What LSU did well: Hand the repeat national champion their most surprising loss of the year, by far.
When Florida arrived in Baton Rouge on February 24, LSU had already seen its season collapse. The Tigers were 3-10 in the SEC and they knew, absent a miracle in the conference tournament, they weren't going anywhere for the postseason. One other thing they knew: they'd be facing the Gators that afternoon without Glen "Big Baby" Davis, who'd been sidelined by a strained quad muscle. Under the circumstances, John Brady's team could have been blown out and no one would have batted an eye.
Instead LSU dropped on Florida like a jaguar out of a tree, right from the opening tip, and won 66-56. If anything, the final score was deceptively close; the Tigers led this game 53-35 with five minutes left. Considering the competition, Garrett Temple had what had to be one of the best individual games recorded by any D-I player last season, harassing Taurean Green into a miserable outing (1-for-7 from the field with one assist) while somehow personally pulling in 22 percent of the available defensive rebounds during his minutes on the floor. No other opponent the entire year made Florida look anywhere near this helpless offensively. It was an outstanding performance by LSU. But it was the only one.
What we learned in 2007: Preseason polls can be really, really wrong.
True, hindsight is 20-20. (I lobbied strenuously for this preview of the 2008 season to be written after the 2008 season.) LSU last year wasn't really as bad as they looked (see below). That being said, ranking this team a preseason number seven in the nation, as did both major polls last November, was madness. Davis seems like he's a good ambassador for the sport, and he had an outstanding game against Texas in the 2006 regional final, an overtime win that got the Tigers to the Final Four. What the coaches and the writers voting in their respective polls refused to admit was that this team had lost its two most irreplaceable starters. One, Darrel Mitchell, was not only LSU's point guard but also, in 2006, their only three-point shooter. The other was Tyrus Thomas.
At the risk of oversimplifying, Thomas was to defense in 2006 what Kevin Durant was to offense in 2007: a once-in-a-generation freshman force of nature. Your eyes weren't deceiving you when you watched LSU's win over Duke in the 2006 Sweet 16. Thomas really was that omnipotent. (What a performance. Thomas had five blocks in just 25 foul-blighted minutes, and even that doesn't begin to describe the effect he had on the top-seeded Blue Devils, who were visibly afraid to even attempt two-pointers by the second half. J.J. Redick was held to 0-for-9 shooting in that game--on his twos.) The quality of his pro career is yet to be determined, but we can say with certainty that Thomas was a phenomenal college player. Though just 6'9", he actually combined excellence in shot-blocking and defensive rebounding in 2006 to an even greater extent than did Greg Oden in 2007. Not to mention he made 61 percent of his twos (albeit as his team's third option on offense). You don't replace someone like that.
(The Thomas/Durant parallels go even further. The SEC isn't exactly renowned for strong defense, of course, but as it happens that 2006 LSU team had an outstanding defense, one that was on a different level entirely from anything else we've seen in the conference over the past two seasons. Similarly, Durant-propelled Texas had an offense in 2007 you won't soon see the likes of again.)
Because Davis stayed, Thomas leaving for the NBA turned LSU's 2007 season into a controlled experiment to determine how important he really was to the Tigers' outstanding interior defense in 2006. It turns out Thomas was the interior defense. Without him the LSU defense went from historic to slightly above average, and without Mitchell the offense went from average to far and away the worst in the SEC. Brady was pilloried ad nauseam last year for not getting this team to play to its "potential"; without Thomas and Mitchell that potential wasn't nearly what was commonly supposed.
Besides, the Tigers' luck last year was even worse than their offense. Possession for possession LSU's performance in-conference last year was identical to Auburn's. Granted, that's nothing to run out and put on a bumper sticker, nor is it what was expected from a team coming off a Final Four appearance. Still, the Tigers from Auburn did go 7-9 while the ones in Baton Rouge went just 5-11. LSU was 1-4 in conference games decided by less than four points.
