Vanderbilt travels to Tuscaloosa tonight to take on the Crimson Tide in its first match-up against one of the teams in the top five of the conference. This game is not a must-win at all, but it's a game that Vandy fans should be paying close attention to as it is a barometer of how far we've really come since the beginning of December.
With the exception of throttling Marquette on the road, Vandy is sorely lacking in signature wins. They have a nice win over Davidson on the road, who is presently undefeated in the Southern Conference and is having a good season. That is probably not enough to be called a "signature" win. Aside from that, their next best win is over a decent N.C. State team. Vandy also only has one "bad" loss, that being to the rapidly declining Indiana State Sycamores. Cleveland State should be a serious contender to win the Horizon League, so that loss doesn't look as bad. Losing to Xavier and Louisville are not bad losses, though they were missed opportunities to make a statement about who this team is this year.
In reading the various opinions of the sportwriter punditry (new word, just go with it), there is some indication that those losses can be chalked up to the absence of a healthy Festus Ezeli if Vandy can continue it's present level of play. However, the early season swoon has made it difficult for those paid to be "in the know" to trust the Commodores. Objectively speaking, that's probably fair. While I think Vandy is not getting enough credit for the thrashing of Marquette in their own gym (and conversely, Marquette is getting a little bit too much forgiveness for that thrashing), Vandy really needs to get a win over a quality opponent in order to impress upon the selection committee that this team is any different than last year's squad. For Vandy fans who have suffered the five levels of grief over the early stages of this season, it is a nice change to watch us comfortably thrash bad teams. But satisfying a fanbase who willingly comes back despite the heartbreak its endured and satisfying a group of people seriously evaluating where this team lies in the national landscape are two different things.
Enter this game against Alabama. Alabama is a good team. Ken Pomeroy happens to think they are a great team, as he has them at #14. While I agree that, defensively speaking, they are hard-nosed, they are not a prolific scoring team, averaging 1.031 points per possession ("ppp") Vanderbilt is presently 39th, averaging 1.079 ppp, and offensively is the hottest team in the SEC over its last three games in this category at 1.162 ppp. Alabama, defensively speaking, is a top ten defense without question. They allow only 0.864 ppp. Vandy is up around the 0.95 range, good for 85th, though they have been in the 30-35 range lately at 0.878 ppp allowed.
This is a game of a good offense with the potential to be a great offense against a great defense. The two teams are actually pretty similar in terms of their rebounding profile. Add this all up plus the home advantage and you have Alabama as a five-point favorite, which shouldn't be all that big a surprise (though Alabama's defensive efficiency is worse at home than on the road, and not by an insubstantial margin).
One of the biggest surprises of this year has been Vandy's difficulty getting to the free throw line. The team's last performance at Georgia is hopefully a sign of change in that department. Vandy attempted 44 free throws on their way to sending the game home, and they were particularly effective down the stretch. Vandy needs a comparable effort today against Alabama, as that is going to help the team win games even when they aren't playing their best.
Looking forward to watching it tonight. It's a big one. Go 'Dores!