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Vanderbilt can’t stop anyone but could derail Mizzou’s tournament push

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The Commodores’ style and defensive woes offer the Tigers a chance to end a three-game skid and stay on course for the big dance. Will MU take advantage?

NCAA Basketball: Vanderbilt at South Carolina Jim Dedmon-USA TODAY Sports

Diagnosing the causes of Vanderbilt’s second-year slump under Bryce Drew isn’t a flummoxing task.

The Commodores don’t sink as many 3-pointers and don’t defend nearly as well — the Commodores are 217th nationally in adjusted efficiency, per KenPom — as they did a year ago. The combination has sent them tumbling into the SEC cellar.

And it’s a regression you can’t pin entirely on personnel. Only forward Luke Kornet moved on from Nashville, while known entities in Riley LaChance, Matthew Fisher-Davis, Jeff Roberson and Joe Toye remained in the fold. But a daunting non-conference slate bloodied Vandy, ruling out a return to the big dance, followed by a shoulder injury that ended Fisher-Davis’ career.

There’s been regression across the board in a program which had a veteran core that appeared stable.

Meanwhile, a slumping Mizzou needs a victory tonight inside Memorial Coliseum.

No, the season won’t collapse if the Tigers lose to the Commodores, but an advantageous seed in the SEC tournament moves out of reach and their NCAA tournament aspirations become perilous. Bland as it sounds, beating a team ensconced in the SEC cellar is the kind of housekeeping chore a tournament team takes care of with little fuss or muss.

Anxiety, though, is palpable.

Over the last 10 days, Mizzou’s not only lost three in a row but done so using different scripts. Against LSU, Mizzou missed bunnies at the rim and clanked free throws. Three days later, the Tigers improved ball-handling evaporated with 21 turnovers that fed Ole Miss transition offense. And despite rallying from a double-digit deficit, MU’s free-throw shooting again betrayed them in an overtime loss. Finally, a loss in Lexington to a resurgent Kentucky squad.

On Monday, the Tigers found themselves straddling the line between a projected No. 9 and No. 10 seed in mock brackets. And while Cuonzo Martin’s group isn’t living on the cutline, a loss Tuesday night would be MU’s third to an opponent with a sub-100 RPI and send the Tigers’ RPI spiraling into the mid-50s. While Mizzou would own a solid strength of schedule and six Quadrant 1 wins, it would come awfully close to being saddled with three Quadrant 3 losses — terrain where all their remaining body of work where making the field of 68 becomes a dicier proposition.

Here’s the Tigers legitimate team sheet — why does the NCAA make these so hard to find? — as of Monday.

What’s easily forgotten, however, is the only surprise was a home loss to Ole Miss. Defeats in Baton Rouge and Lexington always steady predictions in the long-term forecast. During the preseason, it wasn’t farfetched to imagine Mizzou entering the final week of the regular season with a 9-7 record in the SEC and favored against Vanderbilt and rival Arkansas.

Through that lens, the Tigers’ are just one game off the pace and still on track to end a four-year NCAA tournament drought.

Even the win expectancy for this tilt — currently sitting at 53 percent — hasn’t shifted dramatically throughout the course of the year. And where LSU and UK posed problematic matchups, the Commodores profile suits what Mizzou needs right now.

Why? While the Commodores are 3-4 this month, including home wins over Florida and Mississippi State, coach Bryce Drew’s club still can’t clamp off opponents, who’ve averaged 1.17 points per possession over that span. And, as you’ll see, it’s a defensive identity that serves as the only difference between a pair of teams whose pace, scheme and — to a degree — personnel mimic one another.

And there’s always the possibility that Mizzou turns to the likely top-5 NBA draft pick sitting on its bench. How long Michael Porter Jr. might go if he sees the floor isn’t known, but easing him back into live action — even on a limited scale — would add a dimension the Tigers have lacked most of the season in a player able to create offense alone and attack off the dribble.

Last week, Martin was muted on spelling out a precise timeline for Porter’s integration in the rotation. While I pegged a return for the Arkansas game, it wouldn’t be shocking to see Porter tonight.

Now, let’s break down the Commodores.

The Scout

NCAA Basketball: Vanderbilt at Tennessee Randy Sartin-USA TODAY Sports

Tempo | Early in non-conference play, I scoured around for programs with comparable stylistic identities similar to the one Mizzou was fleshing out. Near the top of the list: Vandy. Three months later, the comparison still holds up. Their adjusted tempos fall on the deliberate end of the spectrum. Neither applies heavy on-ball pressure or generates a slew of turnovers. And, well, just take in the chart below from Synergy Sports.

