After a rare road victory on Tuesday night, the Crimson Tide return home to Coleman Coliseum on Saturday for a meeting with the perpetually young Vanderbilt Commodores (13-11, 3-8 SEC). Kevin Stallings, one of the most underrated coaches in college basketball, continues to field competitive teams despite the amount of unforeseen attrition that the 'Dores seem to experience nearly every offseason. Out of the eight players that make up their regular rotation, Vandy enlists the aid of five (!) freshmen this season. The youngsters have had to step up and replace the large voids that have been left by the likes of Eric McClellan, Kedren Johnson, Sheldon Jeter, Kevin Bright, A.J. Astroth, Dai-Jon Parker, etc. All of those names were either kicked off the team or transferred in the last two offseasons, a truly unbelievable statistic. Regardless, Coach Stallings has kept his record blaring "Forever Young", as Vanderbilt's team has continued along to the hypothetical tunes of Bob Dylan and the Commodores.
- PG Wade Baldwin (7.9 PPG, 3.7 RPG, 4.4 APG, 1.6 SPG)
- SG Riley LaChance (12.5 PPG, 3.2 RPG, 2.6 APG, 0.8 SPG)
- SF Jeff Roberson (5.0 PPG, 3.6 RPG, 1.2 APG)
- PF James Siakam (9.0 PPG, 5.7 RPG, 1.1 SPG, 1.2 BPG)
- C Damian Jones (14.9 PPG, 6.7 RPG, 0.9 APG, 1.9 BPG, 0.8 SPG)
Vanderbilt has managed to find highly successful young guards every time they have lost the preceding group, and this season has been no different. At the point, Baldwin has been sensational. He shoots the ball pretty well (41.8% FG%, 37.9% 3P%, 78.0% FT%), runs the offense like a veteran (over 2:1 assist-to-turnover ratio), is disruptive with his hands on defense, and even hits the glass pretty well for point guard. His play, however, has been over-shadowed by his comrade in the back court, Riley LaChance. LaChance has been the most valuable freshman in the league (yes, even including Kentucky), because he's been such a great scorer for the 'Dores (44.4% FG%, 38.2% 3P%, 85.7% FT%). LaChance has won multiple SEC Freshman of the Week awards, and he can flat out play when he has the ball in his hands. His one big weakness right now is his defense, as his small 6'2 stature and mediocre lateral quickness has been exploited at times. However, this is a very promising guard duo, and if Vanderbilt can actually get these guys to stick around, they are going to be in very good hands the next few seasons.
At the three spot, the Commodores deploy yet another true freshman in Roberson. He isn't asked to do a ton, yet he has been very efficient when called upon. Roberson is a 48.8% shooter, which includes a 40.0% clip from beyond the perimeter. He has struggled from the free throw line (63.3%), but he's been a very solid forward for the 'Dores. His 6'6 size gives Vandy some nice length, especially when combined with the two big guys in the post. Siakam, the lone upperclassman in the regular rotation, has given Vanderbilt some much-needed experience from his spot in the post. He's a strong scorer around the basket (65.0% FG%) and can knock down his free shots (75.5%). He rebounds at a decent rate, but where he really makes the biggest impact is defensively. With a team-best defensive rating of 93.5, he has really led by example on that side of the court. Being able to average a steal and a block per game shows that he is a versatile defensive player. Jones, the 6'10 center, is both the leading scorer and rebounder for Vandy. Kevin Stallings really likes to get the ball in the hands of the big guy, who scores at a strong 54.0% rate. Defensively, his nearly two swats a game make him one of the best shot-blockers in college basketball.
- G Shelton Mitchell (4.6 PPG, 2.3 RPG, 3.6 APG)
- G Matthew Fisher-Davis (5.9 PPG, 2.0 RPG, 1.0 APG)
- C Luke Kornet (8.5 PPG, 3.7 RPG, 0.9 APG, 1.0 BPG)
- F Shelby Moats (1.1 PPG, 1.0 RPG)
- C Josh Henderson (2.4 PPG, 1.4 RPG)
While Vanderbilt's been able to do a decent job replacing all of their guys in the starting line-up, the depletion of the roster over the last few years has really taken a toll on the bench. Moats and Henderson aren't really a part of the true rotation, and they usually only come in to grab some boards and play good defense. That leaves Vandy with three bench players, two of which are true freshmen. Mitchell, one of those freshmen, has done a solid job for the 'Dores, though. He's not quite adjusted to being able to consistently score at this level (34.7% FG%, 21.7% 3P%, 70.7% FT%), but he runs the offense well whenever Baldwin or LaChance need some rest. Fisher-Davis has been a strange case this season, as he's an overall 33.9% shooting from the floor: 13.3% from inside of the perimeter and 40.2% from outside. Clearly, Alabama needs to extend the defense on him and force him to go inside. Kornet, the seven-footer, has been a strong option off of the bench in the low post. He plays well around the basket, but he can also step outside and knock down jumpers. He's even been solid from three (35.7%), so the Tide's post players need to be ready for that.
What to Watch For
- Injuries. Ricky Tarrant and Retin Obasohan are still questionable for the game Saturday night. Alabama has really missed these two players in the back court, so it's obviously a major factor here. Michael Kessens played through an ankle injury and Rodney Cooper battled flu-like symptoms in the win in Starkville the other night as well. Hopefully, a few days rest gave both of them the time they needed to get back to full-health.
- Home Court + Greater Experience = Advantage. One of the tried-and-true trends in college basketball is that young teams struggle to win conference games on the road, especially against veteran clubs. Vanderbilt is 1-6 on the road this season, and 0-5 on the road in SEC play. Alabama is 12-2 at home this season, with a 3-2 mark in SEC play. The odds play in Alabama's favor in this one.
- Good Help Defense. Vanderbilt doesn't blow teams away with an electrifying offense or anything like that, but the 'Dores are surprisingly efficient with the basketball. Vandy is 43rd in the country in FG% (46.9%) and 38th in the country in APG (15.1). They pass the ball really well, run effective sets, and don't settle for poor shots. High percentage looks are the norm for the Commodores, almost to a fault. Vandy doesn't have many guys who are going to create their own shot, which is why it is imperative that Alabama play good help defense. Vanderbilt is going to look to make the extra pass, so the Tide need to make sure that they get their hands up and rotate over on defense. Well coached defenses like Alabama's can be kryptonite to a team like Vanderbilt.
- Offensive Efficiency. Alabama isn't going to win many games by jacking up a bunch of shots, especially not against a team like Vanderbilt that is so good at deflecting them. The Commodores are 45th in the country with about five blocks per game. They make it difficult to score points in the paint. With the kind of struggles Alabama has had from the three point line, that makes for a bit of a double-edged sword. The key is for Alabama to work for open looks. Anthony Grant loves to run the high pick-and-roll, which can help create good looks by making the inside defenders move a little bit; Alabama needs to run it effectively. Levi Randolph is very underrated for how good of a jump shooter he can be inside of the perimeter, and with the smaller Vanderbilt guards trying to defend him, he should get plenty of good shots off. Rodney Cooper and Riley Norris have both been shooting the three-ball relatively well lately; Alabama will need them to knock those shots down when they are there.