Vanderbilt is undoubtedly one of the most disappointing teams in college basketball, and their season didn’t get any better on Saturday afternoon.
The Commodores fell to No. 23 Kentucky 76-57 as the Wildcats smothered Kevin Stallings’ team defensively and just out-executed them with precision offensively. Vanderbilt shot 32 percent from the field and turned the ball over 12 times, compared to Kentucky shooting 55 percent with just seven turnovers.
Tyler Ulis had his second-straight 20-plus point outing as well, scoring 21 points and dishing out five assists. Jamal Murray also had a pretty nice day, scoring 18 and grabbing seven rebounds. These two combined to heavily outplay Vanderbilt’s potential lottery pick Wade Baldwin, who went 1-of-9 from the field and turned the ball over five times while trying to create offense against the long Wildcat team.
Kentucky has been really great this week, bouncing back nicely from its loss last weekend to Auburn. They’re now 5-2 in the SEC, and look like the clear challenger to a now 7-0 Texas A&M team that looks like the favorite in the league.
Coming into the year, you would have thrown Vanderbilt into that conversation along with those two teams as SEC contenders. But right now, it’s just about impossible to do that. The Commodores are a mess, and need to turn things around quickly if they want to even make a run toward the NCAA Tournament bubble.
At 11-8, the Commodores are now 3-8 against KenPom top-100 teams, and have exactly zero top-50 wins. The scheduling gods have ruled in their favor, giving them six chances down the stretch to get one of those needed top-50 wins. However, to defeat any of those teams, Stallings and company are going to have to fix the many ills that this team suffers currently.
Because right now, Vanderbilt isn’t a team that can compete with other high-level competition. The offense is a total mess that hasn’t coalesced in the way that was expected coming into the season. Despite the presence of three potential NBA Draft picks on their team — Baldwin, Luke Kornet, and Damian Jones — the team has only been able to score over one point-per-possessions once in its last six games against other teams in the top-70 at KenPom.
They have a terrific point guard in Baldwin, a mobile, athletic big in Jones, and shooters surrounding them like Kornet, Matthew Fisher-Davis, Cameron Justice and Riley LaChance (all of whom other than Kornet are shooting at least 39.4 percent from distance). This offense should be elite, on a talent basis. So what’s the problem here?
With that roster, you would expect that they run a lot of off-ball action involving high ball-screens while using their shooters to space out the floor. Maybe some Horns sets with some flare screens, or some baseline screening action to get shooters free in the corner or on the wing. However, that’s not really what happens.
The Commodores only finish plays in the pick-and-roll about 20 percent* of the time (in the 44th percentile nationally), and their shooters only finish in spot-up situations 19.9 percent of the time (in the 10th percentile). Instead, they are insistent on running post plays (80th percentile nationally, and most in the SEC). Then to top that off, they don’t get any sort of off-ball movement, and set very few off-ball screens to get their elite shooters open looks.
(* numbers taken from Synergy Sports)
It’s a maddeningly difficult offense to watch, given its pieces, the potential it has, and the coach at the helm. After all, Stallings is widely recognized by other coaches as one of the best offensive minds in college hoops, and it seems unlikely that he’s somehow gotten worse. Heck, you even see it relatively often in sets coming out of timeouts or in out-of-bounds plays, where he will draw up beautiful sets to get shooters wide open looks at the rim.
Yet still, there’s something off here, and whether this is all a problem of execution or of game-planning is difficult to say. The end result is clear, though. Vanderbilt has an offense with potential to be among the top-10 in the nation (it was 19th last season with most of the same pieces), but instead it is now sitting at 75th.
That’s where the Commodores need to look to turn things around. If the offense can reach its potential, they can turn this around and become a team that no one will want to play. But if not, we’re likely going to see more of the same from Vanderbilt this season, which has turned into the most disappointing team in America.