What's in store for 2008: With Davis now a member of the Boston Celtics, and just one senior on the roster, this has all the earmarks of a transition year in Baton Rouge. Improvement will be the watchword until next season, when the Tigers will be able to boast that (almost) "everyone's back." The core of the team, and the bridge between the Final Four era and whatever the future holds, is comprised of juniors Garrett Temple and Tasmin Mitchell. Both can tell their younger teammates what it's like to be a starter in the Final Four. Both were on the floor 85 percent of the time last year.
As seen in LSU's win over Florida, Temple is capable of game-changing defensive performances. On offense he rarely shoots, and his turnovers are a little too numerous for comfort. (The 6'5" Temple is also one of the more extreme examples of that strange and singular guard type: the one who's a good free-throw shooter and a terrible three-point shooter. Last year Temple shot 81 and 27 percent, respectively.) The 6'7" Mitchell, by contrast, takes excellent care of the ball and is a serviceable (38 percent) perimeter shooter. Bear in mind that the Tigers have shot the fewest threes in the SEC each of the past two seasons. Still, it's helpful to have at least one player on the floor that opponents know could hit a three.
Brady's relatively thin team was bolstered last year by the arrival of a couple of transfers. Terry Martin, a 6'6" wing, transferred in from Texas Tech and functioned most effectively as a spot-up three-point shooter, hitting 39 percent from the perimeter. (When he took the ball inside the results weren't as good.) Dameon Mason, also a 6'6" wing, arrived from Marquette. Like Martin, Mason struggled with his shooting touch inside the arc. Unlike Martin, Mason didn't offset that with made threes.
New this season is freshman Anthony Randolph, a highly-touted forward from Dallas who's reputed to have the skills of a wing in a 6'10" frame. Another newcomer with a chance to contribute immediately is 6'8" junior college transfer Quintin Thornton, who's been brought to Baton Rouge to bang. Job 1 for Brady and his team will be to find an identity this year that they can run with next year.
What Mississippi did well: Improve, suddenly and appreciably.
Ole Miss went from 4-12 in the SEC in 2006 to 8-8 last season under first-year coach Andy Kennedy. The new coach sped up the tempo (though the year-to-year change in speed here was not as pronounced as that displayed by Auburn last year) and introduced a pressing style of defense. It worked. The Rebels exceeded the rather low expectations for this team and Kennedy was named SEC coach of the year.
What we learned in 2007: Maybe offensive rebounds are overrated.
Look at Mississippi. One of the very few things this team did well in 2006 was hit the offensive glass. Then last year under Kennedy, their numbers on the offensive boards plummeted. Ole Miss went from being one of the best offensive rebounding teams in the SEC to one of the worst. Yet their offense improved dramatically. How?
Their shooting was a little better under Kennedy, but that improved accuracy merely brought them up to a lowly ninth in the SEC in terms of effective FG percentage. No, the big change was in turnovers. Ole Miss gave the ball away on a notably generous 24 percent of their possessions in the SEC in 2006. That was before what might be called the "Kennedy effect" made itself felt in Oxford….
Lowest Turnover Percentages, 2006 & 2007
Conference games only: ACC, Big East, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-10, SEC
West Virginia, 2006 11.9
Washington State, 2007 15.4
Notre Dame, 2006 16.0
Mississippi, 2007 16.1
Virginia Tech, 2007 16.1
Virginia Tech, 2006 16.4
Villanova, 2006 16.6
Iowa State, 2006 16.6
Cincinnati, 2007 16.7
Cincinnati in 2006, like Ole Miss in 2007, was coached by Kennedy. True, Virginia Tech is on here twice as well, and so one could just as plausibly speak of a "Seth Greenberg effect." But the striking aspect of Kennedy's work in this area is that he pops up on the list in two consecutive years with two different teams. Speaking strictly of Mississippi, this is quite simply the most dramatic one-year decline in turnovers you'll ever see. Turning the ball over on 16 percent of your trips in-conference is unbelievable coming from the same team that turned it over 24 percent of the time in 2006. Kennedy was able to achieve these night-into-day results through a combination of attrition (turnover-happy players like Londrick Nolen departed) and intervention (returnees like Todd Abernethy, Clarence Sanders and Bam Doyne were apparently confronted by concerned family members and then whisked off to a seaside ball-handling treatment facility).
