The two most impressive features of Vanderbilt’s win over Yale – a genuinely formidable opponent – are not hard to identify: First, VU played cleanly. The Dores were not imposing, and they did not shoot as well as they would have liked, especially from three-point range (7 of 22), but they weren’t sloppy. Committing only 12 turnovers in a double-overtime game (50 minutes of clock time) is exceptionally good, regardless of the opponent. Minimizing giveaways certainly enabled Vanderbilt to maintain a degree of leverage it otherwise would have lost over the course of the full competition. The Commodores didn’t give Yale easy baskets as a result of their own miscues, and that’s one of many ways in which losable games don’t become losses. VU rescued itself by taking such good care of the ball.
The other thing Vanderbilt did especially well against Yale was to get to the foul line and convert. The Dores finished with a plus-20 differential in attempts and a plus-16 differential in terms of makes. Being able to hit 76.5 percent of 34 foul shots also enabled VU to keep pace with Yale and eventually prevail in the second extra period. Twin habits of being able to protect the ball and repeatedly make free throws when given the opportunity will put Vanderbilt in good shape during the SEC season that’s about to begin. Let’s see what’s in store for VU against Bruce Pearl’s new team.
Auburn basketball has known two fertile periods in its history, two five-year stretches in which the program was able to achieve something of substance. From 1984 through 1988 under then-coach Sonny Smith, Auburn made the NCAA tournament. In 1986, the Tigers reached the Elite Eight before falling to Louisville. Then came the next five-year stretch, 1999 through 2003. Auburn reached the Sweet 16 twice in that span, the Tigers’ best chance coming in 1999, when they were the top seed in the South Region but got knocked off by Ohio State in Knoxville. Coach Cliff Ellis gave Auburn a glimpse of greatness – he didn’t quite get there, but Ellis led Auburn close to the top.
Now, the Tigers feel they have a coach who can take them all the way to their first Final Four. Bruce Pearl guided Tennessee within one win of its first Final Four in 2010, leading the Vols to the Midwest Regional final in St. Louis against Michigan State, before the Spartans crushed that dream. Pearl’s subsequent brushes with the NCAA have been well documented, and they forced the charismatic yet controversial coach – a drama magnet in college basketball circles – to step away from the bench for a few seasons. Pearl spent his time as an ESPN commentator, but as soon as his three-year show-cause penalty expired, he jumped at the opportunity to get back into coaching. Unfortunately for other SEC schools, Pearl returned to the conference with Auburn as his new home. It is hard to deny the sense that in due time, Auburn is going to be a player in the SEC with Pearl at the helm. The main question people are asking right now is, “How long will it take?”
Based on this season, it seems clear that this is not going to be a particularly quick fix for Pearl, at least if “quick fix” is defined as “no more than two seasons.” Auburn has been all over the place, competing doggedly and grinding out close wins over Oregon State, Xavier, and Texas Southern, but also getting its doors blown off by Colorado, Tulsa and Clemson. Auburn was good enough to beat Xavier in a high-scoring game with 50-percent shooting from the floor, and bad enough to lose a 46-44 eyesore of a game to Texas Tech, when shooting 36 percent. If there’s one virtue this team consistently lacks, it’s consistency. Auburn is a volatile team in search of itself, and at 8-5 entering SEC play, the Tigers – though hoping they can take advantage of a weak conference that’s wide-open after Kentucky – really can’t expect too much.
Forward – Jordon Granger – Junior, 6-8, 210; 2014-15: 4.8 points per game, 3 rebounds per game
Auburn arrives at this game in less than ideal health. Granger played only four minutes in Auburn’s most recent game against North Alabama on Saturday, Jan. 3. He had been slowed down with knee and hamstring injuries, so Vanderbilt is unsure what kind of player it will see in this game. Granger’s effectiveness will be one big question mark.
Forward – Cinmeon Bowers – Junior, 6-7, 278; 2014-15: 13.7 ppg, 11.3 rpg
Bowers is, as you can see, a widebody at his 6-7 frame. He’s not quite a Charles Barkley “Round Mound of Rebound,” but it’s clear that his rebounding prowess jumps off the charts. No other Auburn player averages above 3.5 rebounds per game, so Bowers is this team’s main pillar on the glass. Bowers’ ability to so consistently rebound the ball gives him plenty of putback chances and is certainly a part of why he averages almost 14 points. Will Bowers figure into Vanderbilt’s primary game keys? You can figure that one out.
Guard – K.C. Ross-Miller – Senior, 6-0, 178; 2014-15: 6.7 ppg, 1.9 rpg, 2.5 assists per game
Ross-Miller took only five shots against North Alabama and did not seem to be very engaged. Pearl was upset with his team’s lack of effort in that North Alabama game, so it’s reasonable to conclude that he was indirectly referencing Ross-Miller’s performance, among others, on Saturday. Ross-Miller hits only 15 percent of his threes, and as you’ll soon see, there are other players on the Tigers’ roster who shoot the ball a lot better.
Guard – K.T. Harrell – Senior, 6-4, 212; 2014-15: 17.9 ppg, 3.5 rpg, 1.4 apg
Last season, Harrell was asked to carry the scoring workload for an Auburn team that had a couple of good players but fell short of fielding a blended five-man roster with an adequate bench. This season, little has fundamentally changed. Harrell has to be the lead dog on this roster in terms of scoring. He needs to handle the rock because there’s only one other natural scorer on the team. He does hit 41.7 percent of his threes, which identifies him as the shooter Vanderbilt can’t leave unattended behind the arc.
Guard – Antoine Mason – Senior, 6-1, 216; 2014-15: 15.4 ppg, 1.6 apg
Mason hits only 33 percent of his threes, but in the seven games he’s played this season (he missed most of November), he’s attempted at least six foul shots in five of those games. Vanderbilt has to stop Mason on dribble penetration and keep him out of the paint. You can see that Auburn’s players have different skill sets. VU must defend each player in accordance with those skill sets.
Pearl turns to a number of players on his bench, which should make sense, since Pearl likes to be able to go 10 deep if he can, something Vanderbilt fans know well from Pearl’s days at Tennessee. One of Auburn’s primary bench players is guard Tajh Shamsid-Deen. Shamsid-Deen is not a natural scorer, but every now and then, he’ll bust loose, as he did a year ago in a near-upset of Florida (when the Gators were, you know, a good team… unlike this season). Shamsid-Deen missed the North Alabama game due to a shoulder injury, so he’s another Auburn player whose level of form is hard to judge at this point.
Pearl also turns to forward Alex Thompson and guards Malcolm Canada and T.J. Lang. Thompson averages 4.2 points and 3 rebounds per game. Canada averages 5.6 points and 2.4 assists per game. Lang averages a paltry 1.5 points per game.
Keys to the Game
1) Don’t bow down to Bowers on the boards. When one team has such a dominant primary rebounder, it is essential to keep that rebounder in check, especially in terms of offensive rebounds. Denying Bowers a series of easy putbacks will be an important and central goal for the Commodores, who need to make things as hard for Auburn’s offense as humanly possible on Tuesday night.
2) Hem in Harrell. It’s true that Mason is another player Vanderbilt must look at, but Harrell’s natural shooting touch makes him the player who could go off for 25 or more points in this game. Vanderbilt has to make Harrell give up the ball, forcing other Tigers to hit perimeter shots under pressure.
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