Vanderbilt faces a tough home schedule this week, starting with a matchup against SEC upstart Alabama before facing Kentucky in a battle that will go a long way in determining who gets a bye when the league tournament rolls around. The Commodores will have the advantage of playing in Memorial Gym, but neither game will be easy. The Tide are on fire over their past 11 games, going 10-1 with wins against Kentucky and Tennessee over that stretch. Currently, the team leads the SEC with a 7-1 record and is 3-0 against the SEC East.
Few people predicted Alabama's rise to the top of the conference at the halfway mark of league play. JaMychal Green and Tony Mitchell have combined for over 33 points and nearly 16 rebounds per game to lead the Tide to the top of the SEC West. They've currently got a three game lead in their division and are churning closer to a NCAA Tournament berth after a slow start to their season had them at 5-6 in December.
Down 2.5 games in the SEC East standings, Vanderbilt can't afford to look past Alabama on Thursday. Fortunately, the Tide's solid record will have the Commodores ready to play and able to avoid the trap. Despite the disparity in SEC records, the 'Dores are still favored in this game, and should be able to ride the momentum in Memorial Gym to victory. Of course, we could have said the same thing about the Arkansas game - so anything can happen.
Alabama (15-7 (7-1), AP #31, ESPN #34)
Alabama (KenPom #37, CBS RPI #89) is a beastly 12-0 at home but just 3-7 in away or neutral games. Unfortunately, all three of those road wins have come in SEC arenas (Mississippi State, Auburn, and Tennessee). Against Tennessee, the Tide showed the grit and determination to win an overtime game; another close win over Kentucky suggests that Alabama may have the edge in the final minute against a Vanderbilt team that has been unable to close out good teams.
However, the Tide had their own last-minute breakdown in the seventh place game of the Paradise Jam back in November (that's right; the number one team in the SEC right now finished dead last in a mid-level tournament early in the season. Of course). St. Peter's, a decent MAAC school, won a dogfight in an ugly game that saw Alabama fail to convert a field goal over the final five minutes of play. The Peacocks (ed. note - holy shit, really?) trailed throughout the second half until Jeron Belin hit a three pointer with 10 seconds remaining to give St. Peter's a 50-49 win.
Key to Destruction: Force Alabama's role players to step up. Green and Mitchell are the two constants in Alabama's lineup, and they can be counted on for most of their team's production. While St. Peter's slowed the pair down slightly, they stole the game by forcing the Tide's other players to step up and make big plays. In the final five minutes, the Peacocks either forced Mitchell into bad shots (0-3) or forced the ball out to other players who couldn't execute (0-4). This lapse gave St. Peter's the opportunity they needed to get back into the game and eventually win it.
Keys to the Game:
- Use Your Depth - Granted, Vanderbilt's depth has been limited by injuries across the forward position, but they still have more scorers and defenders than the Tide. Alabama doesn't have much of an answer for Vanderbilt's strength at forward and center, and their bench scored just four points in 37 minutes against St. Peter's. Guys like Jeffery Taylor, Lance Goulbourne, and Rod Odom will have to work to get Green and Mitchell exhausted or in foul trouble, but if they can the Commodores will have a distinct advantage on the floor.
- Get the ball to the big men - Alabama's biggest rotation player is Green at 6'8" and 228 pounds. That means their biggest player in the post will be about the same size as Lance Goulbourne. Vanderbilt needs to take advantage of this offensively by getting the ball to Festus Ezeli and Steve Tchiengang on the block. However, the team's big men need to be wary of double teams - a defensive strategy that has been stripping Ezeli of his effectiveness. If the African big man connection can identify the double and find open players on the perimeter, Vanderbilt should have little trouble scoring.
- Don't let Charvez Davis heat up - Vanderbilt has made a habit of letting mediocre players look great in losses. Davis, a 6'3" senior guard known for his long-range shooting but not much else, is a candidate to be that guy on Thursday. Alabama is 7-1 in games where Davis has scored 11 points or more and he's averaged 2.7 three pointers in those games. He was quiet in wins over Kentucky and Tennessee, but he fits the mold of players who have torched this team in the past. The onus will be on John Jenkins to neutralize him; locking him down on the perimeter is step one.