Experienced Vanderbilt Home Threat To Illini

The Vanderbilt Commodores travel to Champaign Tuesday evening seeking payback for their loss to the Fighting Illini in Nashville last year. They are flirting with Top 25 recognition and have several outstanding performers. The Illini will need to play a complete game to beat them.

Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings is a close friend of Illinois counterpart Bruce Weber. Stallings both played and coached under Weber, and they have maintained their relationship ever since. Neither looks forward to competing against one another.

Weber has great respect for Stallings' work, praising especially his offensive genius.

"Kevin's one of the best offensive coaches I've been around. Every year he thinks of new schemes, new sets, new plays, and he's always got something up his sleeve. He's very good at ending games, getting the ball in the right people's hands. We have a challenge here."

The Illini jump-started their 2008-09 season with a big upset in Nashville last December. It gave them the confidence to win on foreign courts and hold leads at the end. But the Commodores were embarrassed at home and want to return the favor.

"Vanderbilt's a big game for us Tuesday night," Weber understates. "A team that was in the top 25 a couple weeks ago, lost one game in Maui and dropped out. But they potentially could be a top 25 team. They have a veteran squad with basically everybody back.

"There is a revenge factor for them after we beat them at their place last year. And they went to Australia this summer. Those trips always help, especially when you have a veteran team, to get that extra experience."

The big three for Vanderbilt include Jeffery Taylor, a 6'-7", 205 pound sophomore; A.J. Ogilvy, a 6'-11", 250 pound junior; and senior guard Jermaine Beal (6'-3", 205). Taylor leads the team with a 15.4 scoring average and averages 7 rebounds a game. Ogilvy has posted averages of 14.0 points and 6.6 rebounds to date, while Beal is close behind with 13.7 points. Weber is impressed with them.

"They have a very good inside threat in Ogilvy, a great athlete in Taylor, and an experienced point guard in Beal. They've got all the positions covered. And they've played some tough games already. At St. Mary's, Cincinnati, Arizona, came back and played Missouri, and then beat DePaul."

Taylor is explosive, but Ogilvy is the Illini's main concern. A likely NBA draft pick, Ogilvy presents a major challenge to a team that has problems with post defense. The Illini doubled him as often as possible, but that isn't always a solution either.

"Last year he never really got going," Weber remembers. "He may have been in a little bit of foul trouble too. If he really gets involved, he's tough to stop. You can post trap with another guy, and he just turns and shoots that hook over you. He's pretty quick at getting his shots off, and he's good with his body and sealing."

The Commodores have depth and plenty of size. Freshman John Jenkins (6'-4", 215) is their first ever 5-star recruit and was considered the best shooter nationally in his class. He averaged a whopping 42.3 points a game his senior year of high school, and he is producing at a 9.1 ppg rate so far this season.

Other players expected to see action Tuesday include sophomore starters Andre Walker (6'-7", 220) and Brad Tinsley (6'-3", 210). The bench includes muscular sophomores Steve Tchiengang (6'-9", 240), Festus Ezeli (6'-11", 255), Darshawn McClellan (6'-7", 240) and Lance Goulbourne (6'-8", 255).

Weber expands on the Vanderbilt team.

"They can score. He's got the inside force, but he's got some other weapons also. Taylor's a really good athlete. Walker, the kid from Homewood-Flossmoor, gives them some athleticism.

"I don't know if Beal is a pure point guard, but he's made himself into a very solid point guard. He can get to the basket and get to the lane. The freshman Jenkins was a big-time recruit for him. They feel really good about him."

After the emotional win at Clemson, it wasn't surprising the Illini would be flat against Boise State. But two losses in Las Vegas damaged their resume for the NCAA Tournament, and they can't afford to play at less than peak effort from now on according to Weber.

"I was sad Saturday because we didn't have the intensity we needed. The guys are kind of laid back and don't get too rattled by stuff. But at the same time, we (almost) let a game like that slip away Saturday at home.

"And there is no cushion (for losses). I've tried to explain it to them. Slowly but surely, I hope they're finally starting to understand it. But then they've got to do something about it on the court."

The biggest improvment must come from defense.

"It's got to get better. It's not very good right now. It's something they've got to start taking some pride in, understanding how important it is.

"We can score more points than last year, so there's more possessions. We don't have to be quite what we were last year, but you need to be solid. Too many times we're off balance, we gamble and create opportunities for them. You've got to be in position to make them earn baskets.

"Each possession (against Boise State) it was a different guy having a breakdown. It's discipline, being solid, it's habits. Sometimes it's the freshmen, but it's other guys too. It's got to be more of a concern for them. I know it's a concern for our staff.

"We don't have a lot of defensive-minded guys on our team. That's okay, it's just that then you've got to be solid and not give them easy baskets. We gave 16 layups to Boise. That's a lot. They shoot 55% at our place. Make them earn baskets."

Juniors Mike Tisdale, Demetri McCamey and Mike Davis must take charge of this team. Speaking before Monday's practice, they each spoke seriously about a need to pick up their defensive effort.

"Defense is gonna be important for us," Tisdale says. "So far, we haven't proved we can play defense that well. Some guys are gonna have to take some pride and get stops."

Defending Ogilvy will be Tisdale's main focus.

"He's pretty good. Last year, he was one of the main focuses, and it's the same thing this year. We've really got to worry about him and keep him down. He does a lot of things. He can shoot the ball, get inside to score. He's got post moves, he's got that European style."

McCamey appears to understand the team needs him to put out greater defensive effort. With opponents penetrating for layups or to set up teammates for open jumpers, McCamey realizes stopping dribble penetration is a necessity.

"We have to have better reaction time on middle penetration. We need to get in the right positions, talk to each other and help each other out."

Davis has great respect for Vanderbilt's offensive prowess.

"They run, they're good in transition. They've got the big guy down in the post, he's a next-level player. And Jeff Taylor did a 360 on us last year, so we're gonna look at shutting him down. I think if we do a good job rebounding, play a solid game and play some defense we can win."

Easier said than done. The Illini must play a 60 minute game according to Davis.

"We've got to be ready. We can't get off to a slow start, we can't have lapses. We need probably our first complete game of the season if we're gonna win. If we play together and play sound defense, I think we can beat them."

Illinois hopes for a home court advantage, but even that is no guarantee playing against experienced foes according to Weber.

"You always expect to win at home, but it's still gonna be a tough venture for us. They have a lot of veteran people that know how to play. That's the one thing our young guys have struggled with, playing against older experienced guys. They know how to do the little things that make a difference.

"It'll be a good test for us. Hopefully our guys come excited and ready to get after it. Because of the losses out in Vegas, I don't think we have much room on our resume for more letdowns, especially at home. It could cause us some major damage down the road."

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