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Hoops Preview: Vanderbilt’s anchor is sinking fast

The Commodores are fighting with Missouri to stay out of the SEC basement. Which sense of desperation will prevail in Columbia?

NCAA Basketball: Mississippi at Vanderbilt Jim Brown-USA TODAY Sports

Let’s set postseason talk aside.

Now, maybe you were skeptical before Auburn spent the second half of its 34-point rout strafing Missouri from behind the 3-point arc. Or perhaps the final two minutes against LSU extinguished your optimism.

Once MU slipped 1-6 in SEC play, though, a plausible path to the NIT narrowed, with KenPom projecting the Tigers to finish at 14-16 overall. Making the case coherent requires them to close the regular season on a three-game winning streak against South Carolina, Georgia and Ole Miss.

And it’s also contingent on holding serve today against Vanderbilt.

To call the Commodores’ winless January a slog is generous. Of the eight teams coach Bryce Drew’s squad faced, six teams were rated inside the KenPom top 40 and were outscored by an average 16 points. Meanwhile, Darius Garland’s decision to withdraw from classes and begin preparations for the NBA draft wasn’t a surprise, but it was a disappointing coda in a season derailed by his knee injury.

To a degree, Missouri finds itself grappling with similar circumstances — losing a star to injury (Jontay Porter) and trying to pivot — but only unfolding on a longer timeline. Yet both programs currently reside in the same place as February arrives: fighting to out of the SEC cellar.

For the Tigers, it’s a stark but not unexpected contrast from this time a year ago. Last season, MU started the season’s home stretch with a five-game win streak to help solidify its at-large credentials for the NCAA tournament. Now, the aspirations are simpler, and one is holding serve against beatable opponents who show up Mizzou Arena.

In that way, the implications of a clash with the Commodores are also modest.

Today’s matchup is also a pause during the conference churn: the Rally for Rhyan. Two years ago the daughter of former assistant coach Brad Loos’ beat back neuroblastoma, lending the game a more celebratory air all while raising $175,000 for pediatric cancer research. The tenor’s also altered by coach Cuonzo Martin’s fight to overcome non-Hodgkin’ lymphoma two decades ago.

Under most circumstances, a quarrel between two teams fighting to stay out of the SEC cellar would lack buzz. Yet enough of the Tigers’ veterans know Loos’ and his family that it can add some juice.

If it’s enough to end a three-game winning streak and raise some money for a worthy cause, that might be

The Scout

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

The Starters

Position Missouri (11-10, 2-7 SEC) Texas A&M (8-13, 1-8 SEC)
Position Missouri (11-10, 2-7 SEC) Texas A&M (8-13, 1-8 SEC)
PG Xavier Pinson (Fr., 6-2, 170) TJ Starks (So., 6-2, 196)
CG Jordan Geist (Sr., 6-2, 180) Wendell Mitchell (Jr., 6-3, 185)
WING Javon Pickett (Fr., 6-4, 207) Brandon Mahan (So. 6-5, 200)
CF Kevin Puryear (Sr., 6-7, 238) Savion Flagg (So., 6-7, 217)
POST Jeremiah Tilmon (So., 6-10, 250) Christian Mekowulu (Sr., 6-8, 245)

Note: These starting lineups are projected.

When Missouri has the ball...

Missouri Offense | Is Mark Smith good to go? It’s reductive to pin Missouri’s hopes on one player, but the sophomore’s low-usage, high-efficiency game stabilizes the Tigers’ perimeter rotation. Sure, MU only averages four more points per 100 possessions when he’s on the floor, but its overall shooting (53.7 eFG%) improves, driven by hitting 39.6 percent of 3-point attempts.

Without Smith in the rotation, Martin’s left with guards that, as a group, are shooting a pedestrian 32 percent (33-103) from long range. And if you strip out Jordan Geist from the equation, it slips to 30 percent. Meanwhile, Javon Pickett is the only wing whose grown into a threat to finish tough plays around the rim, but those gaps have shrunk recently.

And that’s before you address the abyss that has become the combo forward position manned by Kevin Puryear (78.0 offensive rating), K.J. Santos (65.1) and Mitchell Smith (77.3) during conference play.

(Sidebar: I told Sam Snelling the other night that I could tolerate seeing some more four-guard lineups — if it wasn’t such a sieve defensively.)

We’ve often harped on crucial Jeremiah Tilmon is as an offensive catalyst. Well, over the past four games, the sophomore has averaged 13.3 points and 5.5 points in nearly 29 minutes of game action. Oh, and just 3.8 fouls per 40 minutes.

As I wrote before the Tigers’ trekked to Auburn, the Tigers need their reserves to step forward, whether it’s Torrence Watson knocking down the occasional spot-up or Puryear scavenging for putbacks. Style points count for little now. Eking out any bench production would be a boon.

Vanderbilt Defense | The book on MU is thin. If 3-pointers aren’t dropping, scoring droughts can drag on without a bucket to slake thirst. So Vandy, which is fifth in the SEC when it comes to defending the arc, would typically take some solace — if they weren’t dead last in 2-point defense. They also foul. A lot.

We’ll see which impulse wins out.

Down low, Simi Shittu has the size and length to force Tilmon into tough finishes. Yanni Wetzell and Clevon Brown can also hold their own, but each is more prone to draw quick whistles. The Commodores also rebound well enough to limit second-chance points.

On the perimeter, Drews guards rely on sound positional defense. Saben Lee , Aaron Nesmith and Matt Ryan can hold their own when navigating high ball-screens. You can nitpick the shooting percentages they allow on pull-up jumpers, but forcing a shot from mid-range is preferable to giving up straight-line drives. Joe Toye is the only wing who’s a liability when guarding in space.

