Vanderbilt gets a rare out-of-conference respite Saturday, but their opponent may end up being tougher than anyone the SEC could throw at them. Saint Mary's comes to Nashville this weekend to settle up a home-and-home series that started last year with a 72-70 Commodore win in the second game of the season. That Gaels squad was one of the best in school history; losing just six games, beating Gonzaga for the West Coast Conference title, and reaching the Sweet Sixteen in the NCAA Tournament.
This year's edition of the Gaels has been without standout center Omar Samhan, but are still making their case for national legitimacy. Saint Mary's is 17-2 so far this year and ranked #22/21 in the AP and ESPN polls. Transfer Rob Jones has filled Samhan's spot in the frontcourt alongside standout guards Mickey McConnell and Matthew Dellavedova to give the Gaels a legitimate inside-out presence - the kind that has torched Vandy in the past.
Still, Vanderbilt should have the edge in this year's contest thanks to Samhan's absence and the fact that the Gaels will be coming to Nashville this year. Samhan brutalized Vandy in the paint in 2009, exploding for 25 points and 18 rebounds while holding A.J. Ogilvy to just two points of his own. Getting Saint Mary's into the not-so-friendly confines of Memorial Gym to face a more experienced (and better rebounding) Commodore squad is a confidence booster. However, they still represent one of the toughest remaining games on the Vanderbilt schedule.
The Gaels have a pair of losses on their record, but both are against legitimate teams. They were a victim of San Diego State's scorching start, as well as a hard-luck loser versus Brigham Young. Neither team falls lower than 14th in either the KenPom or CBS RPI rankings system. However, Saint Mary's has just one resume building win so far this season over St. John's. Other than that, their best win has come against either San Francisco or Long Beach State; a pair of teams scrapping to get in to the top 100.
Still, since neither BYU or SDSU really designates a "bad loss," it might be more beneficial to look at how the Commodores dropped this team in 2009 rather than harp on two losses to teams that have one combined defeat between them. WIth that in mind, let's hop in the way-back machine and look at how Vanderbilt squeaked past Saint Mary's early last season.
Saint Mary's (17-2, AP #22, ESPN #21)
Vanderbilt beat the Gaels in a rowdy McKeon Pavilion way back in 2009 behind the scoring of Jeffery Taylor and Jermaine Beal, as well as some solid defensive play from the team's backcourt. Taylor and Beal combined for 35 points to offset A.J. Ogilvy's disappearance on the offensive end, while Andre Walker chipped in 14 efficient points on just eight shots. The previously mentioned Omar Samhan was the player of the game on either end, but his performance overshadowed solid play from a pair of young guards; McConnell and Dellavedova.
The game foreshadowed some of the Commodores' upcoming problems, as Saint Mary's nearly pulled off a come from behind victory after Vandy's offense became stagnant in the last four minutes of the game. Despite leading 71-64 with just over three minutes to play, the 'Dores couldn't seal the victory until Clint Steindl's last second three-pointer missed the mark. Vanderbilt didn't have a field goal over the final 4:41 of play.
Key to Destruction: Defend, defend, defend. The outcome of last year's game was an absolute toss-up that the Commodores escaped thanks to a balanced attack. However, the Gael backcourt may get less credit than they deserve thanks to A.J. Ogilvy's horrible defense. Ogilvy made Samhan look like Dwight Howard on the floor, and this performance overshadowed Saint Mary's potent guard combination of McConnell and Dellavedova.
This year the frontcourt matchup swings in Vandy's favor thanks to the loss of Samhan and the play of Festus Ezeli, but the advantage in the backcourt swings to the Gaels. Both of Saint Mary's starting guards can score, distribute, and light it up from outside and they'll be doing it against a pair of solid but unspectacular defenders in Brad Tinsley and John Jenkins. As a result, Kevin Stallings is going to have to get very creative with his defense. Don't be surprised to see lots of switches and long stretches where Jeffery Taylor is chasing down a point guard if the Gaels are scoring efficiently to start the game.
Keys to the Game:
- Stop McConnell/Dellavedova - Combined, the starting duo is averaging 27.8 points, 4.5 three-pointers, 6.5 rebounds, and 12.3 assists while shooting effectively from the floor. It wouldn't be a stretch to call them one of the best backcourts in the country. The two play big minutes and have the conditioning to wear down any other team's starters. Vanderbilt couldn't stop them in the teams' first meeting, and only San Diego State has been able to do it this year. Tinsley, Jenkins, Taylor, and Kyle Fuller need to have the pictures of these two guys posted on their mirrors in the locker room, because they have to get used to being right up in their faces if they want to stop Saint Mary on Saturday.
- Exploit the post - After this strategy worked so well in the second half of the Ole Miss game it seems obvious, but the condition of Festus Ezeli's bum knee might play into how effective it can be. The Gaels no longer have Omar Samhan and as a result are lacking a true post presence. Ezeli is bigger, stronger, and more athletic than anyone Saint Mary's can throw at him. Giving the ball to the big Nigerian in the post is the team's easiest way to get points, stem opposing momentum, and slow the game down. Expect lots of posting up from "Big Fes" Saturday afternoon.
- Unleash John Jenkins - but don't let him turn this into a kamikaze mission - One of the benefits for the Gaels in the two teams' previous meeting was that John Jenkins was still a bright-eyed youngster coming off the bench for Vanderbilt. As a result, the team attempted only 10 three-pointers and was mostly quiet from the arc. Almost 15 months later, Jenkins has the swagger of Jermaine Beal and the insane shot selection of Alex Gordon, but he's clearly emerged as the team's best scorer. He'll be going against another superb shooter in Mickey McConnell (48.5% 3PT), and we've seen how the young gunner reacts when opposing guards heat up. Jenkins has proven this season that his goal on the court is to be the best shooter out there. McConnell will challenge him, and there's no doubt that Jenkins will either bomb him off the court or bring this team down trying. Coach Stallings has to make sure that the latter doesn't happen - I suspect the technique he'll use is rooted in yelling.