There is still work to be done. Not every Rebel has fallen under Kennedy's spell when it comes to taking care of the ball. (We're looking at you, Brian Smith and Eniel Polynice.) If the coach's track record is any guide to the future, Mississippi will value the rock in 2008.
What's in store for 2008: Last year little was asked of the Ole Miss big men other than clearing the defensive glass. The shots all went to guards--Sanders and Doyne--who are now gone. This year, as it happens, all of the experience will be in the frontcourt. So whether the offense this year comes from veterans or new arrivals (or both), it'll be coming from players unaccustomed to carrying that load. That being said, the Rebels' outside shooting last year was weak. If the new guys can not only hang on to the ball but also hit some threes, the loss of veteran guards will prove surprisingly easy to bear.
The frontcourt will feature a trio of 6'8" seniors, led by Dwayne Curtis. A one-time transfer from Auburn, Curtis is the team's best defensive rebounder and was the only non-guard who attempted shots with any regularity last year. Note also that Curtis' weight has elicited some wonderfully oblique statements from his coach ("He needs to be able to change directions a little quicker") who, and I'm just guessing here, is probably a tactful husband. Curtis's struggles to change directions apparently apply vertically as well: he never blocks shots. SEC opponents made almost 53 percent of their twos last year.
Rounding out the three-headed monster of 6'8" seniors are Kenny Williams and Jeremy Parnell. Williams gives Kennedy a fair presence on the defensive glass and provides an occasional blocked shot. Parnell is currently the object of the kind of offseason raves from his coach that make one highly suspicious. ("I've been really impressed with Jeremy Parnell and the way in which he approached this offseason. He is truly embracing the sense of urgency you want all seniors to have.") Offseason raves tend to reflect what a coach hopes will occur; whether it will occur remains to be seen.
Kennedy has brought in some new players for the frontcourt this season. Malcolm White, a 6'9" freshman, signed with the Rebels unusually late and comes highly touted. Depth will be furnished by junior college transfer Terrence Watson, a 6'5" small forward. Joining the backcourt will be David Huertas, a 6'5" sophomore shooting guard who sat out last year after transferring from Florida, where he averaged five minutes a game for the 2006 national championship team. The starting point-guard job will likely go either to the aforementioned Smith (a pass-first point and the son of Tubby Smith) or to Chris Warren, a 5'11" freshman from Orlando. Minutes at the wing will be divided between Polynice (who started eight games last year) and 6'5" freshman Zach Graham.
Ole Miss registered impressive gains last year. With a team this small defensively and this unproven offensively, it will be a challenge to repeat that kind of leap forward in 2008. Turnovers have been cut to the bone. Further improvement will have to come from better shooting or better defense--or both.
What Mississippi State did well: Fly under the radar.
Last year, Washington State was the only major-conference team in the nation whose improvement on offense in-conference was even more dramatic than Mississippi State's. The Bulldogs' defense stayed right where it was (mediocre) but their offense went from woeful to elite in just one season.
How elite? Take Tennessee, the SEC team you're hearing a lot about this preseason. Subtract the four conference games that Chris Lofton missed last year and look just at the 12 SEC games where the Volunteers had all their weapons. The winner of this side-by-side comparison is in fact Mississippi State, whose offense was a hair better than Tennessee's with Lofton. (Not to mention a hair better than Vanderbilt's. In the SEC, only Florida and Kentucky scored points more efficiently than the Bulldogs.) If Rick Stansbury would just get with the program, paint his body, and start showing up at MSU women's games, maybe you'd have heard about this offense.
Nevertheless, the Bulldogs went just 8-8 in the SEC West and had to learn to love the NIT. So it comes as no surprise to find that their performance was in fact much better than their record. Mississippi State had the worst luck of any SEC team--even worse than LSU's, and that's saying something. MSU was 0-4 in conference games decided by less than five points. (That being said, the Bulldogs made their own bed, so to speak, losing by three at home to lowly South Carolina. That was a huge loss, to say the least.)
What we learned in 2007: Jamont Gordon may be the most unique player in D-I.
