If you felt that Vanderbilt was going to take down Xavier on the road over a week ago, you would have been swimming against the predictive tide. The Commodores had given little indication – to themselves and to the rest of the nation at large – that they were ready to win a no-holds-barred deathmatch in an enemy lair… especially against a program that defeated a much more loaded VU squad in December of 2011.
Indeed, Vanderbilt did not seem likely to beat the Xavier team that knocked off Butler earlier this season. Yes, that's the same Butler team that has become "Butler" again; the Bulldogs beat North Carolina and Marquette and are already likely to return to the NCAA tournament. Let's repeat this point for emphasis, then: Xavier handled Butler comfortably. Vanderbilt, on the other hand, couldn't score 35 points against the Marist Red Foxes a few weeks earlier. Everything was set up for a Xavier runaway.
The Commodores had other ideas.
This was the moment coach Kevin Stallings was waiting for. This drastically remade team – a team without a Jenkins who could make it rain from long distance; without a Taylor slashing to the goal; without an Ezeli going beast-mode in the low post; without a Goulbourne doing dirty work in multiple facets of competition; and without a Tinsley anchoring things at the point – put together the first big win of this new chapter in VU basketball history. The 2012-2013 Commodores, having to build anew what their predecessors created over the previous four years, announced their presence. They came of age. They stood on their own two feet (or ten, as it were, for a starting five).
The Commodores don't have to think about being ready for the SEC season. They don't have to devote mental energy to the attempt to patch things together until then. No, Vanderbilt can psychologically reset itself and claim that it has already restored itself, now, in the present tense. This team can look at its display of resourcefulness, toughness, and self-sufficiency in Cincinnati last week and say – with quite a lot of legitimacy – that it can thrive, not merely survive. The rest of the season doesn't have to be seen as a trail of tears, which is what a lot of VU fans had reason to think after the lost weekend in Orlando (at the Old Spice Classic) followed by the home-court loss to Villanova.
The task for Vanderbilt is to ensure that the winning effort seen against Xavier can be replicated again and again. This team did not have a habit of winning when it took the court on the evening of Dec. 6 in southwestern Ohio. Now, the Dores can establish that habit. They can affirm it and ingrain it in their basketball DNA. An opportunity awaits against the Alabama A&M Bulldogs.
ALABAMA A&M AT-A-GLANCE
The Bulldogs have struggled this season. They're 2-5, and their two wins came against non-Division I teams. Head coach Wille Hayes, now in his second season on the job, is trying to revive a program whose only winning season over the past decade came in 2005, the year the Bulldogs made the NCAA tournament. Every other season since the 2002 campaign (when A&M went 19-10) has failed to top the .500 mark. Alabama A&M is hoping that it can gain momentum for the Southwestern Athletic Conference portion of its season.
The Bulldogs have really struggled at the offensive end of the floor. They rank 279th (out of 345 teams) in scoring and rate below 305 in both assists and field goal percentage. The Bulldogs just don't figure to have enough scoring punch to make Vanderbilt worry.
They also allow opponents to hit 50.3 percent of their field goal attempts. Hayes and the rest of his coaching staff have a lot of work to do in the weeks and months ahead.
Rebounding is where this team shines. It is third in the SWAC in rebounds per game and second in the league in the much more important statistic known as "rebounding percentage" (the percentage of missed shots rebounded in a game). Given this reality, A&M's best offense could very well be a missed shot, and that's going to form much of Vanderbilt's approach on Saturday.
Center – Justan Banks – Junior, 7-1, 215 2012-13: 7.4 points per game, 6.3 rebounds per game
In a one-center, four-guard starting five, Banks doesn't throw his weight around to the extent you might think. He's not the leading rebounder on the team, though his contributions in this facet of competition are entirely respectable. It's in the scoring column where Banks needs to give the Bulldogs more of a presence on the floor. He hits 61.5 percent of his shots, which tells you that Banks doesn't get many attempts. He's long, but not powerful; tall, but not imposing. You can't play over the top of Banks, but you can get around him or back him down in the low post.
