It will be another tough week of SEC play for Vanderbilt as the Commodores will face one NCAA tournament bubble team and one tournament lock in a series that could put the team in first place in the conference. Thursday presents the first test against the formerly ranked Ole Miss Rebels. The Rebels started the season strong with wins over Kansas State and South Carolina before sputtering to a 1-3 record in their last four games. They'll host Vanderbilt knowing that a win against another Top 25 team could be the difference between the NCAA and NIT tournaments.
Vandy heads into the game with a couple of question marks. John Jenkins looks to be cleared after recovering from a stomach virus, but it's unsure if his strength, endurance, and shooting will be back at his normal levels. Andre Walker is still battling a shoulder injury and may not play while he prepares for Saturday's big Kentucky showdown. Both players missed last Saturday's game against LSU, and their absences were felt on the court. There's no word yet on who will start in Walker's place tomorrow night, but after Steve Tchiengang's performance vs. LSU, he'd be the safest bet.
Ole Miss (17-7, AP NR, Coaches NR)
Mississippi (RPI #51, KenPom #42) has a schedule littered with good losses. Aside from Arkansas, every team the Rebels have lost to has been ranked at some point, including three top ten teams in Villanova, WVU, and Kentucky. Conversely, the team has few eye-catching wins; after Kansas State, the highest ranked team that Ole Miss has beaten is Texas-El Paso. As a result, the team has placed themselves firmly on the NCAA bubble by sitting on the back end of the Top 50.
The team's worst loss came against Arkansas in a game clouded by a unique circumstance. After a snowstorm postponed the game by a day, the Razorbacks overcame an early deficit to pull away in the last four minutes of a 80-73 victory. The loss helped drop the Rebels from #20 in the AP poll and out of the rankings entirely.
Keys to destruction: Arkansas was able to pull away late in the game because they wore down Mississippi's front line. With center Reginald Buckner injured, the Razorbacks drove right at DeAundre Cranston and Terrance Henry, who combined for nine fouls in just 30 minutes. Backup forward Murphy Holloway stepped up to fill the void in a big way with 19 points and 17 rebounds, but it wasn't enough to keep Arkansas out of the paint. The visiting team used alley oops and layups to finish off a depleted Ole Miss squad.
On top of exploiting the Rebels' foul trouble, Arkansas was able to hold Ole Miss defensively. Despite 76 field goal attempts, the home team managed just 73 points. Conversely, Arkansas played a much more efficient game - 80 points on just 53 shots. Much of their efficiency came from converting their foul shots - the Razorbacks shot 85% from the line on the night.
This strategy falls right into Vanderbilt's strengths. The Commodores have two healthy players that can get inside and draw fouls in A.J. Ogilvy and Jeffery Taylor. In their past two games, this team has earned 43 foul shots per game and made an average of 34 of those. When the defensive focus collapses inside to stop these drives, Vandy has the perimeter shooters to make Ole Miss pay for double-teams. Though the Rebels have a home run hitter in Chris Warren that will give Vandy fits, their weaknesses up front should give the Commodores the edge, even without Andre Walker.
Keys to the game:
- Keep feeding Taylor and Ogilvy inside, and draw fouls on Cranston and Henry - With Buckner still out due to injury, the Rebels are thin up front. Cranston and Henry have a knack for picking up easy fouls, and Holloway on the bench lacks the consistency to stop the 'Dores inside or create his own offense at the other end. Pounding the ball inside will keep Ole Miss's starters off the court through foul trouble, and create the mismatches this team thrives off of.
- Wait for good shots from outside - Once the Rebels figure out the plan to work the ball in the interior, they'll switch to quick double-teams on the inside. This will leave a perimeter shooter open, and with Beal/Tinsley/Jenkins sitting on the arc, it will leave good three point opportunities. If the team can work the ball inside, Coach Kevin Stallings won't have to worry about forcing threes - they'll come naturally.
- Don't let Chris Warren beat you - Warren has a Devan Downey quality to him, in that he can score in high volume when things fall right for him. Ole Miss is a good team and they'll have home court advantage - a strong performance from the junior guard could be enough to lift a hungry Rebel team to the upset. Stop him, and the chance of the upset drops precipitously.