Gordon has attracted a good deal of notice for being a 6'4" point guard who weighs 225. The really remarkable thing about Gordon isn't his body type, but his actual impact on the game. It's as if he plays both the one and the two spots for Stansbury on offense, and the four on defense.
The first thing to understand about Gordon is that he isn't just a novelty point guard, nor is Stansbury playing him there for lack of a better option. Gordon recorded assists at a higher rate than any player in the SEC last year. His assist and turnover rates actually compare quite favorably to those of lottery pick Mike Conley. (They're not equal to Conley's numbers, it's true, and Gordon's nowhere near Conley in terms of steals. That simply puts Gordon in the same category as about 335 other D-I point guards.) Add in the fact that Gordon's a monster on the defensive boards (significantly better than his 6'8" teammate Charles Rhodes) and you have one unusual player profile.
Last year at Iowa State, Mike Taylor was forced to try what Gordon's doing by choice: to in effect function as a point guard and as a shooting guard at the same time. It's hard to do--witness Taylor's epic struggles. But Gordon, if he can overcome some questionable shot selection inside the arc, may just pull it off. If he does, he likely won't be found in Starkville for his senior season.
(Gordon very nearly played for Tennessee. He's from Nashville and was thought to be leaning toward the Volunteers at a time when Bruce Pearl had just been hired in Knoxville. With a limited number of recruiting visits allowed, however, Pearl went to work on Brandan Wright and Tyler Smith instead of visiting Gordon. Stansbury, conversely, was adjudged appropriately ardent and the rest is history. Still, just imagine if Gordon were now a Volunteer. That would be a team.)
What's in store for 2008: The Bulldogs' weakness last year was their defense and the weakness of their defense was opponents' three-point shooting. As a smallish team that scores a lot of points at a relatively fast pace (only Tennessee and Auburn played faster in-conference), Mississippi State isn't about to suddenly become lock-down tough on the perimeter. If Stansbury's team can improve to a point where they're merely average in terms of 3FG defense, they can win some of the close games they lost in 2007. We should note that their schedule looks good. This year they get Tennessee and Kentucky at home in Starkville. (An SEC West team like MSU plays each East team just once.)
The lion's share of shots last year were taken by Gordon and the aforementioned Rhodes. Now a senior, the 6'8" Rhodes has been labeled by some as inconsistent despite the fact that, for better or worse, the young man's numbers have actually remained pretty stable the past two years. Rhodes can apparently be counted on to make 57 percent of his twos, take pretty good care of the ball, and be fair to middling on the defensive glass.
Rhodes will be joined down low this year by newcomer Brian Johnson, a 6'9" transfer from Louisville who recorded defensive boards and little else while averaging nine minutes a game for the Cardinals in 2006. (Johnson's arrival rather neatly balances the departure of MSU's Reginald Delk, who transferred to Louisville in the offseason.) Also available will be 6'9" sophomore Jarvis Varnado, who swatted away a noteworthy 14 percent of opponents' twos during his limited minutes on the floor last year. (Greg Oden, for comparison's sake, blocked 13 percent.)
As noted above, Stansbury said goodbye to one of his backcourt starters in the offseason when 6'4" wing Reginald Delk transferred. It's interesting that the MSU coach rather pointedly referenced Delk's limited opportunities for future minutes in his mandatory wish-him-all-the-best press release. Stansbury may have been so sanguine because Barry Stewart quietly had an excellent year as a freshman in 2007. The 6'2" Stewart made 39 percent of his threes and never turned the ball over, posting one of the lowest turnover percentages per individual possession used in the nation.
Stewart's backcourt mate, sophomore Ben Hansbrough, functioned something like an auxiliary point guard alongside Gordon last year, specifically a more traditional pass-first point. When he did shoot, the 6'3" Hansbrough (Tyler's younger brother) hit 41 percent of his threes. If he can cut down on his turnovers, Hansbrough could be on track for future prominence as the latest scoring point in a post-Gordon Starkville. Backing up the starters will be Ravern Johnson, a 6'7" freshman wing reputed to be a pure (and quite slender) shooter.
