by the small sample size, as Parker drilled nearly 40% of his threes last season.
Another huge outside threat for Vandy is 6’9″ forward Rod Odom (No. 0). The big man is a very tough matchup, as he spreads the floor with his long-range accuracy, and can also face up opposing bigs and beat them with the bounce. Odom is a perpetual threat to beat teams on the pick-and-pop, and Vandy also likes to free him up with dual downscreens from their other bigs to isolate him at the top of the key.
Texas has one of the worst three-point defenses in the country, and Odom is going to be a particularly tough matchup. The Longhorns don’t have a true three in their lineup who could possibly serve as an undersized defender against Odom, and Jonathan Holmes will likely have issues defending him away from the paint. If the Longhorns once again get torched from the outside tonight, it will likely be Odom holding the flamethrower.
Junior James Siakam is a 6’7″ forward from Cameroon who really plays more of a power forward role with Odom stretching the floor. Siakam is very strong and has no problems posting up, despite his size. He is incredibly active on the glass and has a nice face-up game, but sometimes gets a little too excited when he’s ready to make a move. Siakam has been tagged with a few travels this season when trying to pump fake his defender before a drive.
In the middle, junior Josh Henderson (No. 40) has steadily improved his game. He really came on late last year, and appears to have put in even more hard work during the offseason. Henderson can knock down midrange jumpers, and while he sometimes struggles with making the easiest, short-range stuff, he does have a solid toolbox of post moves. The 6’11″ big man is always setting screens on the perimeter, and he makes good cuts to the hoop for the pick-and-roll option.
Freshman Damian Jones (No. 30) has recently supplanted Henderson in the starting lineup, and it’s easy to see why Coach Stallings is excited about this kid. Jones chose Vandy over the likes of Florida, Duke, and Oklahoma State, and the 6’10″, 235-pound Louisiana native has a ton of potential.
Jones is already showing off good moves in the post, but he still has to work on his defense. He has been caught biting hard on pump fakes multiple times and his defensive miscues have led him to average more than seven fouls per 40 minutes. When he can improve his defense and keep himself on the court for more minutes, Jones is going to be a difference-maker in the SEC.
Vandy also has another pair of options in the middle, but neither are getting a ton of minutes this season. Luke Kornet (No. 3) is a 7-foot freshman who is still adjusting to the fact that he’s grown nine inches since starting his senior year of high school. Since he was just 6’3″ less than two years ago, Kornet has a great outside shot and can really stretch the defense. As he adds some muscle and gets used to his body, the freshman will easily command more playing time.
Shelby Moats (No. 34) is the other reserve forward for Vandy, but his effectiveness is limited. He is having trouble adjusting to the new rules emphasis on screens, and has picked up a few offensive fouls as a result. He lacks confidence with the ball and doesn’t keep it high enough in the paint, making it difficult for him to score inside. Moats is averaging less than a point in 8.7 minutes per game, and it’s unlikely he’ll have much of a role this season with Henderson, Jones, and Kornet all looking significantly better.
Keys to the Game
1) Limit dribble penetration – Texas is going to face hundreds of screens tonight as the Commodores work to get their guards free for drives to the rim. The Longhorns must prevent McClellan and Fuller from getting easy penetration against the defense, as so much of the Vanderbilt offense stems from their playmaking. Texas should absolutely not go over screens for McClellan, and the interior defense must react quickly and offer timely help on the situations where McClellan and Fuller do spring free.
2) Deny Odom and Parker on the perimeter – Texas has one of the nation’s worst three-point defenses, and Odom and Parker are two players who can easily exploit that. Although Odom provides a very difficult matchup for the Horns, they cannot afford to give him open looks from outside. Parker is not the same matchup problem that Odom is, so the Texas guards need to stick close to him as he roams around the arc.
3) Get the easy points in transition – Vanderbilt has frequently turned it over, which gives Texas a great opportunity to avoid facing a tough Commodore defense in half-court sets. Looking up after defensive rebounds can also give the Horns that same opportunity. If Texas can turn those Vanderbilt miscues into easy points and push the tempo after Commodore misses, they can make it very difficult for Vandy to escape Austin with a road win.