Zone defense was the remedy for a banged-up Vanderbilt men’s basketball team on Wednesday.
Down a starter and with big men Festus Ezeli and Steve Tchiengang playing through pain, the Commodores switched to a 2-3 zone to slow down a Mississippi squad that dropped 42 points in the first half. It did the trick enough for Vanderbilt to pull out a big 84-74 Southeastern Conference victory at home.
A similar approach might not work Saturday.
St. Mary’s College, out of the West Coast Conference, comes to Memorial Gymnasium for a 1 p.m. tip-off. The No. 22 Gaels, who are 17-2, seem to dig the long ball. They average 9.6 3-pointers per game, which is the fourth-most in the country.
“St. Mary’s is a little bit of a different proposition because they are all about the 3-point shot and penetration off ball screens and things like that,” Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings said. “They might be a little harder to zone than some other people. Hopefully we can find a defense that is effective and that is the main concern. We don’t care which one works, we just need one of them to work.”
Not many teams have figured out how to slow down the Gaels, who reached the Sweet 16 last year. They average 83.2 points a game, which ranks 10th in the nation, and have knocked off Mississippi State and Texas Tech on the road. Their only two losses have come to ranked teams — No. 6 and still undefeated San Diego State and No. 9 BYU.
Their average scoring margin is plus-21.6 points and they have done it with balance. Four players average double figures in points and they have nine players who average at least 11 minutes a game.
Guard Mickey McConnell paces the team with 15 points a game and 48.5 percent 3-point shooting, the eighth-best mark in Division I. As a team, St. Mary’s shoots 40.6 percent from behind the arc and has three players who shoot 39 percent or better.
“They stretch you out, spread you out. They have great shooters all over the court. And I’m talking about great shooters. Not good ones but great ones,” Stallings said. “We are just going to have to do a good job of defending the 3 and defending the ball and seeing what we can do.
“Our 3-point defense has been pretty solid all season long. We’ve had a couple games where we’ve had issues but we haven’t played anybody that shoots the ball like this. We’ve played some teams that might be more athletic or [better at] rebounding or something but we haven’t played anybody that shoots the ball like these guys."
The Commodores (13-4) might be limited on defense — and offense — again. Starting forward Andre Walker is expected to miss his sixth straight game due to a high ankle sprain. He did not practice on Thursday, instead trying to stretch his injured left foot. Tchiengang sprained his ankle against Tennessee on Saturday and had also been bothered by an injured Achilles tendon. The 6-foot-9 reserve forward played just nine minutes against Mississippi and did not practice on Thursday, keeping pressure off his right foot.
In addition, Ezeli has been hindered by tendonitis in his left knee. It got worse on Wednesday when, a minute into the game, he came down hard, clutching his knee. He returned to play 26 minutes and score 16 points on 10-of-12 shooting from the free-throw line.
If Ezeli and Tchiengang are limited, it will cut into an already short bench. Stallings would like to use a nine-player rotation but with Walker out he is down to eight and might have to reach deeper and rely on a walk-on or two.
“It hasn’t been an issue so far. We have picked up the guys that have been hurt and everyone has been fighting,” forward Lance Goulbourne said. “We aren’t worried about it. We have played big teams with seven or eight guys. So we’re not worried about it. Everyone is going to do their part.”
• Goulbourne did his part on Wednesday, with 16 rebounds, which matched the most ever under Stallings (Dawid Przybyszewski in, 2004 and Anthony Williams in 2000 also had 16). He added 14 points.
That came after a scoreless outing at Tennessee. He had six rebounds, but four fouls kept the junior from being more of a threat.
“Tennessee wasn’t my best showing,” Goulbourne said. “[Wednesday] night was definitely a way to make up for it and I think I did that pretty well. I think I let the fouls [at Tennessee] get to me. I was in foul trouble and the ball kept rolling and it kept getting worse and worse. It was just very frustrating. I couldn’t get into a rhythm. My head just wasn’t there after a while because the fouls really frustrated me.”
• After a 20-point performance against Mississippi, sophomore guard John Jenkins leads the SEC with 18.7 points a game. He also ranks in the top 25 in the country with three 3-pointers a game and a 41.5 shooting percentage behind the arc.
• The Commodores intend to frustrate another non-conference foe visiting Memorial Gymnasium. Vanderbilt has won 20 straight games at home against opponents outside of the SEC, dating back to a loss to the University of Illinois at Chicago on Dec. 3, 2008. The Commodores are 10-0 at home this season.
“In life, you don’t want anybody to come in your house and take something from you,” Goulbourne said. “So we just have to protect our homecourt and keep it going."