There's not a lot of depth (or height) here, granted. But if this team stays healthy their track record says they'll at last be picked up on the nation's radar.
What South Carolina did well: Take care of the ball and hit threes.
The Gamecocks did an outstanding job holding on to the ball (giving it away on fewer than 17 percent of their possessions in the SEC) and they were decent from beyond the arc (hitting 37 percent of their threes in-conference). That's it. Those are the only two areas where South Carolina was better than average.
What we learned in 2007: Your defense can get a lot worse even if your FG defense stays about the same.
The team South Carolina most closely resembles on paper is Northwestern. Both teams play at a pace much slower than average for their conference, and both shoot a lot of threes. Both are utterly helpless on the boards, whether offensive or defensive. Both take pretty good care of the ball...but it doesn't matter for either because both struggle to hit their twos.
At first glance, South Carolina registered only a small drop-off last year, going from 6-10 in the SEC in 2006 to an only slightly more worrisome 4-12. In truth, this team's performance worsened dramatically. That 6-10 team, as it happens, was unusually unlucky--they were much better than their record. (The 2006 team beat Florida twice and won the NIT.) By contrast, last year's team actually had some breaks go their way. It's a sobering thought but things could have been even worse for South Carolina in 2007. Ask Cincinnati, who was outscored by Big East opponents by the same margin per possession last year as the Gamecocks and went 2-14. Granted, Dave Odom's team put together one unmistakable gem last year, their 17-point win at home over Tennessee. (Note that, although he missed four games, Chris Lofton played for the Volunteers in that game. It was an impressive win any way you look at it.) Beyond that, there wasn't much to cheer in Columbia.
The culprits here were numerous, but a good place to start would be the defensive glass. Lack of defensive rebounding absolutely killed South Carolina last year. (Their struggles here were amplified by the absence of Renaldo Balkman, who entered the draft after the 2006 season, and then to the surprise of many was picked in the first round by the Knicks.) The Gamecocks simply couldn't end their opponents' possessions. Although Brandon Wallace did excellent work on the defensive boards, he had no help. This was the worst defensive rebounding team in the SEC last year, a hair worse than Alabama, and that translated into one of the worst defenses in major-conference basketball. Only Penn State and Miami were weaker on D in their respective conferences than South Carolina was.
On offense, things were better but by no means optimal. The Gamecocks, as noted above, did at least have an iron grip on the ball-good thing, or else this team could easily have gone 2-14. While it's true a team that shoots as many threes as South Carolina can customarily expect to see very few offensive rebounds, there was nothing inevitable about the Gamecocks' shooting on their twos. Said shooting was woeful, to the tune of 45 percent. Only LSU put a more anemic offense on the floor in SEC play last year.
What's in store for 2008: Look out far enough ahead and hope can be glimpsed in Columbia: there's only one senior on the roster this season. That being said, the near future is a little more frightening to contemplate. Odom lost his best defensive rebounder (Wallace) and his best shot-blocker (ditto) from a team that already had by far the worst defense in the SEC. He also lost both his point guard (Tre Kelley) and his best three-point shooter (Bryce Sheldon) from an offense that was already well below average. The team isn't likely to register a surprising improvement on offense by cutting down on turnovers, because the turnover count is already low. In short, anything over five conference wins in 2008 should absolutely win Odom SEC coach of the year.
Newcomer Devan Downey will take over duties at the point this year. A 5'9" transfer from Cincinnati, Downey was the Bearcats' starting point guard as a freshman in 2006 for then-coach Andy Kennedy, now the coach at Ole Miss. (One more fun fact: the last official game in which Downey played was against…South Carolina, in the 2006 NIT. Downey played all 40 minutes in that game.) At Cincinnat,i Downey's shooting was spotty to say the very least (42 percent on his frequent twos, 28 percent on his rare threes), but he did dish assists and take good care of the ball while impressing one and all with his quickness. Most encouraging for Odom, Downey recorded a goodly number of steals, something no Gamecock did last year. Another incoming transfer is Zam Fredrick, who arrives with two years under his belt at Georgia Tech. The 6'0" Fredrick, like Downey, struggled with his shooting for his previous team in 2006--plus Fredrick committed turnovers at a high rate. Both Downey and Fredrick are in-staters coming home. The pull of the palmetto is strong.
