Wednesday, March 9, 2011

The Problem That Shouldn't Be: The Reason that Vanderbilt Only Went 9-7 in the SEC

About two weeks ago, we here at VSL were asked to fill out a questionnaire for a fellow blogger. In that questionnaire, it was asked what the “story” of the SEC was this season. Our response was Tennessee’s play as a microcosm of this year in college basketball. To say the least, this season has been volatile. Teams have come on strong late (North Carolina, BYU), and teams that seemed unbeatable early have fallen back (Duke, Texas, Villanova, Georgetown). Ohio State and perhaps Pittsburgh are the only teams that have floated around the top spot of college basketball this season with any consistency. There have been numerous weeks where ranked teams have lost to unranked teams. Some call it parity, others call it mediocrity, and all have their reasons for it. Tennessee appeared to be a microcosm of this year because of the quality of their wins (Villanova, Pitt), and the lack thereof of their losses (Oakland, Charlotte).

If Tennessee is a microcosm of the full year, Vanderbilt may very well be the microcosm for this conference season. Make no mistake, this team is more talented than their 9-7 record should indicate. Few teams anymore have a solid true center in their lineup. They have an athletic wing who can score and is a talented defender. They have the best three-point shooting threat in the SEC, and arguably in the country. Additionally, they have solid role players. At times, they have looked dynamic, and at others, they have looked lost. These ebbs and flows are apparent in the Commodores’ penchant to blow large leads on their way to heartbreaking losses. The maddening nature of the team’s inconsistency has left many of us hanging on the edge of our seat, wondering which team will show up that evening. To say that this season has been “uncomfortable” is truly an understatement.

The question I asked myself after our 10-point loss at Florida’s hands was what our biggest flaw was. On paper, there shouldn’t be any problems. Over the course of the year, we’ve blamed players for not showing up in big games, blamed offensive inefficiency, blamed defensive ineptitude, and blamed poor coaching efforts. From the consistent viewer’s perspective, Vanderbilt has seemed to struggle with all of the above. However, when looking at the team on-paper, you’d be hard pressed to make those arguments. Vanderbilt finished the regular season as the second-highest scoring team in the SEC behind Kentucky, but they led the league in that category for most of the year. Defensively, the numbers are not as kind in terms of opponent’s points per game, but Vanderbilt has done a good job of limiting their opponent’s field goal percentage throughout the year. By holding opponents to 40.7% from the field, Vanderbilt is fourth in the SEC, a number that really should indicate a solid defensive group. Vandy is right up there with the other SEC squads in terms of blocked shots per game, ranking 32nd in the nation. In other words, our talent has shown through on both the offensive and defensive side of the ball throughout the season. In addition, it has shown through better than Florida, and almost as good as Kentucky, for the entire year.

It wasn’t too tough to come up with why our beloved Dores have been mediocre in SEC play. In fact, some of you will probably say “duh” and wonder why I needed to write a post about it. The thing is though, while we all know that it is an issue, I don’t think we fans realize the extent to which it is a problem. That problem is the number of offensive rebounds our team allows per game.

Since the beginning of SEC play, Vanderbilt has won the offensive rebounding battle in only 6 games. In those 6 games, Vanderbilt was 5-1, the sole loss coming against UK on the road, a game which we can all agree was a solid road-effort. In the other 10 games, Vanderbilt went 4-6. The reason this is so remarkable is because in six of those 10 games, Vanderbilt allowed their opponent to take 10 more shots than they did, and in two of those they allowed opponents to take 20 shots or more. By doing this, and for the sake of argument we will say that none of those shots were three-pointers, Vanderbilt allowed opponents in 6 games to have a shot at between 20-40 possible points more than they did with no answer whatsoever. In fact, over the course of SEC play, Vanderbilt has allowed opponents to have 113 more shots than they have. Some of that comes from turnover problems, but most of that is a result of the fact that Vandy has allowed 209 offensive rebounds in SEC play. That is roughly 13 offensive rebounds a game. This is absolutely terrible, and it’s made worse when you know that our talent should not allow that kind of ridiculous statistic to occur.

Nowhere is this problem more apparent than the box score in the Tennessee games. Tennessee exposed the blueprint for beating us this year, and in both cases our inability to prevent second-chance opportunities led to games Vanderbilt should have won soundly, but lost. In our first game on the road, Vanderbilt allowed Tennessee to get 19 offensive rebounds in comparison to our 12. With our turnovers, that led to Tennessee getting 23 shots more than we did. The fact that we only lost by 3 is a testament to how inept Tennessee is offensively. In our second match-up, Tennessee had 13 offensive rebounds to our 3. This led to them getting 13 more shots than we did. Offensively we were not as sharp the second game as the first, and we ended up losing by 9. Also, Tennessee was outstanding defensively that game, so some credit is due. Florida was very successful in both games at achieving the same goal, outrebounding us 15-7 in the first game, and 15-3 in the second. They did not, however, take nearly as many shots as Tennessee did.