To me, the question is whether Vanderbilt’s ability to run teams off the line is a byproduct of the offenses they’ve faced. In their eight losses, the best jump-shooting team they faced was Mississippi State, whose 36.8-percent shooting from long distance ranks 68th nationally. When you zoom out and look at how Vanderbilt’s done closed out on spot-up shooters, Lee (53.3 FG%) and Nesmith (43.3%) have struggled at times, and when they’ve covered that ground been exploited by opposing guards putting the ball on the deck.

Missouri offense vs. Texas A&M defense

Team Adj. Eff. Poss Length eFG% TO% OR% FTA/FGA 3P% 2P% FT% Blk% Stl%
Team Adj. Eff. Poss Length eFG% TO% OR% FTA/FGA 3P% 2P% FT% Blk% Stl%
Missouri 104.7 (159) 18.6 (311) 50.6 (189) 21.1 (303) 29.9 (124) 32.0 (221) 37.1 (57) 47.0 (279) 69.5 (200) 11.0 (288) 8.6 (160)
Texas A&M 101.0 (122) 16.7 (57) 49.3 (112) 18.5 (197) 32.9 (322) 27.2 (34) 34.1 (162) 47.9 (78) 70.0 (162) 13.6 (24) 9.0 (160)

When Vanderbilt has the ball...

Vanderbilt Offense | On paper, the Commodores have some intriguing pieces to mix and match, but the results on the hardwood have left plenty to be desired. During Drew’s first two seasons, Vandy lived and died by its perimeter shooting, but the current iteration isn’t exactly a threat to stretch defenses.

Right now, the Commodores are 316th nationally in efficiency for spot-up possessions, according to Synergy Sports, and hitting just 33.5 percent of their 3-point attempts. Freshman Aaron Nesmith is stroking in those jumpers at a 41.3-percent clip, but Toye (23.8%), Ryan (34.1%) and Matthew Moyer (20.0%) make it easy for opposing defenses to clog up the middle of the floor.

Now, Vandy can be potent when it gets its transition game (1.10 PPP) cranked up. Leading the break, Lee is equally inclined to attack the rim or drop the ball off. Usually, he’ll have Shittu running the right flank, but the blue chipper can also grab-and-go on the defensive glass, shooting 61.9 percent when he attacks the rack. All the while, Nesmith and Ryan can punish you by sprinting to spot up on the left side of the floor.

The Commodores’ struggle to create turnovers, however, acts as a choke limiting air flow on its fastbreak.

Against a set defense, Vandy bogs down. Lee’s job is to conjure up offense out of pick-and-rolls, trying to pitch the ball out to shooters after a high pick-and-roll and dropping the ball off to a roll man when playing in side ball screens. Yet without shooters reliably knocking down shots, you can limit Lee by forcing him to attack with his left hand. Once you make Nesmith, Toye or Ryan shoot on the move coming off screens, Vandy becomes manageable.

Meanwhile, Shittu’s struggled mightily (81.7 offensive rating) during SEC play. He can score out of post-ups, but the majority of his offense is reliant on others creating. If he steps out to the perimeter, you can drop back, and his poor shooting in pick-and-pops (17.8%), means you can aggressively hedge. Lastly, Vandy’s poor shooting alters floor spacing and makes it harder for him to cut into gaps or cleanly catch feeds rumbling to the rim.

Missouri Defense | You’ve read this some version of this sentence for the past three games: MU wins this game if it’s played in the half court. As of Friday, the Commodores’ were 11th in efficiency among SEC teams, per Synergy Sports, and their best options — whether its hitting a cutter or isolating Lee — aren’t frequently used.

Again, Smith’s absence creates ripple effects. It’s not just that MU allows 12 fewer points per 100 possessions when he’s on the floor, it’s that it gives the Tigers a pair of guards who are reliable guarding pick-and-rolls, while Smith is MU’s best defender when it comes to cloaking perimeter jump shooters.

Without Smith, you can target Pickett in ball screens, while Ronnie Suggs, who been called upon to fill the void, has allowed 50-percent shooting on jumpers. When you pair them up, gives up 1.05 PPP, while only averaging 0.76 PPP at the other end.

At full strength, the Tigers also do a solid job keeping ball-handlers in front, with issues cropping up in situations when Tilmon or another big gets drawn too far up the lane when trying play drop coverage. Geist and Smith excel at closing out with hands high, and Pickett (34.3 FG%) is steady enough.

Over the past three games, MU has shown that it can dictate the tempo for varying stretches, but, ulitimately, poor ball-handling and pressure rattled nerves. Vanderbilt doesn’t pose such a risk — and that might be just the reprieve MU needs.

Texas A&M offense vs. Missouri defense

Team Adj. Eff. Poss Length eFG% TO% OR% FTA/FGA 3P% 2P% FT% Blk% Stl%
Team Adj. Eff. Poss Length eFG% TO% OR% FTA/FGA 3P% 2P% FT% Blk% Stl%
Texas A&M 105.9 (137) 17.3 (157) 49.3 (236) 20.1 (262) 33.2 (47) 33.9 (177) 30.5 (313) 51.3 (142) 68.1 (256) 12.9 (345) 10.0 (295)
Missouri 96.4 (56) 17.6 (243) 49.7 (132) 18.5 (199) 26.4 (87) 35.8 (248) 32.6 (98) 50.1 (173) 68.4 (85) 5.3 (335) 6.7 (317)

KenPom predicts...

Missouri 69, Vanderbilt 65 | Even in the dark depths of the Kim Anderson regime, Mizzou found a way to get a win under these same set of circumstances. Vanderbilt looks like a team close to giving up the ghost, and, for all of Mizzou’s flaws, the Tigers have shown more signs of life. When you factor in the Commodores’ style, there’s a reasonable chance the Tigers skid stops today.