Two returnees will be available for minutes in the backcourt. The lone senior on this year's roster, 6'6" wing Dwayne Day, shot more frequently last year than any other returning Gamecock. The results of that frequent shooting, however, were not very good-and Day's 55 percent FT shooting suggests this may not have been a case of a good shooter who simply had a bad year. Also returning is Brandis Raley-Ross. Last year as a freshman the 6'2" Raley-Ross posted one of the lowest 2FG percentages you'll ever see. Give the young man credit for taking zealously good care of the ball, as indeed did everyone on the roster last year. It was an oddly impressive accomplishment from a team that struggled so.
The frontcourt will be young. Dominique Archie, a 6'7" sophomore, was helpless on the boards last year but his shots went in, albeit while he was functioning as his team's fourth or fifth option on offense. Archie's fellow 6'7" sophomore Evaldas Baniulis might be Odom's best bet for some defensive boards in the new post-Wallace era.
Or maybe those boards will come from one of the new arrivals down low this year, a group that includes freshmen Mike Holmes and Sam Muldrow. Both the 6'7" Holmes (the reigning Mr. Basketball in South Carolina) and the 6'9" Muldrow are touted for their shot-blocking and rebounding, both of which South Carolina could really use. The best thing that can happen for the Gamecocks this season is that this team gains some experience and builds toward next year, when (almost) everyone will be back.
What Tennessee did well: Get opponents to turn the ball over.
The first thing to note about Tennessee in 2007 is that their best player, Chris Lofton, missed four conference games. What Bruce Pearl's team did in those four games (they went 1-3) is of little value in projecting how well the 2008 team will play with Lofton in the lineup. So for the purposes of this preview I'll be looking only at the 12 SEC games in which Lofton was available for duty.
In those 12 games Tennessee gathered in a ton of turnovers from their opponents. SEC foes gave the ball to the Volunteers on an uncommonly benevolent 25 percent of their possessions.
What we learned in 2007: Believe the hype about Chris Lofton.
Lofton performed at such a high level last year that really the only standard of comparison here is Kevin Durant. Yes, Durant wins the comparison. In addition to everything he did on offense, he was a monster on the defensive glass. On offense Lofton, like Durant, combined star-player volume with role-player efficiency. He shot much more often than any of his teammates and, more importantly, he shot more accurately than any of his teammates. As much as any player in the nation who functions as his team's first option, he truly can kill you both outside the arc and inside it. Lofton never turns the ball over. He is indeed the best player in the SEC, and in a conference with Jamont Gordon, that's saying something.
What's in store for 2008: As far as Tennessee, the team, don't believe the hype. They'll be very good, possibly the best team in the SEC, but the conference this year isn't going to be producing anything as formidable as LSU in 2006, much less Florida in 2006 or 2007. So the Volunteers, despite what you're hearing, are not "a legitimate Final Four contender," if by that phrase we mean "projected to be as good as any other team is projected to be." Based on what we know now they're not on the same level as Memphis, UCLA, Kansas or North Carolina. Those are offensively talented teams that also play defense. Tennessee, conversely, is an offensively talented team that goes for turnovers on defense, period. Of course there's nothing wrong with going for turnovers, per se. (Kansas did it in 2006 and they had a stellar defense.) It just happens to be the case with the Volunteers, however, that if they don't get that turnover they're utterly and completely helpless….
Opponent Points per TO-less Possession
SEC games only, 2007
Mississippi St. 1.33
Ole Miss 1.35
South Carolina 1.41
*Includes just the 12 SEC games in which Lofton played.
When South Carolina, a team that went 4-12 in the SEC, took care of the ball against Tennessee, they won by 17. This defense is at risk for evaporating against any opponent that has merely competent guards, and the NCAA tournament is a wonderfully efficient mechanism for generating opponents that have competent guards. True, the Volunteers stand a good chance of coming out at or near the top of the SEC and thus being overseeded in the tournament. Stranger things have happened than Tennessee making the Final Four. But for a team that, even with Lofton, didn't shoot as well from the field as did their conference opponents, the Volunteers are being penciled in for a trip to San Antonio way too soon.
