The Vanderbilt Commodores march to the Final Four begins Thursday at 1:30 central against the OVC Champion Murray State Racers in San Jose. Schools separated by a 110 miles will travel over 2,000 miles and two time zones to meet in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the Racers are a sexy upset pick. For example, the line has moved from Vanderbilt as a 4.5 favorite, to now being a just a 3 point favorite as far as Vegas is concerned. This was the largest amount of movement on Vegas' board (although a handful of other games also had lines that moved 1.5 points).
While there are certainly reasons why, don't let Murray's gawdy stats scare you. First to why the Racers are getting some love: 1) they were the first team in America to reach 30 wins this season; 2) they basically steamrolled their conference, winning 17 of 18 games; 3)they have a balanced, deep, and experienced team. With that said, those championing the Racers are ignoring the fact that their strength of schedule is 289th out of 347 Division I schools according to KenPom.com with a record of just 1-2 among the RPI Top 100. They truly haven't played anyone all season long (and no, Cal does not count as "someone" this season). Oh, did I mention they are a career 1-13 in the NCAA tournament? Still, given Vanderbilt's somewhat erratic play heading into the Tournament, combined with the Siena sting that still haunts Commodore fans, this is not a game or a team that can be taken lightly.
Murray State: By the Numbers
As discussed above, their strength of schedule is terrible. As such, I think one has to take their apparent statistical dominance with a grain (or two) of salt.
The Racers did have winning streaks of 8 and 17 over the course of the year. Currently, Murray has a 4 game winning streak on their way to winning the OVC crown. Murray has outscored opponents by an average of 17 points, outrebounded them by an average of 6 boards a game, and out-shot them by 12 percentage points (50% to 38%). While Murrary owns a season +2.6 turnover margin over opponents, they do average 14.6 turnovers a game, a number that seems high given their experience and competition. If it's not abundantly clear from my tone thus far, I don't put a lot of stock in these comparision stats because of the dearth of quality opposition. Yes, they beat Western Kentucky and we didn't. Still, you are never going to convince me these stats are "meaningful" (which, of course, begs the question, why did I include this last paragraph at all?)
Murray State: The Players
The Racers entire starting 5, save 1, average scoring in double figuers. The player who doesn't, Junior Guard Issac Miles adds 9.5 points a contest. Clearly, this is a balanced team on the offensive end. They also have experience. 2 seniors, 2 juniors, and a sophomore start for Murrary State's coach Billy Kennedy. But, what they have in experience, balance, and je ne sais quoi, they certainly make up for with a lack of size. (Mike Organ has a piece in today's Tennessean about the match-ups that's worth a read. I did not see nor read Organ's piece while writing this post, but he certainly makes the same point I do).
Of Murray's 5 starters, only 2 are over 6'7. Sophomore forward Ivan Aska, the team's leading scorer, is 6'7, averages 10.6 points, 4.9 rebounds, and 22.8 minutes a game. Coach Kennedy's other "big guy" is 6'9 senior Tony Easley, who is averaging 10.4 points, 5.8 rebounds, while shooting 66.8% from the floor. The 6'9 Easley is certainly no joke inside, including blocking 93 shots. The number about him that impressed me most about this senior was that of his 206 rebounds, 87 were offensive. While A.J. enjoys a 50 pound and 2 inch height advantage over Easley, and has been very effective against smaller defenders, there is no doubt the Racer senior will make him earn his points.
Murray's other forward is another senior, the 6'4 Danero Thomas. Thomas was the team leader in minutes, averaging 26.7 minutes a game, while scoring 10.4 points and grabbing 4.2 rebounds a contest. And this is where you really see Vanderblit's height advantage coming through. Thomas will most likely be guarded by (and forced to guard) Jeffery Taylor, Vanderbilt's 6'7 swingman.
Coach Kennedy's back-court consists of a pair of juniors, 6'0 B.J. Jenkins and 6'2 Issac Miles. In looking at the stats, it's not clear which one is the "true" point-guard. Jenkins plays 25.6 minutes, and is good for 10.5 points a game. He shoots an impressive 37% from downtown (the best percentage of the Racers' starters), has 62 steals on the season, and has 108 assists compared to just 55 turnovers. The other guard, Miles, has a similar stat line. Averaging 9.8 points a game, Miles is 35.9% three point shooter, and has a 1.76:1 assist to turnover ratio. He is the team's assist leader. Whichever one of these guards brings the ball up will be Dolla Beal's responsibility, but John Jenkins will have to make a concerted effort to keep up with whomever he gets on the defensive end.
The Racers really go 8 deep. Coach Kennedy has a Jenkinseque player in freshman Isaiah Canann. The 6'0 freshman coming off the bench is playing just over 20 minutes a game. He is averaging 10.3 points a game and is truly a lethal shooter, connecting on 49.3% of his attempts, including 45.7% from downtown. Like the Racers will with The Stroke, all the Commodores will know (or pay the price) where Canaan is on the floor at all times. Rounding out the Racers contributors are sophomore guard Donte Poole and junior forward Jeffery McClain. These guys have played in all 34 games (averaging 14.2 and 16.6 minutes respectively), and contributed 8.9 points and 6.2 boards a contest.
