Vanderbilt kicks off conference play this weekend, and that means the return of The SEC's Worst Losses, AoG's game preview series that breaks down Commodore opponents by virtue of the teams that have beaten them this season. On Saturday, John Jenkins and company will host a 10-4 Auburn team that has feasted on a weak early schedule season but ranks just 177th in Ken Pomeroy's rankings. The Tigers have beaten only one BCS conference team (South Florida) and have big wins over luminaries like Bethune-Cookman, North Florida, Nicholls State, and Arkansas Pine-Bluff.
The Commodores, on the other hand, have four wins over BCS teams sandwiching some embarrassing losses to Cleveland State and Indiana State - both at home. Vanderbilt's struggles in 2011 have been well publicized. The preseason's seventh-ranked team in the country has lost what was once one of the biggest home court advantages in college sports, falling three times this season at Memorial Gym. More distressingly, the team has fallen into a pattern where they are unable to score over the final minutes of close games - something that doomed them against ISU, Xavier, and Louisville. Off-the-ball movement stops, Commodore leads dissipate, and fans everywhere are forced to wonder what happened to a team that was a legitimate Final Four pick just months earlier.
Vandy may have turned a corner at the end of 2011, when they blasted Marquette on the road to pick up their biggest win of the season. The 'Dores were able to jump out to a 35-6 lead in the first half despite center Festus Ezeli playing at 80 percent due to knee problems and an off night by scoring leader Jenkins. Unfortunately, a lackluster return performance in their next game against Miami (OH) may have tempered expectations heading into league play.
Can Auburn earn a statement-making road win against the rebounding Commodores? Their recent history suggests not. They've only beaten two teams with winning records this season (USF and Hawaii) and the aggregate record of the team's they've won against is 46-94 (.328 win pct). Conversely, Vanderbilt's wins have come over teams that are 78-66 (.542). Let's take a look at just what was the Tigers' worst loss in the early season so far.
Auburn (10-4, unranked, #177 in the Pomeroy Rankings)
Other Losses: vs. Long Beach State, at Seton Hall, at Florida State
Auburn's approach to nonconference scheduling was solid for a team with low expectations. The Tigers' loaded their schedule up with cupcake teams and threw a few moderate challenges into the mix to prepare the team for SEC play. Games on the east coast gave the team the chance to test themselves against a pair of possible NCAA Tournament teams (Seton Hall, Florida State), while matchups against some of the southeast's lesser squads helped Auburn get to 10 wins two months earlier than they did in 2010-2011.
However, the biggest lowlight of their season so far has been a loss to UTEP in the consolation round of the Diamond Head Classic. The Tigers fell 83-76 on Christmas day to leave the Honolulu tournament 0-2. The Miners shot 53.1 percent from the field and scored 22 points from the free throw line in a controlling win.
Key to Destruction: Control the paint. Like Marquette, Auburn relies on a guard-heavy lineup that features just one true big man. Rob Chubb is the team's 6'10" center, but he's more of a power forward and doesn't have great rebounding skills. UTEP was able to keep him away from the basket and force him into tough shots, leading to an 0-6 night from the field and just three rebounds in 28 minutes from Chubb. The junior is the team's third-leading scorer at 10.3 points per game, and limiting his effectiveness played a big role in UTEP's upset.
Meanwhile, El Paso center John Bohanon, 6'10 and just 210 lbs, was able to burn Chubb and the Tiger frontcourt for a career-high 20 points on just 9 shots. Bohanon drove the Miner offense with efficient scoring and his ability to get to the free throw line. He also pulled down nine rebounds - including five on the offensive glass.
Vanderbilt should be up to the task here. Festus Ezeli is still fighting off injury, but he's got the size and strength to be a dominant force against Auburn even if he's gimpy. If Ezeli can't go, Steve Tchiengang has the bulk and defensive chops to lock down the paint. Auburn's weak post defense should be a big boost for the struggling Cameroonian, and could be just what he needs to break out of his recent slump.
Keys to the Game:
- Get to the line. UTEP earned 29 free throws against the Tigers - nine more attempts than Auburn has allowed on average this season. The Miners did damage there as well, hitting 22 of them and using these opportunities to grind down Auburn each time a comeback seemed to be in the works. Vanderbilt is averaging a little over 20 free throws per game - but if they can turn up the offensive intensity and get into the lane, they'll be able to draw plenty of contact against a team that is smaller and less athletic than the Commodores.
- Force Auburn's cold shooters to shoot. The Tigers have some strong marksmen on their roster. Kenny Gabriel, Frankie Sullivan, and Varez Ward are all averaging a three-pointer per game or better. However, Sullivan and Ward went cold against a UTEP team that challenged them to make shots, similar to how Vanderbilt held Marquette to a terrible shooting night a week earlier. The Tigers jacked up 21 threes in the game and made just seven, helping to derail rallies and allow the Miners to hold their lead. If Vanderbilt can identify Auburn's cold shooters early and force them to step up in order to generate offense, they'll be able to slump towards the basket, defend drives, and limit the Tigers' efficiency.
- Move the ball around the perimeter, kick it out for open threes. UTEP shot 9-13 from long range in their win. Seven of these threes were assisted. The Miners were able to move the ball effectively and create open looks from beyond the arc thanks to patience and strong court vision from all positions. Vanderbilt has the talent to replicate this, thanks to some deadly three-point shooters and a core of solid passers ranging from Brad Tinsley to Lance Goulbourne. The Commodores will have to be crisp with their passing, but Auburn has shown that they can get sloppy on the perimeter and fail to adjust after double-team scenarios. This is a weakness that Vandy should be able to exploit.
UTEP won in Hawaii thanks to solid play across the court. While Bohanon was getting it done in the paint, a smaller lineup was shooting efficiently from long range and getting to the free throw line to extend their lead. While Auburn was able to put up 76 points, the Miners capitalized on a Tiger defense that has allowed over 80 points in three of their four losses. This is a good sign for a Commodore team that could use an offensive spark after a mediocre game against Miami (OH). The Tigers may be the perfect team to open up SEC play for Vanderbilt - on paper, they look like a sort of poor man's Marquette - but if they don't take Auburn seriously, it could be another frustrating day at Memorial Gym.