Speaking of opponents' turnovers, JaJuan Smith is at the moment the most irreplaceable of Pearl's three Smiths. In addition to shooting almost as well as Lofton (better, actually, inside the arc; worse outside it), the 6'2" senior is the only returning Volunteer who records steals. As for the other two Smiths….
I think Tyler Smith is going to be an excellent player. He's long and athletic, yet has shown an ability to make the right pass, a skill that's rare in highly-recruited scorers. So it's not his fault, certainly, that even loftier claims are being made about him. For instance I've often heard it said that Iowa transfer Tyler Smith was the best freshman in the Big Ten last year who didn't play for Ohio State. Actually, with the sole exception of the aforementioned passing ability, Northwestern's Kevin Coble was significantly better than Smith by any metric. More to the point, Tyler Smith doesn't need puffery. He's a 6'7" player who can get up and down the floor and hit the open man; he'll fit this system beautifully. Just remember this, though, about the two Smiths not named "JaJuan." Both Tyler Smith and the 6'2" Ramar Smith were fairly big names coming out of high school, much bigger, for example, than Lofton was. Based on that advance billing, both sophomores now receive a good deal of notice. But neither could really get the ball in the basket last year, even though both functioned as mere secondary options on offenses with stars (Lofton for Ramar, Adam Haluska for Tyler). So one bottom line for opposing coaches is simply this: if you're playing Tennessee and anyone besides Lofton or JaJuan Smith is about to shoot a three, let them. (Stray random non-Smiths include 6'4" sophomore Josh Tabb, who struggled with turnovers last year, and 6'5" freshman Cameron Tatum.)
In the paint, 6'9" sophomore Wayne Chism is the best defensive rebounder on a team that struggles to get defensive boards. Six-foot-seven sophomore Duke Crews is the best shot-blocker for a team that allowed SEC opponents to make more than 53 percent of their twos. (Crews was suspended "indefinitely" by Pearl in late September after university police found marijuana in his on-campus apartment.) Both sophomores make less than 60 percent of their free throws, and are thus problematic late in close games. They'll be supported by Ryan Childress (a 6'9" junior who combines good defensive rebounding with good perimeter shooting) and Brian Williams (a 6'10" freshman who's being encouraged to shed some pounds). If the big guys can provide interior D and defensive boards, this preview will require a serious rewrite.
What Vanderbilt did well: Rub that rabbit's foot, come through in the clutch...call it what you will.
Over the course of 16 SEC games, the Commodores outscored their opponents by a grand total of two points. They went 10-6. Vandy was 6-1 in conference games that were decided by five points or less or that went to OT. So maybe it shouldn't have been so very surprising when six-seed Vanderbilt triumphed over three-seed Washington State in double-OT in the second round of the tournament. Alas, that luck ran out in the Sweet 16 as Georgetown beat the Commodores by one on Jeff Green's controversial game-winner in the final seconds.
(Kevin Stallings coached a great game against the Hoyas--on paper this game figured to be a Georgetown blowout. Vanderbilt's defense was well below the SEC average last year and now here they were matched up against one of the best offenses in the country. In a nice bit of jujitsu Stallings attacked the Hoyas' D. Clearing out the lane entirely, Stallings forced Roy Hibbert to defend on the perimeter, and as a result the seven-footer had a miserable game, recording zero blocks and scoring just 12 points before fouling out after just 27 minutes. Stallings' game plan very nearly worked; it would have worked had Vandy shot better than 33 percent on their threes. Indeed, after seeing his team fall behind by 13 points in the first half, John Thompson III was forced to go to a 2-3 zone against a very good perimeter shooting team, the exact opposite of what "the book" prescribes. What really saved the day for GU, in addition, of course, to Green's happy feet, was that aforementioned Hoya offense, which rang up 42 points in the second half on just 29 possessions.)
What we learned in 2007: Shan Foster's a better shooter than he showed last year.
