Will Festus Ezeli fix what’s wrong with Vandy?

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When it comes to college athletics, calling a team “controversial” generally means that they are playing by the Jim Calhoun rules of recruiting.

Not so with Vanderbilt.

The Commodores, who are probably as clean as a program can be playing at the high-major level, are the most controversial team in the country not because of the way that they landed their three first-round picks, but because of the product that Kevin Stallings puts on the court.

I made the argument a week ago that Vanderbilt cannot be judged as a team until they get Festus Ezeli back, and I still believe it. Festus Ezeli is a first round pick and one of the best big man in the SEC, if not the country. He’s a force on both ends of the floor. There is no way that inserting that presence into your lineup won’t have an effect.

But the question that can be asked is if Ezeli’s presence can fix the flaws of this Vanderbilt team.

Are Brad Tinsley and John Jenkins going to be able to defend a talented back court? For the majority of the Commodore’s 82-70 loss to Xavier on Monday night, they did a solid job. While the Musketeer back court of Tu Holloway and Mark Lyons finished 13-38 from the floor against Vandy, they made all the big shots and big plays down the stretch. Lyons went coast-to-coast for a pretty, spinning layup to tie the game and force the extra period while Holloway hit two huge threes in overtime that put Xavier up eight points.

The other problem is that a number of the misses from Xavier were the result of over-dribbling and bad shots being forced by those two. Some of that credit has to go to the defense, but a lot of it is also the result of poor decision-making for the first 35 minutes of the game.

A bigger issue, however, is Vanderbilt’s offensive execution in the clutch. The Commodores pushed their lead to as much as ten early in the second half, but a flurry of bad turnovers allowed Xavier to make a run and take the lead. Much of that came against Vanderbilt’s bench, and once the starters came back in the game, they were able to regain control of the game on a John Jenkins three with 4:03 left that pushed the lead back up to 66-62.

For the next 6:39, however, Vanderbilt went scoreless. Their offense, which is supposed to be their strength, lost all of its flow. When Vanderbilt needed a bucket, the ball ended up in the hands of Tinsley. On Vanderbilt’s last possession of regulation, Jenkins wasn’t even looked at as Tinsley forced a tough 15 footer that squirted out of his hands. After Vandy had cut the lead to four in regulation, the next two possessions ended with Tinsley threes.

Vanderbilt is not complete. They will get better when Ezeli returns.

But if tonight proved anything, its that the boost they get from their big man may not address the weaknesses that are costing Vanderbilt games early in the season.

Rob Dauster is the editor of the college basketball website Ballin’ is a Habit. You can find him on twitter @ballinisahabit.

Michigan State playing zone? It’s possible

Tom Izzo
Associated Press
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Throughout Tom Izzo’s tenure at Michigan State the team’s half-court man-to-man defense has been a staple, and the Spartans have generally proven difficult to have a high rate of offensive success against. The reliance on that defense is why Izzo’s conversations earlier this summer about using some token full-court pressure due to the shortening of the shot clock caught some people off-guard.

According to the Detroit Free Press there’s another wrinkle the Spartans may use, and it’s likely that this wrinkle will show up more often than the full-court press. During Friday’s opening practice the Spartans worked on a 2-3 zone, and Izzo wants his assistants to make sure the team works on the defense consistently throughout the season.

That’s also why zone in general isn’t going to get heavy play at MSU, but having it as a tool could be beneficial — especially in games with touch fouls on the perimeter called in droves.

“I told (my assistant coaches): ‘You hold me accountable to working on it every day some’ … I have a tendency to drift off on that, and I don’t want to drift off on it,” Izzo said of the 2-3 zone. “But we will be, rest assured, a 90-some percent man-to-man team still and hopefully take some of those principles to zone.”

As noted in the story one of the risks in using pressure is allowing quality shots, which is why it’s unlikely that Michigan State will go to it. But even with Izzo vowing that his team will work on the zone, that doesn’t mean they’ll be playing it as often as Syracuse does.

Man-to-man has been Michigan State’s staple and it will continue to be. But it doesn’t hurt to look for other ways to keep opponents from getting the looks they want, especially if teams have five fewer seconds to find those shots.

Virginia used 3-on-3 to adjust to new shot clock

Malcolm Brogdon
Associated Press
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When the college basketball rules committee made the decision to trim the shot clock down to 30 second from 35, one reason for the switch was the desire to improve offensive production. With offensive numbers at their lowest point in years, proponents of the move see the shot clock change as a necessary move if scoring is to improve.

Whether or not that winds up being the case will be seen throughout the upcoming season, but teams are still having to make adjustments during the preseason.

Virginia, which has played at a snail’s pace (and with great success, mind you) in recent years, made some adjustments to their summer work in anticipation of playing with a 30-second shot clock. One adjustment was more games of 3-on-3 with a 15-second shot clock, which forced all involved to be more decisive in their offensive decision-making.

While the pack-line defense will always be a staple of Tony Bennett’s teams, the feeling in Charlottesville is that they’ve got the offensive firepower needed to both play faster and be more efficient offensively than they were in 2014-15 (29th nationally in adjusted offensive efficiency per Ken Pomeroy). One of the players who will lead the way is senior guard Malcolm Brogdon, who led the team in scoring and was a first team All-ACC selection, and he discussed the team’s outlook with Mike Barber of the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

And even though Anderson’s highlight-reel shot blocking was the thing that frequently fueled fast-breaks for U.Va. last season, Brogdon and [Anthony] Gill said they expect this year’s team to actually push the tempo even more.

“I think we’re going to be a team that gets out and runs more,” Brogdon said. “I think we’ll have three guards on the floor, most of the time, will be able to handle the ball as a point guard and get out in transition. I think we’ll play a lot faster.”

Brogdon and Gill are two of the team’s three returning starters with point guard London Perrantes being the other, and the Cavaliers also return most of their reserves from last year’s rotation. That experience will help them on both ends of the floor as they prepare for a run at a third straight ACC regular season title. And in theory it also allows them to extend themselves a bit more offensively than they did a season ago.