Vanderbilt can win the NCAA title if: execution trumps intimidation
Deconstruct Vanderbilt at your own peril.
On the surface, the Commodores seem like they're a known commodity at this point. They're an experienced team led by seniors Carla Thomas, Dee Davis and Caroline Williams, all of whom seem to have gotten the absolute most out of their ability during four years playing for coach Melanie Balcomb. And given the similarities of their roles to those of Chantelle Anderson, Ashley McElhiney and Abi Ramsey, who preceded them at the school, it sometimes feels like they've been around even longer than four years.
They are, if nothing else, consistent.
Davis averaged 8.1 points, 5.5 assists, 2.1 steals and 2.9 turnovers this season; last season she averaged 7.4 points, 6.8 assists, 2.1 steals and 3.7 turnovers.
Williams averaged 12.5 points, 2.8 3-pointers and 1.7 assists per game this season; last season she averaged 12.4 points, 3.0 3-pointers and 1.7 assists.
Thomas averaged 16.3 points, 6.4 rebounds and 2.3 assists; last year she averaged 12.4 points, 5.9 rebounds and 1.9 assists.
Throw in Bill Murray and a groundhog and you've got a movie sequel.
This is why when you think of Vanderbilt, execution and experience come to mind more readily than intimidation and untapped potential. And it's why, despite Thomas stepping up her scoring as a senior, it's difficult at first glance to see why this Vanderbilt team is better equipped to win a national championship than the team that lost by 19 points against North Carolina in the second round last season.
A well-coached team that gets the most out of its talent? Absolutely. But a championship contender?
To begin with, it's not that much of a leap from stagnation to stability, and the senior on-court leadership provided by Thomas, Davis and Williams has likely been a key factor in the development of a regular rotation that at various times has included two sophomores in Christina Wirth and Jennifer Risper and three freshmen in Merideth Marsh, Jessica Mooney and Lauren Lueders.
And it's the development of Wirth, who averaged just 5.7 points as a freshman last season, that most noticeably changes the face of this year's team. With an outside shot that would qualify her as a marksman on any team that didn't have Williams shooting a gaudy 50 percent from behind the arc, Wirth has an inside-outside game that has been largely missing since Jenni Benningfield graduated.
Throw in Risper's defense and developing offense and it's a team that can win with the offense clicking (shooting 66 percent from the floor in a 105-76 win against Florida in the quarterfinals of the SEC tournament) or when things break down (shooting 42 percent in beating LSU 51-45 to win the SEC tournament).
Unfortunately for the aesthetics of prolonging the lineage of point guard, post and shooter, all five underclassmen in the rotation are essentially wing or perimeter players with all-around games. That's also unfortunate in the very real-world sense that it makes the Commodores a suspect rebounding team.
The Commodores don't do some of the things so familiar to the teams they'll face if they reach Cleveland -- namely dominate the boards or intimidate you with blocks and steals on the defensive end. But whether it's the very familiar faces or the newcomers following their lead, they do shoot the ball extremely well and they do stop other teams from shooting the ball well.
And that might make this a very unfamiliar postseason run.
Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's women's basketball coverage. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.