Along with Derrick Byars (who was drafted in the second round this summer and is now a member of the Philadelphia 76ers), Foster has been one of the main elements in Stallings' offense for the past two seasons. As it happens he had his best year in 2006 when, relatively speaking, no one was looking. (The Commodores went 7-9 in the SEC that year and lost to Notre Dame in the first round of the NIT.) Devoting most of his shots to threes, Foster shot 41 percent from beyond the arc and recorded a level of offensive efficiency that's notable for a player who plays as large a part in his team's offense as did Foster in 2006.
Then last year something interesting happened. In a way, the 6'6" Foster became a more complete player on offense. He upped his number of attempts from inside the arc significantly and, more importantly, his accuracy on his twos improved markedly. Having hit 55 percent of his twos in 2007, Foster is officially more than a spot-up shooter. He struggled, relatively speaking, with his perimeter shot last year, shooting 35 percent from beyond the arc. Given that he's a career 80 percent shooter from the line, that three-point percentage stands a good chance of improving this year.
In each of the past two seasons, then, Foster has put up stellar shooting from one side of the arc while simultaneously posting merely OK shooting on the other side. If he can bring stellar shooting on both sides of the arc together this year, he'll be doing a pretty fair imitation of Tennessee's Chris Lofton.
What's in store for 2008: At Vanderbilt, the room for improvement is all on the defensive side of the ball. That being said there is no one area to focus on.
To a degree that's striking, the Commodores were significantly, though not dramatically, below-average across the board on defense last year. Opponents shot very well against Vandy, both from outside and in close. They got a lot of offensive boards and they didn't turn the ball over much. Not that Vanderbilt's defense (SEC opponents scored 1.09 points per trip) was in the same category of bad as South Carolina's (which allowed 1.15 points per possession in-conference). It's just that, for a team that made the Sweet 16 and aspires to big things, the Commodores are limited by a defense that, with the possible exception of Oregon's, was the worst displayed by any team last year in such lofty company.
So when Stallings says his team will shoot fewer threes this season and be more "traditional," he's making a statement of offensive philosophy that nevertheless has implications for the defense. More size on the floor should (though it's hardly a given) mean more defensive rebounds for Vandy and fewer made twos by opponents. It should also, of course, mean more turnovers for the offense. Whether the team improves will depend in part on how these trade-offs play out.
That size will be supplied in part by 6'11" freshman Andrew Ogilvy, whose stock shot up rather dramatically this summer after he played for Australia in the FIBA U-19 World Championships and averaged 22 points a game on 69 percent shooting from the field. Inevitable comparisons to Andrew Bogut notwithstanding, Ogilvy makes the crystal ball particularly murky here. We won't know how good he is until we see him play--not to mention he's a totally different type of player than what we've seen in Nashville of late. If Ogilvy, billed as being a skilled player on offense, can additionally alter some shots and pull down some rebounds against SEC competition, he could be a huge addition to this team.
More good news: 6'9" banger Alan Metcalfe is expected to return at full strength for his senior year after being hobbled last year by a broken foot. (Metcalfe is one of the very few D-I players who hails from Great Britain. Color me gobsmacked.) Six-foot-nine senior Ross Neltner was Vandy's best defensive rebounder in 2007. (He also acted as an efficient second-level option on offense on the periphery of the Byars/Foster nucleus.) Stallings should have more options in the paint than he's had in a while.
Playing alongside Foster out top will be Alex Gordon, a 6'0" senior. Gordon showed some deference last year, recording assists but giving the shots to Byars and Foster. Given his respectable shooting from outside (38 percent), though, he may want to take a few shots of his own during his final season. Also returning is Jermaine Beal, a 6'3" sophomore who struggled with both his shooting and with turnovers, in that order, his freshman year. Beal did, however, record steals at a higher rate than any other Commodore.
If Stallings follows through on his offseason remarks and this team does indeed become less perimeter-oriented, it will be up to Foster and his fellow guards to continue hitting their threes while also (radical thought) feeding the post on occasion. That being said, this kind of stylistic change occurring under the same coach and with many of the same players is quite rare. Will it really happen this year at Vandy? We shall see.
John Gasaway is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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