The reason that I harp on offensive rebounds more than turnovers vs. opponents turnovers, is that our defensive philosophy isn’t predicated on creating turnovers. While high turnover rates are never acceptable, the turnovers haven’t been that abnormal over the past couple months of the season. In addition, those are problems that are a factor of offensive flow, something that goes down over the course of a season. Allowing offensive rebounds is a problem we simply should not be having. Stallings’ goal is to get opponents to shoot low-percentage shots late in the shot clock. The whole point is they get one chance to score and that chance is supposed to have a low success rate. The team is built to get the ball as soon as it gets off the rim. While we are actually quite successful at making teams take the tough shot, we allow opponents second-bites at the apple and effectively give them opportunities at 10 points a game or more than we have.

This is clearly a defense-oriented problem. If this team wants to succeed this month, this problem needs to be hammered into their psyche. Vanderbilt has had only ONE dominant performance on the offensive boards, and that came on the road against a UGA squad that has some very talented rebounders. This team can win those battles. They can start winning those battles right now by simply following better fundamentals, getting better position, boxing out, and forcing players to go around their back or over them, which will likely be called fouls. Despite these woeful second-chance numbers, this team does a pretty good job of rebounding. If Vanderbilt wants to go deep in the tournament and live up to their potential, they have to limit teams from getting second-chance shots. Otherwise, it’ll be upset central again for the 3rd time in 4 years.


Anonymous said...

I missed that middle part.

Could you repeat the whole thing?


Alex said...

This has been an evident problem all year and has frustrated me watching every game. I think the problem in the end comes down to defensive communication. As we have all seen, Festus likes to block shots. He REALLY likes to block shots. And he's very good at it (set the school record this season). But it seems that he gambles and goes for the block on just about every play, which draws him out of position for the rebound. Where we get burned is opposing players sitting on the block on the weak side and getting easy put backs after missed blocks. To prevent this we need whoever is playing PF to understand that Festus is going for the block whenever the ball comes inside, and body up the weak side opposition. Lance has done this well at times, as we can see by him leading the team in rebounds, but there are other times where he gets caught on switches and stranded on the perimeter. I've been an advocate of playing Steve in the PF spot because I think he gives us a stronger presence on the weak side block and he can box out like a true center. Either way, CKS needs to harp on his guys that the weak side rebounds MUST BE OURS! With Festus going for the spectacular block every time, it leaves us open for easy buckets whenever he misses.

Slimbo said...

Alex beat me to it, but here goes...

CKS & Co. have clearly decided that Festus's blocks (and, perhaps more importantly, the threat of those blocks) provide more to this team than his boxing out for rebounds. This has led to VU giving up the most offensive boards per game (13.1 via StatSheet). Healthy Lance has done a fantastic job of getting position on D, but usually he's up against the 5 that Festus left open for a block attempt.

Stanimal's right, this is inexcusable - but it is the result of a choice. It's frustrating because we do play great half-court defense, but according to the most absolute defensive barometer (Opp. PPG), we're 2nd to last in conference play. Oh, and those blocks we so treasure? 6 SEC teams get more stuffs per game.

Stanimal said...

Love that point Alex. Way too often Festus gets drawn out of position by the need to make a defensive play in the interior and a guy either sweeps in off the wing and gets the board or a guy who is already there gets an open alley. Simply put, that's gotta be on Jeff and Lance/Steve/Rod to prevent that weakside rebounder from taking that position.

I wrote this post because I think our performance in this area is going to determine whether we play to our optimum level or whether we're going to be out after one game. When you're watching the SEC Tournament and the NCAA Tournament, pay attention to how many offensive rebounds the opposing team has. I'd be willing to bet if we allow more than 10 we'll be in a dogfight, regardless of the opponent.

Anonymous said...

Can someone send this post by Stanimal to CKS & Company?

KarenA said...

I think it was in the 1st Kentucky game that we had a great stretch where Stevie T and Fes were in together. Even though they hadn't practiced that way, it worked well. I would like to see more of that and I think it would help a lot with the offensive RBs.

Stanimal said...

Slimbo I sincerely hope that it is not a wilfull coaching choice that has resulted in these awful second-chance numbers. If so, I would be seriously concerned about the coaching staff and their understanding of their own defensive philosophy.

I don't think they have affirmatively told Festus not to worry about rebounds and just to block everything that comes in the post. In fact, if you watched Vanderbilt's ESPN All-Access special, Stallings ripped his team a new one for this exact problem we've highlighted here. I think it's more a problem where the players are not understanding how crucial the prevention of offensive rebounds really is and they are simply ignoring a simple fundamental. Part of that is probably because our post players are so incredibly raw. But I'm not sure that excuses something that you really need to learn in year one of playing basketball.

Still, they did an excellent job in the UGA game with this exact situation, so I really can't understand why it hasn't translated to every single game.

'Bilt said...

Does your shot diff. take into account how much more Vandy got to the line than their opponents? Pretty sure that shots we miss on a foul don't count, but was curious if that was included. Regardless, agree that VU's main undoing has been offensive rebound prevention.

Stanimal said...

Did not take that into account, but I think that would balance out given that the same calculation would count for both teams (though it is true that we lead the SEC in FT's attempted).