Commodores visit Tide, try to shake road skid

Stung by a decisive loss at South Carolina, and still searching for its first SEC road win, Vanderbilt stumbles into Tuscaloosa, Ala. Wednesday for a game vs. Alabama. The Commodores (15-6, 4-6 SEC) tip off against Mark Gottfried's Crimson Tide (12-9, 4-6) at 7 p.m. CT at Coleman Coliseum in an untelevised matchup. Which team looks to win on paper? VeeMan examines both squads and makes a fearless forecast.

Despite their best efforts in Columbia, S.C. last Saturday, the Vanderbilt Commodores are still winless on the road in Southeastern Conference play. Despite several long Mario Moore 3-pointers late in the game to make the final score 82-75, the Commodores trailed South Carolina badly until then and never really were in a position to steal the game. The loss left Vandy's overall record at 15-6, 4-6 in the league. Moore led Vandy with 19 points; Matt Freije added 16, and David Przybyszewski and Russell Lakey were also in double digits with 12 apiece.

The Alabama Crimson Tide ended a five-game losing streak Saturday with a win over Tennessee, 83-70. The Crimson Tide's overall record is 12-9, including three solid non-conference wins-- at Oregon (87-86), and at home over Wisconsin (71-56) and Charlotte (79-72). In conference play the Tide is 4-6, having won at Georgia (45-42) and at home over Auburn (69-46), Arkansas (81-65), and Tennessee. Bama's losses were at home to Florida (88-78) and LSU (60-54), and on the road to South Carolina (90-82), Kentucky (66-56), Mississippi (71-60) and LSU (70-66).

Just eight players get almost all the playing time for the Tide. Three of these eight are seniors: 6-0 Antoine Pettway, 6-2 Demetrius Smith, and 6-4 Emmett Thomas. The feisty Pettway (right, AP photo by Rogelio Solia), who came to Alabama as a walk-on and eventually earned a scholarship, is the point guard, averaging 9.2 ppg, 3.3 assists, and 2.3 steals. Smith plays about 15 minutes per game, backs up Pettway, and scores 3.7 points. Thomas, playing on the wing, but not starting, is a very good outside shooter (47% on threes) and scores 8.0 ppg, though averaging only 20 minutes of action.

The only freshman who has played is slender, 6-11 Jemareo Davidson, who starts at the high post. He averages 5.6 ppg, 5.1 rebounds, and blocks a few shots.

6-3 junior Earnest Shelton has emerged this year as one of the conference's outstanding outside shooters. Playing over thirty minutes per game, he fires up an average of seven-plus three-pointers per game, making 34% of them. He scores 15.5 ppg and helps out considerably in rebounding (3.3 per game) and hands out a significant number of assists.

Three sophomores (6-6 Kennedy Winston, 6-7 Chuck Davis, and 6-8 Evan Brock) complete the slender cast, although 6-7 senior Reggie Rambo has played limited minutes. Winston, who became eligible midway through the season in 2003-04, is the leading scorer at 16.0 ppg, and gets his points in a variety of ways. He often drives to the basket or takes short jumpers and also connects on 39% of his treys. Brock plays 16.5 minutes per game and scores 3.7 ppg, all from fairly close in.

Davis, who saw little action last year, can be a force. He averages 15.5 ppg and does most of his damage from within the 3-point line, often quite close to the basket. Sometimes he disappears on offense, scoring just four points in each of three of the past four games. At other times he does a lot of damage, as in the Tennessee game, in which he scored 20 points and grabbed nine rebounds.

Alabama is not one of the better defensive teams in the league-- the Tide yielded 90 points to South Carolina and 88 to Florida. Rebounding can be a problem due to the lack of heft; at 230 pounds Davis is easily the heaviest player of the eight. The 3-point shooting can be explosive, as shown by 16-of-31 and 8-of-17 performances vs. South Carolina and Tennessee, respectively. The fact that the Tide has several scoring threats (Winston, Davis, Shelton, Pettway, and Thomas) makes them harder to defend.

The Commodores appear to be struggling with a lack of confidence as a team when on the road, and the situation seems to be getting worse as the season progresses. Vanderbilt has greater size (but not better rebounding) and experience, and more good defensive players than Alabama. Alabama is not one of the more difficult places to play in the conference; this may well be the best remaining chance to get a win, although Arkansas and Tennessee both seemed easier. This is a game that could easily go either way, but Alabama is predicted here to win by two to five points.

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