It's tough enough that Vanderbilt has been rebuilding in 2012-2013. It's been doubly rough that they've been unlucky too.
The Commodores are a few bounces and bad breaks away from being 5-2 in conference play rather than 2-5, and that bad luck was on display last Tuesday against Tennessee. The Commodores had two great chances to make a game-winning basket as the clock ran down, but Kedren Johnson's jumper rimmed out, and Kevin Bright's putback was just off the mark, sending the 'Dores to another disappointing loss.
That dropped Vandy to 8-11 on the season and puts this year's rebuilding effort in peril of finishing the season under .500 despite an underwhelming year for the SEC.
Alabama's out-of-conference woes have added to that disappointment in the conference. The Tide skidded into conference play with a 2-5 stretch that included losses to Dayton, VCU, Mercer, and Tulane before righting the ship when the SEC schedule rolled around. 'Bama is 5-2 in the league after topping Arkansas last night, and their recent winning ways are either the mark of a team that has turned things around or a conference that is much weaker than anyone thought back in November.
Vanderbilt can put those theories to the test on Saturday, though a home-team win would make more of an impact against the Tide than it would in favor of the Commodores. Like on Tuesday, Vandy can deal a significant blow to their opponent's postseason chances with an upset win. Alabama is more firmly on the NCAA Tournament than Tennessee had been before them, but they probably still can't absorb a loss to the 'Dores with seven defeats already on their ledger.
Can Vanderbilt follow Mercer's lead and stick the Tide with another bad loss? Let's take a look at how the Bears unraveled Anthony Grant's team in Tuscaloosa.
Alabama (12-7, 4-2 SEC, Unranked)
Other Losses: at Cincinnati, vs. Dayton, at VCU, vs. Tulane, at Missouri, at Tennessee
- MAKE YOUR FREE THROWS. 11-14 against Tennessee. Complaint temporarily withdrawn.
- Play like veterans. Mercer worked very hard to win this game, but Alabama's shaky play and inability to hit free throws down the stretch gave the Bears several opportunities to win this one. In short, the Tide played a game that would have looked familiar in Memorial Gym this year. They missed free throws (3-7 in the final 7:15), missed layups, and failed to produce an assist during Mercer's game-winning run. If Vanderbilt can step up and make the extra pass, hit their freebies, and do the little things that lead to big points, then they can stand tall against a talented 'Bama squad.
- Keep shooting threes. The Bears started off 3-14 from three-point range, but understood that their lack of size meant that success from long range was the way to out-score Alabama. That paid off when they went 5-8 from behind the arc down the stretch, rallying to beat the Tide and notching the biggest win of their season. Vanderbilt is a persistent three-point threat, but the 'Dores stepped off the gas a bit against Tennessee in their last game, only attempting 14 threes. They'll have to keep the outside pressure on if they're going to break down 'Bama's defense.
- Include Josh Henderson. Henderson showed off a sweet touch inside the paint and solid athleticism on Tuesday against Jarnell Stokes and Tennessee. He'll be facing an undersized Alabama team on Saturday. Can he use this size mismatch to his advantage around the rim? Or will the Tide's quicker, more athletic defenders give him fits? This season is all about the big man's growth, and it will be important to see if he can build off of a strong performance to become a featured player in the Vandy offense.