The journey begins here.
Vanderbilt welcomes the Oregon Ducks to Memorial on Friday night for the first game in a season of huge expectations. Here's a little bit about their opponents.
Oregon is a somewhat tricky team to preview because three of their major contributors will be new faces. The Ducks are expected to have only three rotation players back from last year's CBI championship team return after leading scorer Joevan Cantron and a number of other key contributors graduated. Returning from that squad will be senior guard Garrett Sim (8.2 ppg, 1.2 apg), sophomore and guard Jonathan Lloyd (4.2 ppg, 2.3 apg), and junior forward E.J. Singler (11.4 ppg, 5.7 rpg), who is the younger brother of Duke's Kyle Singler. However, Oregon managed to land highly-touted shooting guard Jabari Brown (#26 ESPNU, #19 Rivals, # 5 SG Scout), as well as transfers in forward Olu Ashaolu (formerly La. Tech), guard Devoe Joseph (formerly Minnesota), and most importantly F/C Tony Woods (formerly Wake Forest and five-star recruit). That kind of influx of talent makes Oregon unpredictable, and needless to say, unpredictable is dangerous.
Jabari Brown is especially dangerous as a three-point threat and will test the Commodores ability to play defense on the perimeter. I expect that he will have the pleasure of meeting Jeff Taylor and Dai-Jon Parker depending on the particular rotation. Brown is 6'5" so I don't see Tinsley or Jenkins matching up with him frequently.
This may be a game where we miss Festus because of the presence of Tony Woods. Woods is 6'11" and has been a solid force in the post during exhibition games. Woods, in years past, has shown a tendency to become flustered and to disappear. However, given Woods' sheer size and his apparent rejuvenation at Oregon, I'd expect them to attack us here early and often.
E.J. Singler is a particularly interesting threat for Vandy because, much like his brother, he is an excellent 3-point shooter, hitting almost 40% last season from behind the line. With the danger of Brown roaming about and Woods threat on the interior, Vandy will be tested on its defensive flexibility and cannot afford to lose Singler on the perimeter.
Keys to the Game
This game is a great one for us to gauge how much Vandy has improved in areas that have plagued us; namely, perimeter defense and allowing offensive rebounds. As such, here is what Vandy has to do to win:
1) Prevent the Three
Brown is a freshman who can stroke it and those are always dangerous, particularly if they are allowed to get into the flow of the game. The 'Dores have to fluster Brown on the perimeter and take him out of the game. Garrett Sim and Jonathan Lloyd are not particularly strong shooters and don't pose nearly as much of a threat. The key is understanding where Brown is at all times and shutting him down.
This is a game where improved defense out of John Jenkins would be a huge boon for us. We may see him guard Brown some with Taylor guarding Singler. It would be ideal to have this match-up. In this game we're really going to need Lance to be around the basket frequently on defense given Festus' absence, as he is our best defensive rebounder. Which leads me nicely into key #2....
2) Dominate the Defensive Glass
If we have to match Lance up on Singler, we run the risk of letting Tony Woods have a big game on the offensive glass. Additionally, Ashaolu is a hustle player and is capable of getting those obnoxious offensive rebounds that Vandy historically so loves to give up. As we are all too familiar with, second chance opportunities mean upsets, and this is the kind of game where that could certainly happen. Simply put, our forwards must dominate the glass.
3) Score Early and Score Often
I dare say it, but no one should come into Memorial and win even one game this year. This is especially true against this Oregon squad. While they are underrated in terms of their talent, they are completely untested as a unit. Therefore, as the more experienced team, Vandy needs to come out on a mission and step on their throat from minute one. What that means is that Vandy needs to do what they do best, and that's score points.
In that same vein, Vandy needs to maximize the number of opportunities to score. Oregon, at least last year, had a penchant for turning the ball over and was not particularly good at forcing turnovers. Unfortunately, Vandy was also not particularly good at forcing turnovers. An even modest increase in turnovers forced, in my opinion, is the difference between Vandy's offense being good and Vandy's offense being unstoppable. This means that we need someone, be it the vets or the freshman, to come in and be a ballhawk. It doesn't have to be 40 minutes of hell, but it's gotta be better than last year.
This is a great first game for fans to gauge improvement in key areas. It's also a great game to set the tone that the hype for this squad is justified. For the past two years Vandy has come out of the gates slow, peaked high, and then crashed late. Frankly, if this team wants to justify the hype, it will need to assert steady dominance from minute one. That means beating a team that will likely be on the tournament bubble come March in it's own home by a pretty decent margin. Frankly, I think the 'Dores get it done.
Prediction: Dores 89 - Ducks 72.