Vanderbilt's SEC schedule heats up this week, as the Commodores will face a pair of the conference's upper-level teams in nationally televised games. After starting the season against what may be the league's bottom three teams, the 'Dores will travel to Alabama Thursday and host Mississippi State Saturday in matchups that will go a long way in determining postseason seeding come March. Both the Crimson Tide and the Bulldogs have been nationally ranked in 2011-2012, with MSU coming in at 15th in the country in the latest coaches' poll.
Before Vandy gets to the Bulldogs, they'll have to face the last team that Mississippi State beat - Alabama. The Tide were ranked as highly as 12th this season before losing games to some quality opponents. Georgetown, Dayton, and Kansas State are all solid defeats for a team that still has high hopes for the postseason. All four teams that Alabama has lost to rank in the top 50 of the CBS RPI. Comparatively, none of Vanderbilt's losses have come against teams currently in the top 40 of those rankings.
However, one thing the Tide are still looking for is a signature win. They've got a strong record against opponents from BCS conferences, including wins against Purdue, Oklahoma State, Maryland, and Georgia Tech, but have had the bad luck to have faced these teams in down years. Despite a challenging out-of-conference schedule and several wins, Alabama is still looking for a defining game that can sway members of the NCAA Tournament selection committee come March.
Vanderbilt doesn't fit that mold yet, but a win for Anthony Grant's team on Thursday would help keep them off the tournament bubble. Vandy has played well in the midst of a seven-game winning streak, and a pair of victories this week would vindicate some of the preseason hype that this team has yet to live up to. However, they'll have to prove that they can do two things that have sunk them in the past in order to get there - defend efficiently and win away from Memorial Gym.
So how can the Commodores do that? They can either get their hands dirty and push around the Tide in a slopfest like Mississippi State did, or they can rise up offensively and out-shoot Alabama like Dayton did.
Alabama (13-4, unranked, #14 in the Pomeroy Rankings)
Other Losses: vs. Georgetown, vs. Kansas State
The Dayton and Mississippi State games provide two different templates for beating Alabama. The former relied on efficient offense and creating open shots to outscore the Tide. The latter used a slow pace to grind down 'Bama's playmakers and allow stronger rebounding and stout defense to swing the balance of the game. In 2011-2012, Vanderbilt has shown that they can use either strategy to produce wins.
The Flyers shot 60.9 percent from the field in their double-digit victory, including 10-19 from three-point range to pull off the early-season upset. They answered with dagger threes throughout the second half when 'Bama threatened to cut their lead down to a single possession and cruised to their biggest win of the season. Mississippi State, on the other hand, shot just 40 percent, but took care of the ball (nine turnovers), shut down the Tide's outside scoring, and rebounded well enough in a low-possession game to control the ball and squeeze out a four-point win.
Key to Destruction: Put the pressure on the perimeter. In their losses to Dayton and Mississippi State, Alabama went just 5-23 from long distance. This low-efficiency output isn't all that uncommon for the Crimson Tide - they're shooting just 27.1 percent from three-point range for the season so far. Vanderbilt will need to focus on stopping Alabama's scoring around the basket - something that guys like JaMychal Green and Trevor Releford excel at - and force them into long baskets. Kevin Stallings has shown that he can effectively switch from man to zone coverage in order to force a cold-shooting team to jack up deep shots. That's something that could pay dividends against a team that lacks a consistent three-point threat.
Keys to victory:
- Get on the boards. Both Dayton and Mississippi State held significant advantages over Alabama in the rebounding department. For State, this meant extra possessions (10 offensive boards) and the extra looks that they needed when their shots weren't falling. The Tide have been outrebounded in every loss they've had this season and are giving up over 12 offensive boards per game. Tony Mitchell and Green are both strong rebounders, but Vanderbilt has the size and strength to keep them off the glass and turn this advantage in the paint into a Commodore victory.
- Don't rely on getting to the line. Vanderbilt did a ton of damage with free throws against Georgia last week, scoring 30 of their 77 points at the stripe and attempting 44 shots overall. However, they might not be able to have as much success against a Tide team that has played much more controlled defense in 2011-2012. Dayton attempted 11 free throws and Mississippi State just 12, despite having players like Dee Bost and Arnett Moultrie, who are both proficient at geting to the line.
- Feed Festus, Lance, and Steve. Moultrie put up 25 points and 13 rebounds to lead MSU to victory last week, driving the Bulldogs past a 'Bama squad that simply couldn't handle him physically. The Tide only have two rotation players taller than 6'6", and Vanderbilt should be able to take advantage of this thanks to the emergence of Lance Goulbourne and the ever-improving health of Festus Ezeli. The pair, along with Steve Tchiengang, should give Vandy a distinct edge in the paint and the strength to create easy baskets at the hoop. If Vanderbilt can feed the post and use their size to bully Alabama, they'll be able to replicate much of what made Mississippi State's win over the Tide successful.