We interrupt your thoughts on Lane Kiffin going to USC to bring you this Vanderbilt basketball preview.
After opening conference play with a stellar performance against the Gators at Memorial Gym, the Commodores travel to Tuscaloosa to play the 11-4 Crimson Tide of Alabama. Winners of 4 straight, there are a lot of similarities between Alabama and Vanderbilt. 1st year Alabama Coach Anthony Grant has a balanced attack and has the Crimson Tide playing with more discipline than I'm used to seeing.
Like the Commodores, the Tide are a deep team that make the most of their roster. Heading into tonight's game, Alabama has 9 players averaging 15+ minutes a game, and 10 players playing more than 10 minutes. Bama starts 2 seniors, 2 juniors, and a sophomore. They play a 3-guard set led by the 6'5 senior Mikhall Torrance, who is averaging 15.5 points, a 5.1 assists a game. Joining him in the backcourt are point guard, Anthony Brock (5'9 senior), and 6'1 junior Senario Hillman adding a combined 15.1 points and 4.8 dishes a contest. Torrannce is shooting an incredibly impressive 51% from the field, and close to 88% from the charity stripe. Brock is dangerous from downtown, hitting on 42.3% of his attempts from behind the arc so far.
Alabama's 2 forwards have some size. 6'9 Sophomore JaMychal Green leads the Tide in scoring with 15.6 points a game. He's also the team leader in rebounds, grabbing 6.8 boards a game. Justin Knox, a 6'9 junior, is the other forward, and is averaging 6.9 points and 3.7 boards a game. In their last 4 games, Bama is averaging 36 points a game in the paint in their last 4, making up 48% of the Crimson Tide's scoring production. That is compared to their opponents, who are scoring just 24.3 points in the paint. While all their points don't come from the paint, consider this: A.J., Taylor, Steve T. and Festus, who score the majority of their points in the paint (when not scoring from the free throw line), are averaging 35.7 points a game.
Seamus O'Toole, tracking the Commodores and sending updates from behind the Great Wall, thinks the key matchup is Ogilvy vs. JaMychal Green. Seamus wrote: "AJ needs to get even more physical -- we have a size advantage but it looks like the Tide like to bang, which is largely what won the game for them at LSU (though the Tigers beat themselves with stupid turnovers too)." Seamus continues: "The Commodores must take advantage of their size and focus on working the ball inside. Establishing that presence could open up some outside looks for Jenkins et al the way it did against Florida." I would add that, despite their depth, Alabama only has one guy coming off the bench 6"8 or taller (junior Chris Hines, who averages 15.6 minutes a game, adding 2.9 points and 3 rebounds). This means Vanderbilt has an opportunity to do to the Tide, what they did to Florida: get their bigs in trouble and pound the call inside. This, in turn, will open up Jenkins, Beal (and hopefully Brad) from the perimeter, and Taylor slashing to the basket. By contrast, 3 of VU's regular reserves are 6'7 or taller, and have shown an ability to contribute.
Seamus correctly points out that Green and Torrance need to be the focus of Vanderbilt's defensive attack. With only 1 real 3 point threat, Vanderbilt's preferred zone, the 2-3, could be very effective against Alabama. The Crimson Tide are not a particularly good rebounding team, averaging less rebounds a game than their opponents (-.2), which means the Commodores shouldn't have to worry about too many second chance opportunities from the Tide. Famous last words. In Alabama's 4 losses, the Tide are getting out-rebounded by an average of 5.8 boards a game, while boasting a +2.4 rebounding edge in their 11 wins.
As Stanimal eloquently posted yesterday, Vanderbilt fans have reason to be excited after the Florida performance. Still, tonight's game is huge. More from Seamus on why this game is so important: "Starting this 4 of 5 game road stretch with a W will help carry forward the momentum from the UF win, which is must needed given that trips to USC, UT and UK will be huge challenges." Surprise, surprise, I agree 100%. Vanderbilt has been able, in years past, of getting a big win. Putting winning streaks together in conference play is something else altogether. A win tonight would go a long way in showing progress.
In their last 4 games, Alabama's opponents are shooting a combined 37.3% from the floor. On the season, Vanderbilt is shooting 49.4% from the field. In the Crimson Tide's 4 losses, opponents have shot 50.5% from the field, while shooting just 39.7% in their 11 wins. Another great stat from Alabama's Game Notes was over 3 pointers made. In Bama's 4 losses, opponents have hit 7.8 3's a game, while hitting just 5.8 3's in their losses.
Vanderbilt and Alabama have 2 common opponents: Mercer and Tennessee State. I don't know how much this matters, but Vanderbilt beat TSU by 13 points (1 more than UA beat them by), and Mercer by 40 (whereas Alabama won by a paltry 19). Both teams have been tested, although according to strength of schedule Vanderbilt has the 31st toughest schedule in America, compared to Bama's 61st toughest schedule (good enough for third in the conference; Vanderbilt has the toughest in the conference). UA's 4 losses have come at home to a surprisingly good Cornell team, Florida State in the Old Spice Classic, #5 in Tuscaloosa, and #17 Kansas State wherever Kansas State is. Those losses are probably better than Vanderbilt's 3 losses to Cincinnati, Illinois, and Western Kentucky. Still, Vanderbilt's "signature wins," Florida, @ St. Mary's, Arizona, and Missouri, are probably more impressive than Alabama's: Providence, vs. #15 (at the time) Michigan, and Baylor.
As discussed above, both teams are deep. Vanderbilt's bench is second in the league, averaging 28.3 points a game, while Crimson Tide is in the middle of the pack with 19.8 points a game. Both teams can get production from their respective benches.
Echoing Seamus' words of wisdom, A.J. Ogilvy needs to have a big game for the Commodores to have a chance to beat a quality UA opponent. Seamus thinks this will be another big game for Andre Walker, who will have a size advantage which likely means he could get the ball inside and get to the line and/or make a lot of drive & dish assists to Ogilvy and Taylor. He is emerging as the Commodores second option handling the ball. And, given his size he is either going to be matched up with a guard who he can pass over, or a bigger guy who isn't as good a lateral defender. As I wrote after the Florida game, the more Walker takes on ball-handling responsibilities, the less necessary a cold Brad Tinsley is. Brad is clearly a better shoot than his current 30% from 3 would indicate. Still, given John Jenkins' continued development, there is little reason to think his minutes won't be at least 20 minutes. That adversely affects Brad's minutes. It seems more likely than not that Brad's role will, more and more, be spelling Jermaine Beal.
Vanderbilt is a 1 point dog on the road. Seamus predicts Vanderbilt 85 - Alabama 75. I'll take the point, but I think the Commodores win 71-64.
We will be hosting a live-blog here on VSL. The game tips off at 8pm central on CSS, ESPN360.com, and (I think) ESPN Full Court. As always, you can track the game and get Joe Fisher's call from VUCommodores.com.