Guard – Demarquelle Tabb – Junior, 6-5, 210; 2012-13: 11.4 ppg, 10.1 rpg, 1.7 steals per game, 2.1 blocks per game
Here is, by a considerable margin, the best player on the Bulldogs. You'll note that Tabb has almost the same weight as Banks while being eight inches shorter. Whereas Banks is more awkward and uncoordinated, Tabb has an ideal basketball body, one that is anchored and well-balanced. Tabb has the aggressive mentality and heightened instincts his teammates can't quite match. His springy legs, physical strength, and nose for the ball enable him to be a prolific rebounder and a double-double producer on a regular basis. Yet, for all of his gifts, Tabb also doesn't score as much as he should. He gets so many loose balls near the tin, some of them on offense, which means that some of his points flow from putbacks. His inability to be a 16-points-per-game scorer is partly the product of a tough non-conference schedule, but when you also realize that no other Bulldog averages more than 11 points per game, it's hard to contest the notion that Tabb is meeting the full limit of his potential.
Guard – Brandon Ellis – Junior, 6-4, 200; 2012-13: 10.9 ppg, 2.1 rpg, 1.4 steals per game
If you look at the Alabama A&M lineup more closely, the four guards in the starting five can be split into two halves. Two of the guards are big guards, and two of them are small guards. Ellis joins Tabb as the other big guard for the Bulldogs. Tabb tries to do what a power forward (or a "4" in basketball parlance) does, and Ellis is ever so slightly more like a small forward, or a "3" on the positional chart. Tabb hasn't made one three-pointer this season, which is very power-forward-like. Ellis has hit just 10 percent of his threes, an indication that he's also not anchored to the wings. Ellis is one of three A&M starters who averages at least 1.4 steals per game. Vanderbilt's starting five will want to take note of this fact and run a weave or use other tactics to easily move the ball near the three-point line.
Guard – Jeremy Crutcher – Junior, 5-8, 160; 2012-13: 10.4 ppg, 3 rpg, 5.3 apg
This is the distributor who gives some sense of form and cohesion to the Bulldogs' halfcourt offense. Crutcher is the superior "small guard" on the team and the second-best player after Tabb, the superior "tall guard." However, for all of his excellence, Crutcher – who certainly has to operate on the perimeter almost all of the time – is not a good three-point shooter. He's hitting just 21.7 percent of his attempts this season. You will see that there's no one sniper on this team, a core reason why scoring is so difficult for the Bulldogs. Vanderbilt will be able to pack in its defense throughout this contest and shut off driving lanes.
Guard – Green Hill – Junior, 5-9, 175; 2012-13: 6 ppg, 1.7 rpg, 1.4 apg, 1.4 steals per game
Someone's parents sure had a verdant sense of humor, you might say. The Green Hill of Alabama A&M is a living, breathing person, not just a place where someone might enjoy a picnic lunch with a scenic overview. Hill does hit threes at a 50-percent clip, but that's based on only six attempts. The Bulldogs' coaching staff needs one of its small guards to become a reliable mid-range or long-distance shooting threat, and Hill is the best candidate. That point aside, Hill – for someone who stands at 5-9, throws himself into the fray. He can be an effective pickpocket on defense, and he chips into the A&M cause as a passer and rebounder as well.
A&M uses an eight-man rotation, with Arther Capers being the one officially-listed forward the Bulldogs put on the floor. Guards Jose Long (a big guard at 6-6) and Tyler Davis (a small guard at 6-2) round out Hayes's rotation. Long's three-rebounds-per-game average is the single most notable statistic for any of A&M's three main bench players.
Keys to the Game
1) Keep tabs on Tabb, especially on the glass. Alabama A&M offers two basic threats to Vanderbilt. The first and most prominent one is Tabb's leaping ability, which manifests itself most conspicuously on the backboard. Denying offensive rebounds to Tabb will ensure that the Bulldogs remain a one-and-done team on offense, thereby cutting off their most likely source of high-volume scoring.
2) Take away Crutcher's passing. Crutcher's ability to create opportunities for teammates is A&M's other main asset. Vanderbilt's defense needs to be smart in guarding Crutcher, giving him the long jumper and taking away the dribble drive. Smart defensive decisions and common-sense adjustments will smother Alabama A&M's halfcourt offense.