Vanderbilt enters Christmas week with three non-conference games remaining before the start of SEC play with Middle Tennessee State, followed next week by Marquette, and Davidson on January 2. While the latter two games are certainly more recognizable, a quick glance at scores from fellow SEC East rivals, namely Tennessee and Florida, should remind Coach Kevin Stallings' team those so-called "minor" programs like nothing better than knocking off their big name brothers. So while it is almost time to look toward the road trip to South Carolina, there are still tasks to be accomplished before then.
MIDDLE TENNESSEE STATE AT-A-GLANCE
It has been a rough December for Coach Kermit Davis' Blue Raiders. After closing out November with 30-point loss at then No. 13 Tennessee, MTSU has lost three of the four games it has played this month. Its only win was a 73-64 overtime win at SIU-Edwardsville on December 4. The latest defeat was a tough two-point loss on the 18th at Evansville. For Vandy fans interested in comparing scores with common opponents, MTSU lost at Belmont 88-87 in double overtime on December 7. Last year MTSU took on Vandy in Nashville and left with a 20-point loss on its hands. This year's Blue Raiders welcome VU without its top scorers from a year ago, Desmond Yates and Montarrio Haddock.
Forward – J.T. Sulton – Sophomore, 6-8, 215; 2010-11: 9.9 ppg, 4.9 rpg
Sulton, a part-time starter a year ago, is coming into his own in his second year as a Blue Raider. Sulton had been having a hot hand scoring until he was recently held to two points against Evansville, mainly due to foul trouble limiting his minutes. Sulton mostly scores by attacking the basket but on occasion has shown a propensity for hitting the 3-point shot, making three of four in a two-point loss to Auburn.
Forward – Trevor Ottley – Senior, 6-9, 220; 2010-11: 6.1 ppg, 4.5 rpg
Ottley is a junior college transfer from Garden City (Kansas) Community College who has been a part-time starter in both his seasons in Murfreesboro. Though he has put on 10 pounds in the off-season, he is still undersized to match up with centers such as Festus Ezeli and has provided very little punch offensively. While he occasionally blocks a shot, he just doesn't have the muscle to defend the post effectively.
Guard – James Gallman – Sophomore, 5-11, 180; 2010-11: 7.9 ppg, 1.1 assists per game
Gallman has earned his starting spot due to his long-distance shooting. In the past two games, the sophomore from Knoxville has hit on nine of 15 of his 3-point shots, scoring 24 points at Evansville. Gallman has struggled against in-state opponents however, scoring five against Tennessee and being held to three points by Belmont.
Guard – Rod Emanuel – Senior, 6-3, 185; 2010-11: 4.1 ppg, 2.7 rpg
The native of Orlando doesn't ring up big numbers for an MTSU backcourt that tries to set up the game for its wings and post players. Emanuel rebounds well for a player of his size, and he doesn't give away possessions at the offensive end. It's very interesting that Emanuel continues to start while a player such as James Washington continues to come off the bench despite scoring 15 points per game.
Guard – Jason Jones – Sophomore, 6-6, 195; 2009-10: 10.8 ppg, 3.6 rpg
The sophomore transfer from UTEP is the only Blue Raider scoring double figures a game. Jones does most of his scoring off the dribble penetration and cutting without the ball. In fact, he's only attempted five 3-pointers all year. Jones can hurt opponents though by getting to the foul line where he's already attempted 53 free throws this season. While he's effective in getting opponents into foul trouble, his scoring would improve if he could improve on his 56 percent free throw percentage.
The Blue Raiders best reserve from a year ago, Haddock, has graduated and moved on. His next two top reserves, Gallman and Sulton, have moved into the starting lineup this year. That means Davis' best weapon off the bench is also his team leader in scoring, James Washington. Washington had started the majority of the games but Davis has chosen to use him off the bench despite averaging 15 points per game. The Dores need to be aware of Washington when he comes in because he is the best shooter MTSU has from downtown, where is hitting on 46 percent of his attempts.
Kyle Hunt provides the frontcourt depth, but like Ottley, is also underweight to defend the elite level post players. Shawn Jones also backs up the forwards and is a physical rebounder despite being only a freshman.
KEYS TO THE GAME
1) Find Washington when he comes in. Sometimes it's easier to match up with another team's starters, but lose track of someone when they come in off the bench. That may be the case with James Washington who is MTSU's best player. Vanderbilt needs to make sure it is properly matched up with him when he checks in, which is sure to be quick. Washington is the only player who can keep the Blue Raiders in the game, so he needs to be found quickly, and VU cannot allow him to heat up.
2) Last minute SEC preparations. Conference play is in sight, so now is the time for Vandy to continue to work on the priorities Coach Stallings has for SEC play. Maybe a new wrinkle for freeing up John Jenkins, or a way to get the ball to Ezeli inside. Hopefully, Stallings will be able to play his bench some extended minutes. This would give those players who don't play many meaningful minutes some extended time should injuries follow later in the year.