There has been no shortage of opinions about what ails Vanderbilt. From the tenor of the comments and posts (mine included), you'd think the Commodores were 2-6 rather than 6-2. There's no doubt Vanderbilt hasn't look great in their two losses to Cincinnati and Illinois (in fact, some might characterize them as "not competitive"), but both teams are good (if not as good as they looked against the Commodores).
This is a pretty big game for Vanderbilt as far as I'm concerned. It's one of (if not the) last real tests we should have to face before conference play begins. Western Kentucky is a perennial NCAA Tournament team that you'd be crazy not to take for at least 1 round come March. Even at 4-3 after underachieving early this season, the Hilltoppers were picked to finish first in the Sun Belt after returning 4 starters from last year's team. Bowling Green is only 70 miles from Nashville, and it is likely they will have a good crowd behind them.
Western's leading scorer is senior guard A.J. Slaughter, who is averaging 14.9 points a game. Junior forward Sergio Kerusch is averaging 13 points and 6.7 rebounds a game. Sergio didn't start in the Hilltoppers 63-57 win over Evansville, but did play 32 minutes. Why he didn't start would require actual research, something readers of the VSL know is something we just don't do. Still, expect to see a lot of of Kerusch, whether off the bench or in the starting 5.
Rounding out the usual starting line up is junior forward Steffphon Pettigrew, and senior center Jeremy Evans. Pettigrew is averaging 12.3 and 7.1 a game, with the man in the middle being good for 8 and 6 a night. Who the 5th starter will be remains to be seen. Over the course of the year, the Hilltoppers have started guards Anthony Sally and Caden Dickerson, and forward Jameson Tipping, none of whom are tearing it up on the stat sheets.
Looking at Western, it's clear they are slow starters. In fact, they've been out-scored by a combined 31 points in their 7 games this season. The Hilltoppers are 0-2 against the SEC this season, losing to LSU 71-60 and South Carolina 74 - 56. In the LSU game, Western was torched by the Tigers center Storm Warren for 20 points and 11 rebounds, to say nothing of the 28 points Bo Spencer dropped on them (including 4-9 from downtown). The Gamecocks had a very balanced attack, with 5 guys reaching double digits.
The Hilltopper offense relies heavily on Kerusch and Slaughter, so the key is containing these two. Getting out to a early lead would certainly help, and something that shouldn't be too difficult given Western's penchant for starting slow. The Hilltoppers also aren't a good free throw shooting team, shooting just 63% as a team, which means aggressive defense shouldn't hurt too bad.
For the Commodores, I know we would all like to see the offense revolve around A.J. There is enough blame to go around for why this hasn't always been the case. From A.J.'s perspective, he's got to want the ball more than he appears to. From everyone else's perspective, they've got to look to get him the ball without firing long-range jumpers early in the shot-clock.
We've gone round and round about what the starting line-up should look like. The conversation has mostly revolved around Brad Tinsely, Jermaine Beal, Jeff Jenkins: who should start, who shouldn't, and who's to blame for the team's struggles. My problem with Beal's play is he seems more interested in his shots than those of his teammates. Beal's taken the second most shots of anyone on the team at 86 (only Taylor has more with 87). He's shooting 43%, which isn't bad, but the number of shots Brad is taking (44) seems more in line with where a true point guard should be. Last year Beal and A.J. lead the team with 280 shots a piece, (this year A.J. has only 67 attempts) but that was a different team. We have more offensive weapons this year and Jermaine doesn't need to carry as much of the offensive load. The team looks out of sync on offense, and I think a strong point guard, playing the role of floor general, who's looking to set his teammates up, would go a long way in establishing a better flow.
Certainly, Vanderbilt needs to play better defense and do a better job on the boards, but I think a better showing on offense would make a lot of fans (myself included) feel a lot better.
For those going to the game tomorrow, avoid the Hilton Sports Bar. Game tips at 8:30 and will be available on CSS. I'm pretty sure tickets are still available. Plus, if anyone's got extras, email the news room as I'm looking to celebrate completing my last final with the Commodores.