At times this season, Kevin Stallings must feel as if he is trying to build a house from the top down. Naturally, it is not going as well as he would like.
One of the most common principles of college basketball recruiting is that you recruit offense and teach defense.
In other words you have to be able to score, first and foremost. If you can do that, you have a chance to win games. Then when you get your players to want to play defense — and play it well — you have a chance to win championships.
Everyone knows, after all, that defense wins championships. Stallings’ current Vanderbilt team is proof positive, though, that defense alone does not get it done.
The current bunch of Commodores can shut down an opponent with the best of them. In fact, they can shut down opponents as well as, if not better, than last year’s group, which cemented its legacy as one of the school’s best when it defeated Kentucky to win the Southeastern Conference tournament championship.
Following last week’s loss to Tennessee, Vanderbilt was fifth in the SEC in field goal defense. Its opponents had made just 41.8 percent of its shots and scored on average 61.6 points per game.
Last year’s team, which included three NBA draft picks and was ranked among the top 25 for most of the season, limited opponents to 41.9 percent shooting and 65.0 points per game. And those numbers capped two years of steady defensive improvement for that group that allowed 68.9 points per game in 2009-10 and 67.7 points per game in 2011-12.
Offense never was an issue for Jeffery Taylor, who was electric from the moment he walked on to the floor as a freshman in 2008-09. The ability to score seemed to be ingrained in the DNA of John Jenkins, who arrived a year later and immediately began to bury 3-point shots.
Along with Festus Ezeli, Brad Tinsley and the rest, they actually scored fewer points per game in 2011-12 than either of the previous two years, but it was only when the opponents’ point total dropped low enough that another banner went up in Memorial Gymnasium.
With that group gone, the burden falls to guys like Dai-Jon Parker, who averaged 14 points per game as a high school senior. That’s a respectable number at any level, but it’s hardly the same as the 40-plus points Jenkins averaged as a senior.
Kedren Johnson is a guy who came to West End with a real offensive pedigree — 27.3 points as a high school senior — and has been this season’s best, although not quite consistent option. Big man Josh Henderson was 20-point scorer in high school. Rod Odom topped 25 points per game in his final high school season, and Kyle Fuller
exceeded 27 points per game.
For Stallings and his staff, those numbers probably provided confidence that when the time came there would be enough points to keep things moving in the right direction. It has not turned out that way.
Back to last week’s game against Tennessee, keep in mind that Vanderbilt had a shot — two shots, actually — to win at the end but couldn’t get them to go. The first was a driving layup by Johnson, the one guy the Volunteers probably did not want to take it. No luck.
A basketball court is 94 feet long and 50 feet wide, which means there’s a lot of ground a coach can cover with his players in terms of defending it. The basket is just 18 inches in diameter — either guys can fill it up or they can’t.
This year’s Vanderbilt team apparently lacks that foundation, which makes it tough to stand tall.