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Vanderbilt basketball has a tough task with 13-2 Missouri coming to town, but Georgia may have given this team the blueprint for success against the Tigers. That's right - it's time to start this year's edition of The SEC's Worst Losses!
The bad news is that Vanderbilt is 0-2 in conference play. The good news is that, after facing Missouri at home, they won't see another team that received votes in either top 25 poll for over a month.
That means that a win over formerly-ranked Missouri could start a rally that lifts the undermanned and underrated Commodores from the bottom of the SEC. Vandy has struggled through the start of the league schedule thanks to a combination of injuries, transfers, and disciplinary issues that have cut their roster down to just seven scholarship players. However, they'll get Mizzou at home in the midst of a white out to give this team something to build on as the winter rages.
Missouri will be a tough out. The Tigers are led by a high-octane backcourt that is filled with Frank Haith's impact transfers. Jabari Brown, Earnest Ross, and Jordan Clarkson have all made the most of their second chances with Mizzou, and the trio has combined for more than 51 points per game this season. They'll present a difficult matchup for a Vandy team that has two dynamite defenders and then a long drop off when it comes to guards on Kevin Stallings's clipboard.
Let's take a better look at the Tigers by breaking down how another struggling team took them down this winter. Here's Missouri's worst loss, and how Vanderbilt can learn from it. Welcome back to AoG's long-running preview series, The SEC's Worst Losses.
Missouri (13-2, 1-1 SEC, #28 in the Coaches' Poll, #63 in the Pomeroy Rankings)
Missouri used a hot start to crack the top 25, but an emotional Georgia team dropped them from the rankings to open up conference play. Georgia had suffered double-digit defeats to teams like Davidson and George Washington before heading to Columbia for a high-profile showdown with the Tigers. However, instead of rolling over, the Bulldogs held Mizzou to less than 40 percent shooting from the field to pull off the SEC's biggest upset in this fledgling season.
Georgia was powered by something bigger than basketball that evening. The Bulldogs were fighting for head coach Mark Fox. Fox had lost his father earlier in the week, and his team pulled out an emotional team in solidarity of their grieving leader. The win may have even been enough to help save the embattled coach's job after two straight losing seasons in Athens.
Key to Destruction: Wrought emotion from a personal tragedy. Missouri went up against a Georgia team that was fighting for their coach, and the Tigers couldn't keep up with UGA's intensity and effort throughout the game. The Bulldogs harassed Mizzou's shooters, came up big on the boards from every position, and simply played like the team that had more to lose on January 8th.
Vanderbilt can't tap into a well of emotion that runs as deeply as Georgia's did that evening, but they have a lot to fight for. This team has lost six games in 2013-2014, but have never given up despite getting buried under a dump truck full of adversity. They'll be playing at home with a chance to give two seniors - Rod Odom and Kyle Fuller - a just reward for busting their asses and making the most out of a bad situation. If this team can work that frustration into a frenzy on Thursday, they can rally past Missouri.
Keys to the Game:
Relentless backcourt defense. Mizzou got the bulk of their points from a talented guard rotation that includes Brown (18.2 ppg), Clarkson (18.9), and Ross (14.2). While those three made half their shots from the field in regulation, the group shot just 25 percent in overtime thanks to Georgia's grinding defense. That turned out to the the difference between a win and a loss for Mizzou. That will be a tougher task for a Vandy team that relied on two players to lock down all 80 minutes of backcourt time against Kentucky, but veteran leaders Dai-Jon Parker and Kyle Fuller have the defensive chops to get it done.
Body Control. In 45 minutes of play, an undersized Georgia team blocked eight shots but committed only 16 fouls. That kept a team that had averaged nearly 28 free throws per game to just 21 shots from the charity stripe. This backcourt-driven team can get to the rim and draw fouls, but UGA kept them well below their season average despite the overtime frame. If Vandy can do the same, they'll cut off one of Mizzou's main avenues of scoring points.
Frontcourt scoring. Unlike last year's Tiger team, which relied on experienced big men Alex Oriakhi and Laurence Bowers, this Mizzou team has senior Tony Criswell and a pair of young forwards to man the paint. Criswell adds bulk up front, and freshman Johnathan Williams III is developing into a fierce defender, but the Tigers will give Vandy plenty of opportunities to score around the rim. Damian Jones and Luke Kornet don't have the experience to make this a mismatch, but their combination of smart, soft play and bruising interior play could end up providing Vanderbilt with the scoring edge on Thursday.
Georgia made the most out of a bad situation to ride a wave of emotion and upset Missouri. Vanderbilt seems to have a different bad situation sneak up on them every other week. If the Commodores can harness that energy and feed off a home crowd that is desperate for a big win, then they can notch their first SEC win of the season on Thursday.