We're all waiting for the big press conference at noon today in which VCDW will undoubtedly announce that Vanderbilt is tired of being the brunt of SEC jokes about football and will do what is necessary in order to: 1) keep one of the hottest young coaches in America on Vanderbilt's sidelines, and 2) give him the facilities he needs to make sure that his vision for the program becomes a reality. But there's also this kind of sort of huge game going on about 180 miles north of Nashville between Vanderbilt, who is presently ranked #22 but is not, in my opinion, deserving of that ranking right now, and the #6 Louisville Cardinals, who I am also not sure deserves that ranking. Regardless, it's been a game that college basketball hoopniks have been looking forward to for a couple of months now, and it's an important one for both teams.
I wouldn't go so far as to say Vanderbilt is reeling right now, but I will say they have not demonstrated an ability to succeed against high level competition without the presence of Festus Ezeli. Stallings says they are certainly not a top-10 team without Fez in the middle, and that no one would be a top-10 team without their NBA prospect center in the mix. I think that's probably fair, but frankly this team should still be a top 25 team even without Festus, and thus far I just haven't really seen it. No, there's no shame in a loss to Xavier, and really Cleveland State is a pretty doggone good team in it's own right, but the problem is not who they've lost to, it's HOW they've lost.
Vanderbilt has lost because of 3 major reasons: 1) poor rebounding, 2) carelessness with the ball, and 3) streaky shooting. All of those roll up into one central theme that really has plagued this group of guys since the day they set foot on campus: once they have the other team on the ropes, they don't have the killer instinct to put teams away. For about 3/4ths of the Xavier game Vanderbilt was fantastic, playing excellent defense. They opened up a ten point lead halfway through the second. But then they did it again. Much has been made about the performance of the bench and CKS' substitution patterns, but in the end its kind of indicative of the leadership of the team as well. Lazy play and coasting led to revitalization of their opponent, and rather than walk away with a nice victory over a top 15 team on its home court, we got shellacked in an overtime match-up. Top 25 teams, down an All-SEC center or not, simply don't do this.
The good news for Vandy is that it's early in the season and the losses aren't so bad that it will kill us come tournament time, assuming we right the ship. The bad news is, things have to get shaken up in order to do it, and I am becoming increasingly skeptical of CKS' ability to know how to get the most out of this group. Early-season slumps and mid-season arrivals are nothing new to Stallings, particularly with senior-heavy teams, but for the past two years we really haven't seen it, and there's legitimate concern, from both Vandy fans and from the media that has hyped this squad, that we will never see it.
Louisville right now is 6-0 with Butler and Long Beach State being their best wins. Both were sizable victories. They go with a seven-deep rotation that features a senior point guard in Chris Smith and a freshman stud in Chane Benehan. Smith will likely match-up with Jenkins, which means that Brad Tinsley is going to have a long day with Louisville's steal machine, junior guard Peyton Siva.
The good news is that this lineup is actually somewhat depleted by the loss of Wayne Blackshear for the entire season and the "up-in-the-air" injury situation to Rakeem Buckles. So technically, the depth issues should be about even. I say technically because, despite having 8 top 100 recruits on Vanderbilt's roster, the bench play thus far has been absolutely pathetic. Right now there is little to no confidence that any lead is safe when the reserve units come in. That puts a lot of pressure on the seniors to play long minutes, and frankly that has been hurting their offensive production, especially Jeff Taylor who has to chase guards around to make up for Tinsley's defense. Things have to change in that department, and quickly.
Stallings seemed quite distraught at his post-game press conference on Monday, and he's never been afraid to shake some things up in order to light a fire under players. For most, they have responded well. However, this group seemingly is impervious to fire lighting. I'm namely hoping for a few more minutes for Kedren Johnson, who at least to this couch coach seems to be able to do certain things that would very much so benefit the Commodores, namely distribute well, not get flustered by high pressure, and play at least serviceable defense.
Vanderbilt is an 8.5 point dog. I'm not confident in a win here without Big Fez, but I also know this: Louisville plays great defense but does not have any world-beaters on offense. 8.5 seems like a pretty high line in a game where Vanderbilt, when they want to, actually is quite potent on offense. Therefore, I'd say take Vandy and the points, and a win would be absolutely fantastic, but I'm not expecting it.