The Vanderbilt Commodores enter tonight's game against YOUR Marquette Golden Eagles with an 8-4 record, a far cry from what was expected from a consensus top 10 team before the season tipped off. But home losses to Cleveland State (71-58), Xavier (82-70 in overtime), and Indiana State (61-55) sent Vandy spiraling from the ranks of the ranked and dropped the 'Dores from KenPom's ninth-ranked team all the way down to No. 56.
With a nod to StatSheet.com for the numbers, let's take a brief look at what's gone right, what's gone wrong, and what we can expect tonight from Vanderbilt:
(1) When they get going on offense, they really get going. Vanderbilt's offense has been a bit spotty this year (they're ranked 52nd in adjusted offensive efficiency on KenPom), but when it's on, it's a sight to behold. They've straight-up blitzed a couple of teams thus far: Bucknell got lit up for 1.23 points per possession (fueled by 10 hits from three-point range); Monmouth got ripped for 1.27 points per possession and an absurd defensive eFG% of 67.0; Longwood was bombarded with 1.30 points per possession and 12 makes from three-point land; and Louisiana-Lafayette got strafed to the tune of 1.27 points per possession and 15 triples.
Vandy isn't shy about gunning from three-point range: in their first 12 games, they've averaged 24 three-point attempts per contest, and they've already had two games in which they attempted 30 threes. And yet: the Commodores most important player tonight might not be sniper extraordinaire John Jenkins (who's averaging 20.6 points per game on 44% shooting from deep) or 6'7" forward Jeffery Taylor (who's putting up 17.8 per game and has hit 17 threes in 42 attempts).
(2) A Festus to torment us? Instead, 6'11" senior Festus Ezeli, who's only played in two games this year because of a bum right knee, might be the key to Vandy's success against Marquette, for a couple of reasons:
(a) When he's right, Ezeli is a load down low. Last year, for example, he averaged 13.0 points and 6.2 rebounds per game while blocking 2.5 shots per contest. In last season's game vs. Vandy, Chris Otule and Friends did a decent job on Ezeli, limiting the big man to 12 points on 5-7 shooting and four rebounds (none on offense), but with Big Chris on the mend and Joe Fulce gradumatated, Marquette doesn't have anyone with the height to cause Ezeli problems in the paint.
(b) Ezeli doesn't appear to be a particularly adept passer -- he only tallied six assists (TOTAL) last year -- but if Marquette employs its standard-issue double-on-every-paint-touch defense, there are going to be shooters left alone tonight when Ezeli gets the ball in the post. And while Ezeli might not make the pass to the open shooter, he might make the pass that leads to the pass that finds the open shooter. Something to keep an eye on, for sure.
Anyway: Ezeli's been somewhat limited in his brief action this season -- he managed 15 and 6 against Davidson, but fouled out in 21 minutes; and he was held to four points and four boards with four turnovers in the loss against Indiana State -- so let's hope for one (or more) of three things: he's still shaking the rust off; Davante Gardner uses his herky-jerks and rope-a-dopes to draw some cheap fouls on Ezeli; or Jenkins and Taylor ignore the big man while they bomb away early and often.
(3) When the O goes broke, they're toast. The common theme in Vandy's four losses is easy enough to identify: vs. Cleveland State: 0.83 points per possession; vs. Xavier: 0.91 points per possession; vs. Louisville: 0.91 points per possession; vs. Indiana State: 0.83 points per possession. In every other game (save for the rock fight against Oregon State), the 'Dores have produced an offensive efficiency of at least 113 (1.13 points per possession).
There isn't a single consistent culprit for the low offensive outputs in those four losses: the losses against Cleveland State and Indiana State, for example, were the product of hideous shooting days (39.2 eFG% against CSU, and 44 eFG% against ISU) and a ton of turnovers (21 vs. CSU, 15 vs. ISU), while the loss against Xavier seems tied to Vandy's inability to get to the line (just 12 throws attempted, for a free throw rate of 18.8%) and getting slaughtered by X on the offensive glass (Xavier had 25(!!!) offensive rebounds, good for a 51% O-reb rate).
Vanderbilt isn't exactly bad defensively (no opponent has cleared an offensive efficiency of 112 against them), but they're not great either, and when the going gets tough, they haven't been able to get enough stops to make up for their inconsistent offense. Xavier, as noted earlier, grabbed offensive rebounds at their leisure, and Indiana State managed an eFG% of 52.9 in their win at Vandy.