However, when you can travel to the Tip-Off Classic, go 2-1, defeat No. 8 North Carolina, and take a 2010 Final Four team in West Virginia to the wire, you'll definitely take it. The immediate future bodes well for the Commodores.
What's particularly pleasing for Coach Kevin Stallings and his staff was the play of junior center Festus Ezeli. While he did score 14 points in the season opener against Presbyterian, it was still a question, at least for many, as to how he would play against the type of competition he would face in SEC conference play and the NCAA Tournament. After a quiet tournament opener against Nebraska, Ezeli was at his finest against the two marquee opponents the Dores faced in San Juan, West Virginia and North Carolina. Against the Mountaineers, he impressed with eight points and 11 rebounds. Ezeli made a statement with his performance against the Tar Heels while being matched up against the highly touted Tyler Zeller. While Zeller did get 20 points, Ezeli repeatedly took the ball strong to the hoop, shooting 5-of-7 from the field and putting the Heels' star center in foul trouble.
The Nigerian brought power to the post, something that had been lacking when A.J. Ogilvy was patrolling the middle in recent years. While Ezeli's offensive skill set may never match that of the Big Aussie, there was a sense in previous seasons that Vandy opponents could take advantage of the Commodores inside; DeMarcus Cousins and Kentucky offered evidence of that reality last year. The 2010-2011 front line of Ezeli, Andre Walker, a maturing Lance Gouldbourne, a ripening Steve Tchiengang, and freshman Rod Odom is showing itself to be both deep and strong.
Both are factors that make Vanderbilt a legitimate SEC East contender. The pancake-flat performance against Nebraska, which created some cause for alarm, turned out to be nothing more than a low-key warm-up for two battles in which the Dores fought with savage intensity near the rim. That's exactly what was missing in the final minute against Murray State and in other games from last season when Vandy needed just one… more… defensive rebound. This team might very well have the mix it needs to be even better than last year's solid squad.
GRAMBLING STATE AT-A-GLANCE
It has been an ugly start to the season for coach Bobby Washington's club. The Tigers began the year with a 35-point drubbing at the hands of a Baylor team missing two guards. Grambling St. followed up the opener with 29 and 33-point losses at Rice and at Arkansas respectively. The home opener was at least close with a 74-70 loss to Florida Gulf Coast.
It does not figure to get easier for the Tigers in 2010, either. GSU plays only one of its first 14 games at home (the already-staged FGC loss), and travels to Nashville for Wednesday's game against Vandy after playing Southeast Missouri State on Monday night.
Washington was a graduate assistant for Travis Ford at Eastern Kentucky, and as with any coach in the Rick Pitino coaching tree (Ford played under Pitino at Kentucky), Washington likes to play up-tempo and rotate a high number of players. It's one thing to do this with Kentucky- or Louisville-level players; it's quite another with Grambling State-type players.
Forward– Lance Feurtado – Senior, 6'6", 200; 2010-2011: 4.3 ppg, 1.5 rpg
Feurtado has struggled in the early going this season. As a senior swingman, he is expected to use his size to take advantage of smaller wing players. That may happen in SWAC play, but it has been missing so far this year. One element of the Tiger offense is the high number of three-point shots. Feurtado has dug himself and the team a hole this year with his shooting beyond the arc, making only one of 11 threes. His poor shooting has affected his defense and rebounding, as evidenced by his low rebounding average.
Forward– Brandon Wilson – Junior, 6'8", 205; 2010-2011: 11.3 ppg, 5.0 rpg
Wilson has been one of the few bright spots for the Tigers in the early going. Long and athletic, he has been able to score close to the basket and is shooting better than 40 percent from the field. Wilson should have his hands full however being matched up with the much stronger Andre Walker and this game should be a good opportunity for Walker to develop his offensive game, taking advantage of Wilson's thin frame.
