Tonight's game against #13 Marquette is Vanderbilt's last chance to make a statement in their out-of-conference basketball schedule.
Er, a positive statement, rather.
The Commodores have stumbled through their early-season slate, losing four games and dropping from being the seventh-best team in the country to being entirely unranked. This team choked away leads against Xavier, Louisville, and Indiana State. They were dominated wire-to-wire by a Cleveland State team that has double-digit losses to South Florida and Hofstra.
Marquette will provide the team will one last chance to prove that they can live up to their lofty preseason ranking. The Golden Eagles are 11-1 on the season and have recorded wins over Wisconsin and Washington along the way. Though they were exposed in a bad loss to LSU 10 days ago, they're still undefeated on their home floor at the Bradley Center.
Vanderbilt will have to get by with only limited minutes from center Festus Ezeli. The big man will play, but not start, in tonight's game thanks to a pair of sore knees. He's still dealing with a ligament sprain in his right knee that has kept him from full strength since October - but compensating for the bad knee has led to trouble on his left side as well. In an interview with The Tennessean, Coach Kevin Stallings described Ezeli as being at around "75 percent" for the game.
The team will need all the help they can get against a Marquette team that has only gotten better since pushing Vanderbilt to the last possession of a Commodore win back in 2010. Darius Johnson-Odom, Jae Crowder, and Vander Blue were all members of that Golden Eagle team, and they'll be looking for revenge in their hometown tonight. All three players have made major strides in 2011 and have pushed Marquette into top ten consideration in the polls.
Johnson-Odom and Crowder have led the team offensively from the wings, combining for over 35 points per game. Both are capable shooters who can fill it up from all over the court, and each is connecting on over 39 percent of their three-point attempts on the season so far. Crowder, an adept scorer inside and out at 6'6" and 225 pounds, could force the Commodores to stick Jeffery Taylor on him at all times and follow him across the court.
However, using Taylor exclusively on Crowder could create some problems for Stallings's squad. Marquette uses a wing and guard-heavy lineup that relies on their speed and athleticism rather than size. This advantage has allowed them to push the pace and run less-capable squads off the floor in big wins. In 12 games, the Golden Eagles have scored 79 or more points eight times.
Vanderbilt has traditionally struggled to defend against teams with athletic, high-scoring guards. Marquette has four that can fill it up, including the blossoming Vander Blue. Blue, a five-star prospect coming out of high school, has emerged as a reliable third option for the team this season. His athleticism and strong frame (6'4", 200 lbs) help make up for a sometimes questionable shot selection. He can score (10.2 ppg), rebound (4.2 rpg), pass (3.4 apg), and defend (1.9 spg) well enough to give the 'Dores headaches all over the court.
He'll man the backcourt alongside Johnson-Odom and Junior Cadougan. Cadougan isn't much of a shooter but he's adept at the point, averaging 5.5 assists per game. Freshman Todd Mayo, the younger brother of NBA player O.J. Mayo, will also play big minutes in the guard rotation. He scored 22 points against Northern Colorado when Johnson-Odom's was suspended and is averaging nearly 10 points per game in his short NCAA career.
Davante Gardner, a 6'8", 290 mass of humanity, will be the Eagles' man in the middle for tonight's game. He replaces Chris Otule, who is out indefinitely with a leg injury. He's scored in double-digits in three of the four games that he's started this season, and his wide frame makes him a strong presence on the offensive glass. Steve Tchiengang will have his hands full with this underrated forward.
In all, the Golden Eagles are a dangerous team whose depth will push the Commodores all night. While they don't have the size to match up with Vandy's frontcourt, a hobbled Festus Ezeli will take away the team's strongest advantage. Marquette's guard depth - which houses no fewer than three players who can burn Stallings's squad - will be a major problem for Vanderbilt in Milwaukee. They'll need big games from guys like Kedren Johnson and Dai-Jon Parker to help keep an explosive team in check. However, if John Jenkins can put together the same kind of defensive performance that he did against Xavier earlier this month, the 'Dores will have a chance to leave Wisconsin with a momentum-shifting win.