It’s our first ever Q&A for the NCAA Tournament! Wow, this is exciting. We’re talking Wildcats versus Commodores with Tom Stephenson of Anchor of Gold.
Inside NU: Luke Kornet is the guy most people know from Vanderbilt. What makes him so good, and how does Vanderbilt get him so many good looks on offense?
Tom Stephenson: Aside from being 7'1", 250, and actually good at basketball? Kornet's an interesting player because he was a 6'3" guard in high school and then grew seven inches during his senior year, and three more after enrolling at Vanderbilt. So he's maintained a lot of his guard skills and thus doesn't really play like a stereotypical seven-footer. In truth, Vanderbilt doesn't really have to do much to get him good looks because he's either being guarded by a slower big man who can't keep up or he's being guarded by a smaller player whom he can simply shoot over. But really, he's much more valuable on defense than offense. He's one of the best seven-footers I can recall at defending without fouling, which is important because Vanderbilt has such a short bench.
INU: The Commodores won 11 of their last 16 after a slow start. What changed?
TS: Well, Vanderbilt has a new coach this season and that meant Bryce Drew had to spend much of November and December figuring out the team's personnel. That meant, for instance, figuring out that the best use of Luke Kornet is not to have him post up. But the biggest change has been on defense, where Vanderbilt has gone from a sieve to an honest-to-God lockdown unit. Much of that coincided with moving Joe Toye into the starting lineup in February, and that's led to Vanderbilt having fewer mismatches that opponents can exploit.
INU: Who is the X factor for the Commodores? If he plays well, this team is tough to beat, and if he struggles the team will too?
TS: Matthew Fisher-Davis is an enigma wrapped in a mystery. While he is Vanderbilt's leading scorer for the season, he lost his starting job in February -- ostensibly because of a suspension due to a missed class, but Drew evidently liked the new lineup with Toye in it so much that he stuck with it. He's averaging 6.7 ppg over Vanderbilt's last six games, and while Vanderbilt's gone 4-2 in that stretch... really, it's just so much easier for Vanderbilt to win if he's hitting threes and stretching the defense. But it's been problematic because he doesn't really offer much other than a good jump shot.
INU: What are the strengths of Vanderbilt, and what weaknesses can Northwestern exploit?
TS: Vanderbilt can shoot the ball. Like, really shoot the ball. Vanderbilt will shoot a lot of threes and make a lot of them, and they'll also get to the foul line a lot and make their free throws. Every now and then, the Commodores will have a clunker (like the Missouri game a few weeks back) where they're just not shooting well at all, but those tend to be few and far between and it's probably not something you should count on happening.
There are two weaknesses I can point to with Vanderbilt. One is depth: Vanderbilt only has nine players on the roster and the three freshmen off the bench are very hit or miss (and mostly miss.) The other is pressure defense: Vanderbilt can't handle it, and I can't really figure out why more teams don't press us because our guards are so bad at handling it that Luke Kornet bringing the ball up is frequently the best solution. Yeah, relying on your 7'1" center to break a press might be an indicator that your guards struggle with this. That said, based on what I know about Northwestern they're probably not very well equipped to exploit that weakness.
INU: Prediction time: Who wins Thursday and why?
TS: Vanderbilt wins. Aside from the blatant homerism inherent in this pick, I'm not convinced that Northwestern has anybody who can match up with Luke Kornet and he's skilled enough that double-teaming him will just mean one of Vanderbilt's shooters will get open looks on the perimeter.