Synergy Sports Tech

Aside from Mizzou’s advantage on the glass and its well-known ball-handling deficit, the profiles largely overlap. The Tigers won’t have to work too hard to play this game on their terms. The Commodores share the same inclination to operate in the half court.

Tale of the Tape | Put plainly, Mizzou’s a bad draw for Vanderbilt, which ranks 235th nationally defending spot-ups (0.96 points per possession) and 335th in transition defense (1.13 PPP) this season. Those two plays make up nearly 40 percent of MU’s possessions this season. And with Vandy disinclined to apply pressure, the Tigers won't squander as many chances to generate productive trips.

Now, Vanderbilt, which ranks No. 52 for efficiency in spot-ups, can also punish Missouri from distance. However, Mizzou’s been adept — it’s 44th nationally in PPP on those plays — at staying attached to jump shooters on the perimeter. Toss in recent improvement guarding pick-and-rolls with some pack line-ish tweaks, and the Tigers’ half-court defense should be stout enough against the only opponent who shoots more 3-pointers than Cuonzo Martin’s bunch.

The Zones | During SEC play, Vanderbilt’s key cogs — LaChance, Lee, Roberson, Maxwell Evans and Payton Willis — have struggled to defend the 3-point arc, allowing foes shoot roughly 40 percent from deep. Worse, the percentages don’t fluctuate very much depending on whether a Vandy defender closes out with their hands high. And if MU’s demonstrated one consistent trait, it’s feasting on teams who struggle running them off the line. While 3-point shooting can be volatile and subject to wide variations, it’s eerie how well Mizzou sho0ts against teams at the bottom of the SEC for 3-point defense.

  • Florida (10th): 57.9 percent
  • LSU (11th): 57.1 percent
  • South Carolina (13th): 58.3 percent
  • Ole Miss (14th): 41.1 percent
  • Total: 50.0 percent (60 of 120)

Needless to say, if MU limits its turnovers and is shooting that torrid, it’ll be hard for Vanderbilt to keep up.

X-Factor // 3-point defense | When two mediocre 3-point shooting teams outperform their season averages, a natural response is to ask how poorly they were defended. On Sunday, Sam Snelling used screenshots to illustrate that the Tigers weren’t standing flat-footed as Kentucky bombed away in a display that was a statistical outlier. And a week ago, I pointed out that Ole Miss only shot 4 percentage points above its season average.

So how bad was Mizzou’s perimeter defense? Not as awful as you might assume.

Of the 40 catch-and-shoot 3-pointers attempted by Ole Miss and Kentucky, only 11 of them were uncontested, which is slightly below the number Mizzou allows each game this season. The Tigers forced each of those opponents to take more contested 3s than usual, too, limiting them to 27.5-percent shooting in the process. If I told you that MU made poor jump shooting teams take more contested attempts, you’d probably be overjoyed.

But there was a hiccup. UK and Ole Miss sank 9 of 11 open 3-pointers they scrounged up. That’s a fair bit better than the 37.5 percent shooting MU typically allows on guarded catch-and-shoot jumpers. Is that proficiency enduring? Color me skeptical. Mizzou still remains among the SEC leaders when it comes to limiting those opportunities. More often than not, the Tigers do sound work tracking shooters, arriving on the catch or closing out with hands high. That’ll be imperative tonight.

NCAA Basketball: Vanderbilt at Auburn Butch Dill-USA TODAY Sports

Matchups | It’s easier to look at what assets Vandy lacks than what it owns. There’s no dynamic lead point guard slicing into gaps. Its combo forwards are athletic and can drive the ball, but Mizzou counters with a frontcourt — at least in the case of Jontay Porter and Jeremiah Tilmon — who have length and can blot out the Commodores on the glass. At wing, it’s a push. Now, if Porter can contribute, it tips the balance to Mizzou’s column. Recently, Mizzou’s routed its early possessions inside to Tilmon and Porter. That strategy makes sense tonight. Meantime, you can isolate Riley LaChance in ball-screen situations or continue to put defenders like Joe Toye and Jeff Roberson in binds with roll-and-replace actions.

