The Crimson Tide basketball team will seek to upset a highly regarded foe from the SEC's East Division on their home court for the second game in a row when they face the #24 Vanderbilt Commodores tonight. Tip-off is set for 8:00 CST, with the game being televised nationally on ESPN2 and streamed world-wide on ESPN3.
As we all know, Bama is rolling right now with a 7-1 SEC record and a 10-1 record over the last eleven games. You can't knock the way we're playing, and you can't complain about the results. As impressive as we've been, however--and as optimistic as some Bama fans have become--winning against this Vandy team in that building will be the team's toughest test thus far in the SEC season.
In case you missed our report from yesterday, the Tide haven't won at Vanderbilt since 1990, a string of ten consecutive losses in Vanderbilt's quirky Memorial Gymnasium, where the 'Dores seem to enjoy an even more formidable home court advantage than other teams around the country. Not only will the Tide be battling a very, very good Vandy team, but they will also be battling history and the "Memorial Magic" that the 'Dores seem to find each game in their home arena.
Aside from just their dominance at home, though, this Vanderbilt program has really hit its stride in recent years under long-time head coach Kevin Stallings. Recruiting has picked up to the point where Vandy is legitimately competing with other SEC schools for top recruits in the area, and this added talent, combined with Stallings' coaching, has the Commodores program rolling. They have qualified for three of the last four NCAA Tournaments, and appear to be all but a lock to return this season, as they are currently projected as a #6 seed for the Dance.
They've built up their tournament resume this season by playing a tough schedule and racking up several quality wins, despite losing multiple close games in the dying minutes and seconds. In non-conference play, the 'Dores went 12-2 with wins over projected NCAA at-large teams North Carolina, Marquette and St. Mary's. Their only two non-conference losses came against two teams projected to be high seeds in the Dance: a one-possession loss to West Virginia and an overtime loss to Missouri. In SEC play the 'Dores have a somewhat disappointing 4-4 record, the result of a failure to close out close games on the road. They lost in overtime at South Carolina and at Florida, and lost by one possession at Tennessee after leading by double-digits nearly the entire game. Their only home loss came against Arkansas, when Rotnei Clarke played out of his mind en route to 36 points. Their SEC wins have come at Mississippi State and at home against Georgia, Ole Miss and South Carolina.
Because Vanderbilt is a significant favorite (-6.5 according to Vegas) this is not a must-win for Bama. A loss would in no way hurt our resume given Vandy's own impressive resume. However, a loss would of course be a missed opportunity for a "quality win", and it would put further pressure on us to win all of the remaining games in which we'll be favored. A win, on the other hand, would surpass both the home win against Kentucky and the road win against short-handed Tennessee as the program's biggest win in years. Bama really has no pressure in this one. Win, and it puts us not one but probably two steps closer to our dreams of an SEC title and an NCAA Tournament berth. Lose, and both of those dreams are still very much alive, we'll just have a little bit less margin for error the rest of the way.
Full Vanderbilt roster breakdown and game analysis below the jump...
I mentioned earlier that Vandy is starting to recruit like a big-time program. Meet Exhibit A, Mr. John Jenkins. Jenkins became the biggest Commodore signing in either major sport in the age of internet recruiting coverage when he signed as a 5-star prospect in the 2009 class--and he has lived up to the hype. The 6'4" sophomore guard leads the entire SEC in scoring with 21.2 points per game in SEC play. Jenkins is a savvy player who can find all sorts of creative ways to score on you. The most obvious way is by shooting 3's. Jenkins has made exactly 3.0 treys per game so far this season, and he's done so by shooting a mind-blowing 41% from the arc. If he shoots, he's probably going to hit a bunch, so a goal of the Bama defense should be to limit him to less than the 7 attempts he averages each game. We'll have to be careful, though, as Jenkins, like many of the Commodore players, is known for drawing fouls. He averages 5.0 made free throws per game while shooting a 90% rate from the stripe. Jenkins, of course, isn't just a shooter, though. Aside from the 9.0 points he averages from the arc and the 5.0 points he averages from the stripe, he also contributes 5.2 points from inside the arc while shooting 52%, showing he can hurt you off the dribble at times as well.
Another elite recruit for the Vandy program (4-star prospect, class of 2008) starts out on the wing. 6'7" junior Jeffery Taylor is second on the team in scoring with 14.9 points per game. He is also third on the team in both rebounding (5.2 per game) and assists (2.5 per game). Taylor has brought an elite level of athleticism to this team that had been missing from Vandy teams earlier in Stallings' tenure there. Much like Alabama's Mitchell, his mix of athleticism and size makes him an asset in virtually every facet of the game. He averages 1.3 made treys per game while shooting 38% from the arc, so he clearly is a shooting threat, but he does most of his damage inside the arc. Like Jenkins, he is also masterful at drawing fouls. In fact, he has exactly the same number of free throw attempts (5.5 per game) as Jenkins, but he shoots a lower percentage (72%) from the stripe. Jenkins will be a tough matchup for the Bama guards, who will likely be assigned to guard him for much of this one, as Mitchell will have to play against their post players for most of the night.
The final, and perhaps most important, piece of the Commodore starting backcourt is 6'3" junior point guard Brad Tinsley, himself yet another big recruit (4-star prospect) brought into the program in the class of 2008. Tinsley is best known for leading the SEC in assists with 4.5 per game, but he is also a capable scorer (10.5 points per game) and rebounder (4.1 boards per game). Tinsley isn't likely to "wow" you, but his numbers don't lie. You can't ask for much more out of a point guard than to dish out 4.5 assists per game while scoring in double figures himself. There's not any one thing Tinsley does particularly well, but he can shoot, penetrate, and has an uncanny court awareness about him that allows him to effectively break down opposing defenses. His matchup with Releford tonight will be key, possibly the biggest key from an individual standpoint.
