Come Thursday, we'll know what these Commodores are made of. Vanderbilt will face their biggest test of the early season this week, traveling to Columbia for a game against the #8 ranked Missouri Tigers.
The Tigers are primed for a deep NCAA Tournament run and present the most balanced and aggressive team that the Commodores will face until the SEC season starts. Missouri is currently 7-1 with their only loss coming in overtime against #14 Georgetown. Led by the inside-out combination of Kim English and Ricardo Ratliffe, the Tigers are a legitimate threat to win the stacked Big 12 and a staunch challenge for a Vandy team that is eager for a marquee non-conference win.
The Commodores won last year's matchup, but Missouri has reloaded and will be looking for revenge on their own floor. Several questions loom on the horizon as the 'Dores prepare to face a game that could have major NCAA Tournament implications this March. A win Wednesday would send a major message to both SEC opponents and to the national media that this team is for real. A loss sends this team back down the rankings ladder to regroup. What factors will play a role in the outcome? Let's take a look:
Can the Commodores win outside of Memorial Gym? Last year, Vandy won behind the interior play of A.J. Ogilvy and the home-court advantage of Memorial Gym. This year, they'll have the comfort of neither. While Festus Ezeli will be able to replace some of Ogilvy's offense, there's no substitute for Memorial Magic (or, if you're not a Vandy fan, "that bullsh-t bench setup that those nerds in Nashville use").
The 'Dores cleared a huge hurdle by defeating North Carolina on a neutral court - a win that helps assuage complaints that this team can't win big games on the road. Facing Missouri in Columbia will be tougher, as the Tigers are more cohesive as a team and will have a much louder contingent rooting behind them than the Tar Heels did. For a team that will be relying on a pair of freshmen in the rotation and two relatively unproven frontcourt starters, this could be a major factor. Missouri's style of play feeds off confusion and miscommunication. If their crowd can disorient Vandy's players and spur mistakes, it will only fuel the Tigers.
How much will this team miss Andre Walker? Walker, the team's starting power forward and glue-guy, will miss this game and several more thanks to a bout with mononucleosis (he reportedly contracted it from Trey Thompkins's mother). Walker's statistics this year weren't anything too impressive (3.7 ppg, 3.9 rpg), but his presence on the court was invaluable. Aside from his efficient defense, the redshirt junior also provides a valuable outlet for the backcourt, working as a point-forward who can both dribble and distribute inside the paint and out.
His steady play cannot be overvalued. "Bruce-Lucius" currently ranks second on the team in assists and holds a 3.7:1.4 assist:turnover ratio. As the 'Dores prepare to face a team known for their ability to force mistakes through constant pressure, losing their safety valve in the frontcourt could be ruinous. In his absence against Belmont, Rod Odom and Lance Goulbourne combined for nine turnovers despite playing well on offense.
What about those turnovers? The Tigers are well known for their defensive intensity and "40 minutes of hell" philosophy on the court. The team will press Vandy throughout the game and try to force miscues against relatively inexperienced ballhandlers Brad Tinsley and Kyle Fuller. Missouri is ranked eighth in the country in turnover percentage, ending 27.7% of opponents' possessions with turnovers. Vanderbilt's offense is ranked 223rd in the country when it comes to preventing these mistakes, turning the ball over on 22.5% of their possessions. These stats suggest that the 'Dores will be ripe for the picking on Thursday.
Any Commodore fan can tell you that turnovers have been the early season bane of this team's existence. Tinsley's inability to handle full court pressure has been another concern. Can this team adjust to take advantage of the gaps created by Missouri's aggressive play? Or will Vandy struggle to bring the ball up the court and cede enough fast break points to allow the game to slip away?
Can Festus Ezeli continue to provide the team's motor on offense? Ezeli was a beast on Saturday, scoring 24 points and grabbing 10 rebounds against a solid - but overmatched - Belmont University. As John Jenkins struggled and Jeffery Taylor went through his usual inconsistent streaks, the big Nigerian dictated how the game was going to unfold by dominating in the paint. He even showed a marked improvement from the line, hitting 10 of his 14 free throw attempts.
He'll have to be on point again Thursday to help facilitate the Vanderbilt offense. Ezeli's play in the post adds an extra dimension for this offense and creates openings for the team's myriad of outside shooters. If Fes can't get it going against the Tigers, Missouri will key in on the perimeter - and with a team stocked with great athletes who are used to high-pressure defending, this would make things exceedingly tough on the Commodores.
Thursday will also present a challenge to Ezeli's newfound proficiency from the free throw line. It's one thing to put a good percentage together at home, but if the center can block out the opposing crowd and connect at a 70% rate, we'll know that his improvement is legitimate.
Which Jeffery Taylor and John Jenkins can we expect? The team's dynamic duo have yet to truly sync up and have dominant performances in the same game. Jenkins has often been solid, but has yet to put together the breakout performance that he has been building towards since last season. He's also had three games so far in which his shot has deserted him - though all three have been Vanderbilt victories.
Taylor's early struggles have been worse. Consistency has been his greatest enemy, as the junior has shown flashes of dominance in stretches but has also developed a penchant for disappearing on the court for minutes at a time. His shooting from the interior has regressed (though he has become a legit long range shooter, interestingly enough) and he still appears to be struggling with decisions on the court.
The two appear to have complimentary problems. Jenkins possesses the assertiveness that Taylor lacks, and has shown that he's always willing to exploit any opportunities defenses present to him. Taylor possesses the strength and athleticism to get in the paint and finish at the rim for the nights when his outside shot isn't falling. If somehow the two can work together to maximize their talents, they'll be unstoppable for the Commodores. If they continue to teeter between good-to-average-to-great on a nightly basis, this team will be stuck in the realm of "very good" when they should be "great."
The 'Dores have lots of issues to address before Thursday, but the end goal is simple - a big win in Columbia and a Top 20 ranking to follow. The loss of Andre Walker hurts, but it gives guys like Lance Goulbourne, Steve Tchiengang, and Rod Odom a big time opportunity to step up on a national stage. If Vanderbilt can win at Missouri, it would not only boost the team's stock, but help erase the painful stigma that this team can't win big games on the road. Erasing that reputation is the first step towards a Final Four appearance.