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Preview: Baylor at Vanderbilt in the Big 12/SEC Challenge

After splitting a pair of games in the Barclays Center Classic, Vanderbilt returns home to face their toughest test of the season - a 5-1 Baylor team. Can the young Commodores outrun a veteran Bear squad?

Wade Baldwin has at least 4 rebounds and 4 assists in every Vanderbilt game so far this season.
Wade Baldwin has at least 4 rebounds and 4 assists in every Vanderbilt game so far this season.
Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

Vanderbilt faced their first real competition of the 2014-15 season in Brooklyn and walked away with a 1-1 record. Now, they'll have to back up that solid play when Baylor rolls into Memorial Gym.

The Commodores broke even at the Barclays Center Classic, losing to a hot-shooting Rutgers on Friday night but beating a solid La Salle team the next evening. While Luke Kornet cooled off after his career performance two weeks ago, the steady play of Damian Jones and freshmen Riley LaChance and Wade Baldwin IV have helped instill hope in the hearts of Vandy fans. While growing pains are sure to be a part of the season, it's clear that this team has the talent and depth to be a dangerous competitor in March and beyond.

The Bears are visiting Nashville as part of the Big 12/SEC Challenge. Like Vandy, they're coming into this game with only one loss on their record. However, a tougher schedule that has featured opponents like South Carolina, Memphis, and Illinois has Baylor as a slight favorite on Vanderbilt's home court. The young Commodores will have something to prove on Thursday, and toppling their Big 12 equivalent (or is that TCU now?) would provide the bricks from which they could build a postseason resume.

The Bears are a balanced and talented team in 2014-15. Six players have played 20 minutes or more per game so far this season, and all are averaging between 7.6 and 12.8 points per game. That kind of scoring balance means that the Commodores will have to have all hands on deck when it comes to defense on Thursday night; Baylor can score from anywhere on the court. As such, the pressure will be on an inexperience Vandy team to prove that they can provide the kind of lockdown defense that can carry them back to the NCAA Tournament.

KenPom Rankings: Baylor is 14th. Vanderbilt is 82nd.

Key StatFour. That's the minimum number of assists or rebounds that Wade Baldwin IV has had in the first five games of his college career. He's been putting up Andrei Kirilenko-ian stat lines that would make him a valued fantasy asset if such a thing reliably existed for NCAA hoops.

Matchup to Watch: Damian Jones vs. Rico Gathers. Rico Gathers is not a small man. Case in point:

(also, he's got a gun! Look out!)

That's 280 pounds of meat that Damian Jones will have to deal with in the paint. Jones won his matchup against a similarly bulky Chad Lang two weeks ago, but Gathers is on a whole other wavelength of talent. He's pulled down 11 or more rebounds in six of Baylor's seven games this season, but a dynamic big man can get him in foul trouble with crafty post moves. That's where Jones comes in. "Dameology" has the quickness to get Gathers off his feet in the paint. Drawing him into fouling situations would take out Baylor's biggest strength in the post and create a wealth of opportunities for the Commodores inside.

Starters and Rotation Players:

Pos. Player PPG RPG APG
G - Shelton Mitchell 4.2 2.7 4.3
G - Riley LaChance 11.3 2.8 2.7
F - Jeff Roberson 3.8 4.3 1.5
F - Luke Kornet 12.3 4.3 0.3
C - Damien Jones 17.2 7.7 1.3
Key Reserves
G - Wade Baldwin IV 8.8 5.0 6.2
G/F - Matthew Fisher-Davis 6.0 2.0 1.6
F - James Siakam 6.8 5.4 0.4
Pos. Player PPG RPG APG
G - Lester Medford 8.6 1.6 4.3
F - Jonathan Motley 7.6 4.0 0.7
F - Royce O'Neale 9.7 7.3 3.4
F - Taurean Prince 12.8 5.3 0.8
F/C - Rico Gathers 9.7 10.7 0.0
Key Reserves
G - Ishmail Wainright 2.7 2.3 1.7
F - Deng Deng 5.3 3.1 0.4
G - Al Freeman 6.3 2.7 1.0