The leader for the 'Dores in the post is the team's lone (healthy) senior, 6'11" center Festus Ezeli. Ezeli is the one key player for Vandy who wasn't a 4- or 5-star recruit, but after serving as the backup center behind his first three seasons, Ezeli has burst onto the scene as a senior and is now something of a force to be reckoned with. He is third on the team in scoring at 12.8 points per game, is second in rebounding at 6.1 boards per game, and leads the team (and is 4th in the SEC) with 2.3 blocks per game. He also shoots an incredible 59% from the floor and gets to the free throw line at an alarming rate, averaging 6.4 attempts each game. What's even more impressive about Ezeli's numbers is that he's racking up these totals while only playing 22 minutes each game. His biggest weakness is that he fouls too much, and he has also been battling some minor injuries throughout the season, both of which have limited his minutes. Ezeli has a strong motor and is excellent at muscling his way to position under the basket, which is what allows him to draw so many fouls and shoot such a high percentage. It is absolutely imperative that Hines and Green deny him that positioning if at all possible, and to do so without drawing too many fouls. Our best hope may be to draw fouls ourselves against Ezeli to get him out of the game, but if the opposite comes to fruition and he draws fouls on Hines and/or Green, we might just have to look deeper into our bench. If Engstrom is ever getting off the bench in an SEC game, my money is on this one.
At the beginning of the season, Vandy was starting 6'7" senior forward Andre Walker, but he has been out since December with an injury. 6'8" junior forward Lance Goulbourne, who, you guessed it, was a 4-star prospect brought in back in 2008, has taken his place in the starting lineup. Goulbourne is a tenacious rebounder, leading the team with 7.6 boards per game while also contributing 7.7 points each outing. I realize I already compared Taylor to Mitchell, but Goulbourne, who is listed as a small forward, probably plays a style even more closely resembling Mitchell's. He is capable of shooting from distance, but he does most of his damage around the rim by crashing the boards.
With Walker out of the lineup, Vandy, like Bama, has played with a pretty thin rotation. The two most prominent bench players are a pair of 6'9" forwards, both of whom were, no surprise, 4-star prospects. Junior Steve Tchiengang averages 5.2 points and 3.4 rebounds, while freshman Rod Odom averages 4.7 points and 2.8 rebounds. Both players have good size, decent athleticism, and a surprisingly good shooting range that extends all the way out to the 3-point line for both players. The only guard who sees regular action off the bench is 6'1" freshman point guard Kyle Fuller, who isn't much of a scoring threat but is a very capable ball-handler and distributor.
It's no surprise given their talent level and Stallings' reputation as a good offensive coach, but Vanderbilt is a very, very good offensive basketball team. They rank 26th in the nation in overall offensive efficiency, good for 2nd in the SEC behind only Kentucky. They are an extremely efficient shooting team, ranked 31st in the nation in effective field goal percentage, but their biggest strength comes in the form of free throws. They rank 20th in the nation in free throw attempt rate, meaning they are near the top of the country in terms of earning free throw attempts. When you combine that with the fact that they are 23rd in free throw shooting percentage, you get a picture of a team that relies on scoring in bunches at the free throw line.
Alabama, one of the worst teams in the country at earning free throw attempts, is almost certainly going to have to overcome what will likely be a substantial free throw discrepancy in this one. Vandy has made 427 free throws on the year. Bama has made 265 (and we actually shoot a pretty high percentage when we do get attempts). Fortunately for Bama, the weaknesses of the Vandy offense match up precisely with the strengths of the Tide defense. The Dores rank 237th in allowing blocks, while the Bama defense is 13th in the nation in block rate. They also rank 252nd in allowing steals, while the Bama defense is 1st in the nation in steal rate. I think it is safe to say that Bama will need to force a lot of turnovers and alter a lot of shots around the rim in order to slow Vandy down in this one.
On the defensive side, Vanderbilt ranks 49th in that nation in overall efficiency, behind only Alabama, Kentucky and Florida in the SEC. Clearly, they are no slouches on this side of the ball. Their biggest strengths are actually in the same components as their offensive strengths. They are 15th in the nation in effective field goal percentage defense, and 20th in the nation in defensive free throw attempt rate. Clearly, the Vandy defense is not one to allow easy shots, and they very rarely allow teams to get to the free throw line. Bama's offense will need to be clicking in this one and shots will need to be falling. The biggest weakness for the Commodore defense is in forcing turnovers, where they rank only 293rd in defensive turnover rate. Bama will likely need a big turnover margin to come out on top in this one.
As you can see, this Vandy team has talent, and they are very efficient on both ends of the floor in shooting percentages and in foul rates. To beat this team, Bama will need both its offense and its defense to be performing at very high levels, and even then, in this gym, that might not be enough if the free throw discrepancy is as large as I fear it may be, and especially if Vandy just has one of those hot shooting nights in Memorial.
One interesting thing to note, though, is that the tables have turned somewhat as opposed to the Tide's last five visits to Memorial. On those trips, Bama on paper had the more talented team, while it was Vandy who had to overcome that difference with superior coaching and intensity. This time around, the opposite is true. Furthermore, those Bama teams relied heavily on their offensive firepower, which always seemed to sputter in the glow of "Memorial Magic". This Bama team doesn't rely on its offense, but rather its defense to win games.
Let's hope those reversals can help us reverse a 21-year trend of falling at the gates of Memorial Fortress.