Scouting Report: Nebraska

Having dispatched of Presbyterian, it's now time for Vanderbilt to set its sights on the Puerto Rico Tip-Off Classic and the opening round opponent, Nebraska. The game tips at 12:30 p.m. CT, and will be televised on ESPNU. On Friday the Commodores will play either Davidson or West Virginia at either 12:30 (winners bracket) or 3:00 p.m. (losers bracket).


Last year, the Dores had an opportunity to earn a national reputation when they traveled to the Maui Invitational. A loss to Cincinnati in the opener put those plans on hold and meant the next two games in the Islands did not have the significance they could have acquired. Though Vanderbilt went 11-3 in non-conference play, the Cincinnati loss, and back-to-back losses to Illinois and Western Kentucky, kept the pundits' opinions of the Dores in check until SEC play earned them a newfound degree of respect.

This year the Commodores travel to a different island for the Puerto Rico Tip-Off Classic. Just like the opportunity the program had in Maui 12 months ago, Puerto Rico provides VU the perfect chance to show the country it remains an NCAA Tournament team, as well as a force to be reckoned with in the SEC East.

An upset loss to Nebraska, though, would leave Vandy fans in the unenviable position of being forced to listen to the so-called experts questioning whether their team has been able to replace the departed stars of last season's run to the Big Dance. Worse, the second and third rounds of this tournament will feature significantly lower-quality opponents that will prevent VU from building its NCAA resume.

The opener with Nebraska is no gimme, especially if those wearing black and gold happen to be looking ahead to West Virginia. VU fans certainly should keep this in mind though as they search to find ESPNU at 1:30 pm on Thursday. Vanderbilt has won two of its last three Thanksgiving-time tournaments, winning the 2007 South Padre Invitational and the 2008 Cancun Challenge.

NEBRASKA AT-A-GLANCE

To say the 2009-2010 was a struggle for the Cornhuskers would certainly qualify as an understatement. The season started promising enough, with head coach Doc Sadler (74-58 in four seasons) presiding over a team that opened the year with a 12-3 record.

That start was all smoke and mirrors, however, as the only recognizable win was a road win at USC (Southern California, not South Carolina), a marginal opponent. The Big 12 was nothing short of a collapse for the Huskers, who went 2-14 in conference play with one of the youngest lineups in college basketball.

Last season has not dimmed the Sadler's hopes for this year's team. He thinks this year's version of the Huskers is his best team, bolstered particularly by the addition of junior college transfer Andre Almeida, a 6-11 310-pound center from Arizona Western College. Sadler's plan for this year calls for establishing Almeida with returning post player Jorge Brian Diaz, another 6-11 player, to establish one of the more formidable front lines in the Big 12.
Nebraska will not earn its way back into the upper echelon of the conference by running with the more athletic rivals from Kansas State, Kansas, Baylor, and Texas. Instead, Sadler's strategy calls for the Huskers to slow the pace, run an "inside-out" offensive style, and value every possession. While matching this style with Vandy's does not bode well for the most aesthetically entertaining games this Thursday afternoon, it will be interesting to see how Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings attacks the matchups he and the Commodores will face.

STARTING LINEUP

Center – Andre Almeida–
Junior, 6'11", 315; 2010-2011: 12.5 ppg, 5.0 rpg

Almeida found his way to Lincoln after earning second-team NJCAA All-American honors at Arizona Western College. It certainly helped Nebraska that NU assistant coach Walter Roese also happened to be Brazil's 24-under national team, of which Almeida was a key component. Almeida has all the tools a coach wants in a post player. He is strong, uses good footwork, and has good hands. Too often, a true big lacks one of these skills. If there is a downside to Almeida's game it is his lack of endurance. Sadler believes he may have played him too much in NU's first two games, though he averaged only 19 minutes.

Center – Jorge Brian Diaz – Sophomore, 6'11", 235; 2009-10: 5.0 ppg, 4.0 rpg

Diaz looks to benefit the most by the addition of Almeida. As a freshman last season, he wore down having to defend wider and stronger post players. He weighed only 215 pounds by the end of the season. With Almeida matching up against opposing centers, Diaz is free to defend the four position while still using his height to his advantage offensively. While Sadler's goal is to use a twin-post offense featuring Diaz and Almeida, Diaz especially needs to establish his shooting ability at least 15 feet from the basket. Otherwise, opponents – as I expect Vandy will on Thursday – will slough off him to take away Almeida on the low block.

Guard – Brandon Richardson Junior, 6'00", 190; 2009-10: 8.9 ppg, .825 FT %

Richardson figured to also use the twin 6-11 posts to his advantage offensively, but that has not happened in Nebraska's first two games in which he has only averaged 3.5 points. His free throw shooting shows he is a great shooter, but those numbers have not held beyond the arc. He is the type of player, though, that is liable to break out in a small gym, as he will be playing in Puerto Rico. Therefore, it is extremely important the VU guards know his whereabouts, especially early in the game.

Guard – Toney McCray Junior, 6'6", 205; 2010-2011: 8.5 ppg, 5.0 rpg.

McCray seems to be more comfortable playing his more natural position, the three, this year. McCray is an above-average shooter and his size can cause problems for the guards he defends. If Nebraska is to pull off an upset of Vanderbilt, it will more than likely be due to the defensive job he can perform on Jeffery Taylor.

Guard – Lance Jeter Senior, 6'3", 225; 2010-11: 9.5 ppg, 3.0 apg

Jeter is without question the leader of the Huskers. What else would you expect from someone with a last name of Jeter? A former wide receiver for the University of Cincinnati's football team, Jeter had the sixth-best assist-to-turnover ratio in the Big 12 last season. While Almeida may be the player to help Nebraska turn the corner, it is Jeter who led them there. A 40 percent three-point shooter, his ability to get into the lane off the dribble will create scoring opportunities for the bigs inside. It is to Vandy's advantage if Jeter settles for early jump shots instead of working to create interior shots.

Bench

Depth was a major problem for Nebraska in 2009-2010 but it should be much improved this year. Christian Standhardinger, a 6-8 sophomore from Germany, has averaged 15 points in the Huskers' first two games. He also can play the high post better than either Diaz or Almeida with his mid-range shooting game. Brandon Ubel provides Sadler yet another 6-10 body (and nine points per game so far), and Caleb Walker may very well be Nebraska's best shooter.

Sadler's lineup was radically different from game one to game two so be prepared for whatever combination he might throw out there.

Keys to the Game

1) Where out Almeida and the rest of the trees.
Nebraska's lineup utilizes four players taller than 6-8, three of whom are 6-10 or bigger. Their games against South Dakota and Arkansas-Pine Bluff have shown, however, they still have a ways to go to get into midseason form. Combine that with the subconscious thought of playing three games in four days, and the Husker bigs will quickly tire from Vandy looking to score in transition when the opportunity presents itself. Coach Stallings's crew should not necessarily look to change its whole style, but running when it can will make Almeida and Company much less effective on the low block. If the Huskers' bigs are contained, Nebraska does not have the guard play to carry them or mask their deficiencies.

2) Get ahead early. While not really a key to the Nebraska game per se, the goal for Vanderbilt to establish a national reputation in this tournament. That means competing with a Final Four team in West Virginia and of course a possible matchup with North Carolina. Having the endurance to do well means jumping on Nebraska early.

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