Vanderbilt's basketball schedule begins in earnest Thursday night, as the 'Dores head to San Juan for one of their biggest out-of-conference tests of the year - the Puerto Rico Tip-Off. While Friday's game with Presbyterian (KenPom rank: 321 of 345) was a nice way to ease in the season, Vandy will face their first real tests of the season in the eight-team tournament. Over a four-day span, the team will face Nebraska and have opportunities to play other quality teams like West Virginia, Minnesota, and North Carolina depending on the tournament's results.
These four days will help set the tone of the season, as a pair of quality wins could vault the Commodores into the Top 25 and assuage the fears that this is another Kevin Stallings squad that has trouble outside of Memorial Gym. It also represents a commitment to beefing up the team's non-SEC schedule in order to present a better resume to the NCAA Tournament's selection committee. The Tip-Off is another step away from the rinky-dink challenges of the past (Cancun Challenge, SPI Invitational) and a legitimate effort to show that this team belongs in college basketball's upper echelon early in the season. We covered the tournament bracket when it was first announced in August, and we're still just as excited to see how this team stacks up against a returning Final Four team and one of college basketball's most respected institutions.
Since we have a good idea of what to expect from the black and gold this week, we'll take a look at some of the challenges that face the 'Dores down in America Jr. (Puerto Rico). Today, we'll cover the top half of the PRTO bracket.
Nebraska (KenPom Ranking: 67, CBS RPI: 103): The Cornhuskers have never been known for their basketball program, and their most famous alum of the past two decades is probably Mikki Moore - the poor man's Will Perdue. Nebraska is 2-0 on the season with a pair of cupcake wins (UA Pine-Bluff, North Dakota) but could have trouble against established teams thanks to the loss of key players like Quincy Hankins-Cole, Myles Holley, and Ryan Anderson. Instead, the team will turn the reigns over to Christian Standhardinger on offense and hope that a core of young role players is ready to step up and compete in the team's last season as a Big 12 member.
Nebraska could pose some problems for the 'Dores with their length. They have five players standing 6'10" or taller, and boast a deep pool of true centers - something that Vandy can't match. However, their talent is inexperienced and raw, and while Brian Diaz and Brandon Ubel could be effective against the 'Dores, neither player has shown much that suggests that their post play will be enough to key a UN upset. One intriguing prospect to watch will be Brazilian Andre Almeida - a 6'11", 325 lump of a center who put up 20 points in 19 minutes against North Dakota. He may be raw, but his sheer size suggests that Festus Ezeli may have his hands full in the paint for this international showdown.
Key Matchup: Christian Standhardinger vs. Jeffery Taylor. Standhardinger is a German native who is an explosive scorer and has been touted as his team's breakout player for 2011. Taylor is a Swedish native who is an explosive scorer/defender who has been touted as his team's breakout player as well. Something's got to give in this battle of European forwards, and if Taylor can limit the German's offense while shooting efficiently from the floor, it will not only help the 'Dores win this game, but show that the Swedish Eagle is ready to become a star his junior year.
West Virginia (KenPom: 19, CBS: 1): Coach Bob Huggins will bring his rebuilding Mountaineers to San Juan for a potential second round matchup with Vanderbilt on Friday. The team won't have the stars that brought them to the 2010 Final Four thanks to the graduation of Da'Sean Butler and the early exit of Devin Ebanks, but they do return lots of tough and talented team players like Darryl Bryant and Kevin Jones who understand what it takes to win games in Morgantown.
The Mountaineers handled a scrappy Oakland team 95-71 in their only game before the Tip-Off. While potential first-round pick Keith Benson dropped 22 points on Huggins's squad, the team limited his efficiency and forced the action onto the rest of the Grizzlies to pull out a big win. The team will be counting on breakout seasons from John Flowers, Deniz Kilicli, and Jones in order to finish near the top of the perpetually-stacked Big East.
West Virginia doesn't have much size beyond Kilicli (who should match up favorably against Steve Tchiengang), but they've got a roster deep with role players and swingmen who can score inside and out. They'll be well coached and should provide a legitimate challenge should they meet the Commodores this week. However, Vandy should be able to take advantage of the team's absence of star players, as well as their dependence on unproven guys like Kilicli and Flowers.
Key Matchup: Joe Mazzulla and Darryl Bryant vs. Brad Tinsley and Kyle Fuller. Mazzulla and Bryant bring leadership and steady play to the point, and will provide the toughest test for the Commodores' point guards in their half of the bracket. WVU has two solid athletes who can score and distribute playing the one, and it will take a lot of pressure to goad the pair into making mistakes. Can Tinsley keep up his solid play from the season opener? Is Fuller ready to defend NCAA-level point guards? Questions have surrounded the point at Vanderbilt since Jermaine Beal graduated - and we'll get a good idea of the answers if this team matches up with West Virginia on Friday.
Davidson (KenPom: 153, CBS: 237): The Wildcats aren't the team they were in the Stephen Curry era, and are the only school in this half of the bracket to have lost a game - 69-64 to Penn. Senior Brendon McKillop has emerged as the team's leader, and Davidson's roster behind him is full of intriguing young players. Sophomores J.P. Kuhlman and Jake Cohen provide offense on a balanced roster, and Clint Mann, a transfer from Iowa State, could prove to be a steal of a player for the Southern Conference's most recognizable team. This team is full of shooters and isn't afraid to jack up threes - they had 18 attempts in their first game and connected on six.
Unfortunately, this Davidson squad seems outmatched against the rest of the teams in this tournament. The Wildcats don't have the length to out-rebound opponents or play in the paint, and their best hope will be to out-shoot their competitors. With all five starters being given the green light to bomb away from long range, they'll have a chance to pull a few upsets, but they're undoubtedly the underdogs in Puerto Rico this year.
Key Matchup: De'Mon Brooks vs. Rod Odom. Both players are freshman microwaves off the bench - rangy scorers who can fill up the bucket in bunches. Brooks, a little-heralded recruit, scored 10 points in just nine minutes against Penn, and is making a case for a bigger role with his ability to score from anywhere on the court. Odom is hoping to have a similar impact for Vandy, and the two should end up drawing each other in coverage for spurts during a potential game. Which first-year player will have the bigger offensive impact for their team?