  • PG: Saben Lee vs. Kassius Robertson | In a couple of seasons, Lee may well be a stellar veteran guard. Today? He’s got some growing to do. For a player who's used a ton in pick-and-rolls, Lee is among the least efficient, ranking fifth lowest in the SEC at 0.826 PPP. His feel for dishing to a roll man is rough, and spot-up shooters sink a mediocre 32.8 percent of their attempts on Lee’s kick outs. On spot-ups, he’s attacking off the dribble, and half the time he’s chugging toward the rim. What sets him is us a reliable outside stroke (38.5 3FG%) in SEC play. Ironically, he’s more trustworthy as a defender than a veteran like LaChance, especially in ball-screen situations.
  • CG: Maxwell Evans vs. Cullen VanLeer | Evans is a low-usage player who splits time with junior Payton Wills. He’s also an easy scout: close out hard and make him create off the dribble. If he’s on the floor, the defense would prefer the ball be in his hands.
  • WING: Riley LaChance vs. Jordan Barnett | With all due respect to Kassius Robertson, the ’Dores’ senior is the SEC’s best outside shooter, averaging a gaudy 1.558 PPP on unguarded catch-and-shoots. But this is where being present on the catch matters. When LaChance takes a guarded catch-and-shoot, his efficiency is sliced in half. Even scarier is the fact he’s equally when he drives to a pull-up jumper, hitting at nearly 50 percent from the floor. When he drives the ball out of a spot-up, direction — as usual — tells you his intention. Going right means a pull-up. Heading left leaves 50/50 odds of a pull-up or floater. In pick-and-rolls, he’s using the pick. Book it. Defensively, it’s the inverse. LaChance is arguably the SEC’s worst high-usage defender in guarding pick-and-rolls, giving up 1.299 PPP and 63.2-percent shooting at the rim.
  • CF: Jeff Roberson vs. Kevin Puryear | Over his four years at Vandy, Roberson’s reliability has almost been taken for granted, a steadying force who’s offensive efficiency and consistent effort on the glass was overshadowed by the likes of Luke Kornet, Wade Baldwin and Matthew Fisher-Davis. But the combo forward is a legitimate three-level scoring threat. He as good spotting up (1.262 PPP) as he is driving the ball right (1.3 PPP) or left (1.13 PPP). His range extends to the 3-point line, where he hits at roughly 40 percent. And when he goes to the block, he’ll use a drop step to his left shoulder for a hook shot or turn right to face up. If he’s setting an on-ball screen, don’t ice the play, because it’s almost always a pick-and-pop for Roberson — the highest efficiency play (1.565 PPP) in his arsenal. However, he’s slipped a tad as a defender, especially spot-up jumpers (1.311 PPP allowed) this season.
  • POST: Ejike Obinna vs. Jeremiah Tilmon | Again, Obinna is low usage. Offensively, reserve big Djery Baptiste or combo forward Joe Toye pose bigger threats. Obinna also struggles solo guarding an opposing big man. If Vandy sends help, whether it’s a cross-lane double or a guard digging down, it really exposes the Commodores soft underbelly. Consider this: Obinna commits 9.3 fouls per 40 minutes in SEC play. That’s worse than Tilmon and coupled with his non-existent rim protection.
NCAA Basketball: Mississippi State at Vanderbilt Jim Brown-USA TODAY Sports

Key Reserves

  • WING: Payton Willis | When he checks in, expect him to basically occupy LaChance’s role stretching the defense. And like LaChance, his efficiency falls off a cliff with a hand in his face, and he’s susceptible to giving up penetration out of ball screens on the other end.
  • CF: Joe Toye | You play Toye as a driver, usually attacking with his right hand. He won’t punish you with his jump shot. The 6-foot-7 forward is athletic and solid in transition. Despite his rep as an energy player, he’s not all that active as a rebounder. And for as much as he drives the ball his free-throw rate is pedestrian. When Toye does step to the foul line, he only shoots 62.8 percent. This a matchup Jontay Porter will love, too. Catch-and-shoot jumpers, especially from the mid-range out are problematic for Toye. And you can drive the ball a bit out of the mid-post.

The Bottom Line

Looking at the metrics and personnel, this is an easy call. Mizzou should roll. If styles make fights, these two are the same, and MU is more technically proficient. Still, Vanderbilt has played well at home as of late. The exit of Fisher-Davis, whose inconsistency could be maddening, allowed LaChance and Roberson the chance to control the culture in the home stretch and play with a sense of purpose. And hope is a dangerous thing this time of year.

Yet we’ve also seen Mizzou triage multiple times this season, whether it was at the Advocare Invitational after Porter went down or in Tuscaloosa earlier this month. For as competitive as Vanderbilt’s looked recently, their style and personnel don’t exploit Mizzou’s flaws. At the end of the day, I think Mizzou finds a way to get out of Nashville unscathed.