As alluded to above, I really think the match-ups favor the Commodores, not only in terms of height, but also in terms of depth. Vanderbilt is, across the board, taller than Murray State. It seems unlikely that Vanderbilt players won't always have a height advantage over the Racers. Additionally, Vanderbilt's depth is significantly taller than Murray's. At 6'3, Brad Tinsely is the smallest player coming off the Commodore bench, whereas 6'3 is actually the middle of the road for Murray's depth. Depending on Jenkins' defense, it wouldn't surprise me to see a fair bit of Brad in this game, especially given his 3-4 shooting performance from downtown against Mississippi State in the SEC semis. This is not to say I don't expect Jenkins to play...a lot, or to play a significant role in Vanderbilt's offense. But I'm looking for Tinsely to give the Commodores quality minutes.
Given the emphasis on Vanderbilt height advantage, it will come as no shock that I see A.J. Ogilvy as a key to Vanderbilt's success. The big Australian always seems to play well when he is the tallest player on the floor. In the 6 games this season where A.J. scored 19 points or more, he was the tallest player on the floor and was guarded by someone at least 2 inches taller than him in 5 of those games and averaged just under 22.6 points and shot an incredible 68%. Certainly there were games where A.J. was the biggest player on the floor and did not take advantage, but given his performance against Mississippi State, and his track-record of taking advantage when he's the tallest player on the floor, I fully expect Ogilvy to have a big game.
Jeffery Taylor's worst four-game stretch of the season have been his last 4. The 6'7 swingman averaged 13.4 points over the course of the season. In his last four games however, Jeffery has only reached double figures once (13 points against South Carolina), and is averaging just 7.5 points a game in this stretch. The question is why? First off, Taylor doesn't appear to be attacking the basket as successfully as he was earlier in the season. Case in point, Taylor has attempted just 11 free throws in 4 games, 2 of which (@ Florida and vs. Georgia) where he didn't attempt a single one. Prior to that stretch, Taylor had only failed to reach the line once (vs. Chaminade), and attempted 9 or more free throws 9 times. Taylor's field-goal percentage also reflects his struggles at getting to the rim. During this 4 game stretch, Taylor is shooting just 31.3% from the field. For Vanderbilt's offense to be connect. Coincidentally or not, Jeffery's struggles began when The Stroke entered the starting line-up. For Vanderbilt to be playing at their best, these guys are going to have to figure out how to work together.
Jermaine Beal is the team's lone playing senior and the backbone of this team. He will either be guarded by a Racer who is his size (creating a serious mismatch for The Stroke), or someone who is at least 3 inches shorter than him. This will certainly give Jermaine an opportunity to take advantage of his much vaunted transition pull-up jumper. Given that the end of his Commodore career is in sight, the key for Beal is playing within himself without trying to do too much.
Stevie Thunder and the glue, Andre Walker, also have the ability to contribute tomorrow. If Walker assumes a point-forward role (a distinct possibility if Jermaine is harassed) who directs traffic and gets into the heart of the defense, he will open up the middle for A.J. to post, and Taylor to penetrate. One might argue that, even if Beal isn't harassed, Coach Stallings would be well advised to move Walker away from the basket. Again, given Murray's lack of size, whomever is matched up with either 4 will be drawn away from the basket, rendering a relatively small team that much smaller. For many of the same reasons, I think Lance Goulbourne could also play a pivotal role.
Final Thoughts: The Keys
Field Goal Percentage: As our friends at Anchor of Gold pointed out in their great Worst Losses preview of tomorrow's game point out, in Murray State's 4 losses, their opponents are shooting 52.1% against them, compared to just 37% in their 30 wins. Here again is where A.J. and Jeffery will be key. When these guys are getting to the basket, they often shoot at a high percentage.
In all but 10 games, Vanderbilt has out-shot their opponents from the field. In the 10 games were that was not case, the Commodores lost 7. Finally, Vanderbilt is 23-4 this season when they shoot over 40%.
Dictate Pace: Vanderbilt is a team that can thrive both in an up-tempo game, as well in a half-court set. It doesn't matter what style the Commodores play, but rather that they play how they want rather than how their opponents want. Vanderbilt's last two losses to Mississippi State and South Carolina dictate how important this is. South Carolina came back because they played their style (i.e. give the ball to Downey and get out of the way). Mississippi State, on the other hand, played a slow-down game and established a 10 point lead into the second half. When Vanderbilt made their run, it was because they sped things up and got out in transition. That they weren't able to get over the hump doesn't diminish the point that dictating the pace of play is critical.
Getting to the Free Throw Line: One of Vanderbilt's strengths all season has been getting to the free throw line, averaging 25.7 attempts a game. In their last 4 (since Jenkins entered the starting line up), that number has gone down to 17.8 a game, a number less than the average number of free throws the Commodores average connecting on this season. Again, the importance of A.J. and Jeffery rears its head again. If these guys can get to the basket, it should lead to more free throw opportunities, which typically leads to wins.
Starting Out the Right Way:How Vanderbilt comes out of the gate will be key. In Vanderbilt's 2007 match-up with George Washington, the Commodores jumped out to an early lead, leading by 13 with 8 minutes to go in the first half. Compare that to their 2008 match-up with Siena, where the Commodores trailed by 16 around the 8 minute mark. Let's hope playing out west is more important than playing in an even numbered year.
This game looks more like Vanderbilt's match-up in 2007 with George Washington, than 2008 against Siena. Given Murray State's lack of size and weak strength of schedule, I'm really not sure they have the guns to hang with Vanderbilt. With that said, the experts aren't just picking the upset to bother Commodore fans (as hard as we might find this to believe). The Racers are a team good enough to go 17-1 in their conference, and thus good enough to beat us. Alas, I don't think they will.
Update: Check out Anchor of Gold's Murray State Statistical Breakdown
Vanderbilt 78 - Murrary State 63