Center – Peter Roberson – Sophomore, 7'0", 250; 2010-2011: 5.0 ppg, 4.5 rpg
It's always nice to have a seven footer in the lineup and Roberson, a sophomore from Oklahoma City, has the potential to be a key player for the Tigers for years to come. He has shown decent offensive ability, shooting 50 percent from the field with limited touches. The difficult part of being a big in GSU's offensive system is it is easy to wear down in games. That has not stopped Roberson however from leading the Tigers in minutes per game at 26. That statistic may speak more for Grambling's lack of interior depth than his conditioning. More importantly for Vanderbilt, Roberson provides another big center to develop Festus Ezeli's preparation for SEC play.
Guard – Derron Hobbs – Junior, 6'0", 145; 2010-2011: 2.5 ppg, .222 3-pt pct.
There is no doubt this season is going to be a struggle for Washington when his "shooting" guard is only hitting only 22 percent of his 3-point shots and averages just 2.5 points per game. Hobbs is obviously in serious danger of losing his starting spot to freshman YonDarius Johnson. Hobbs's poor play allows whoever is defending him to help against point guard penetration by Donald Qualls, or to help in the post against the 7-footer, Mr. Roberson. Compounding his poor shooting, Hobbs's small body, at 145 pounds, does not allow him to attack the rim against larger defenders.
Guard – Donald Qualls – Senior, 5'7", 155; 2010-11: 9.8 ppg, 2.0 apg
Qualls has been quietly effective running the point for the Tigers. Having to carry the load in the area of backcourt scoring, Qualls has responded well with his 9.8 points per game. Further, his 32-percent shooting from 3-point land has opened up dribble penetration opportunities. Despite his having to carry the load, he still averages fewer than two turnovers a game, which is quite an impressive stat considering the number of possessions in a GSU game. His quickness will also be good for the further testing of Brad Tinsley at the point, as well as the development of Kyle Fuller.
Washington likes to go ten deep on his roster, even if the talent level may not call for it. Junior Justin Patton, has been the co-leader in scoring with Brandon Wilson, averaging 11.3 points per game. At 6'7" he is also one of the best perimeter shooters for GSU, making 46 percent of his 3-pointers.
Six-foot, three-inch freshman YonDarius Johnson, out of Plain Dealing, Louisiana, is demonstrating he may be ready to jump into the starting lineup. Along with Patton, Johnson is perhaps the best shooter on the squad, making just under 40 percent of his threes to go along with 79-percent free throw shooting.
Rupert Rose has been backing up Qualls at the point. The 5'11" senior has done a decent job of setting up opportunities for his team with three assists per game, but his 20% 3-point shooting has had a negligible effect on his passing.
Keys to the Game
1) Avoid the letdown. I understand I am being Captain Obvious here but it still needs to be said: After facing a West Virginia team that went to the Final Four last year and defeating a top ten ranked North Carolina squad, facing an 0-4 Grambling State team (pending GSU's Monday-night result against Southeast Missouri) on the Wednesday night before Thanksgiving may lack the excitement and anticipation of the Puerto Rico games. These are the types of games, though, where a reputation as a conference title contender can be earned. How? By showing you compete night in and night out without taking games off. Not playing to the level of the competition in games like these shows consistency, always a quality of championship teams.
2) Point guard play. No, the play of Brad Tinsley, Kyle Fuller, or anyone else for that matter should have little to do with the outcome of this game. If it does, Stallings will have many more questions to answer. But if there is one item that might be labeled a concern, it is the play of Tinsley. North Carolina got back into the third-place game when it started to pressure VU's starting point guard. Not only did Tinsley struggle with pressure; he was ineffective in what was once considered a personal strength: shooting. In the three games in Puerto Rico, Tinsley was 7-of-25 from the field, including 3-of-15 beyond the arc. As a result, Vanderbilt had difficulty getting into a second half offensive flow.
Stallings adjusted by taking advantage of a mismatch and using power forward Andre Walker to bring the ball up. This was effective in breaking the pressure but it resulted in very few shots from the field for John Jenkins, who earned most of his scoring from the charity stripe. Walker bringing the ball up is also not really a viable long-term solution. Kyle Fuller showed significant potential, especially the ability to go by a defender, but even so he had zero assists against two turnovers versus the Tar Heels. In addition to consistency, conference-championship teams are marked by the high level of point guard play. This area needs to improve quickly before SEC competition begins.
Scouting Report: Grambling
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