By rolling to a 42-24 halftime lead over Alabama and holding on in the second half, the Vanderbilt Commodores ended their long SEC road losing streak on Wednesday. Matt Freije unleashed a 21-point bombardment before halftime and finished with 32 points, and also climbed into fourth place among the all-time Vanderbilt scoring leaders. David Przybyszewski and Corey Smith also scored in double digits, with ten points each. The Commodores are now 5-6 in the conference standings and find themselves tied with Florida and Tennessee for third place in the Eastern Division.
Meanwhile the LSU Tigers were suffering an upset in Baton Rouge Wednesday at the hands of Auburn, 80-68. However, they still will be coming in with a 7-4 conference record, having defeated Arkansas (66-55), Alabama (60-54) and Florida (73-70) in road games and Alabama (70-66), Georgia (63-59), Tennessee (84-67), and Arkansas (65-52) in home games. Their other conference losses have been at home to Mississippi State (64-54), and on the road to Mississippi (53-49) and South Carolina (61-55). In non-conference play their best wins were over Utah (65-61) and UAB (78-62), their only loss coming at Houston (60-52).
An examination of conference team statistics shows that LSU is near the top in most defensive categories and near the bottom in most offensive categories. They are second in points yielded and field goal defense, third in rebounding margin, and fourth in blocked shots. On the other hand, they are eleventh in free throw percentage and assists, tenth in points scored per game, and last in three-pointers made. Turnovers have been a problem (worst in the conference) and assists have been few (eleventh). They can't afford a breakdown on defense, as happened against Auburn when they gave up the most points of any game this season.
The Tigers are led by 6-9 senior low post player Jaime Lloreda, a certain all-conference first-teamer who scores 17.2 ppg and grabs an impressive 11.6 rebounds. He plays nearly 35 minutes per game and is a strong, if sometimes hot-headed, competitor who makes nearly 60% of his shots from the field, all from close-in. Free-throw shooting has been his weakness (55%). Lloreda was slowed by an injured foot in the Auburn game and his physical condition for the Vanderbilt game is something of a question mark.
6-8 Brandon Bass (right, AP photo by Phil Sandlin) is a strong candidate for SEC Freshman of the Year honors. He is LSU's second-leading scorer (13.0 ppg), and snares 7.2 rebounds. Like Lloreda, he does almost all of his scoring near the basket, making 51% of his shots, but unlike Lloreda he hits his free throws (78.8%). Bass also averages two blocked shots per game.
Although he might not start, 6-5 junior wingman Antonio Hudson averages over 30 minutes per game and scores 9.6 ppg. He makes 40% of his shots from the field, but only 32% of his threes, and is a weak free-throw shooter (56.5%). The other wing player, 5-11 sophomore Darrel Mitchell, is somewhat undersized, but is easily the strongest threat from outside (41.4% success on three-pointers), scoring 11.5 ppg. Mitchell plays nearly 30 minutes per game.
Point guard is shared between 6-2 junior Xavier Whipple (4.5 ppg) and 5-11 freshman Tack Minor (6.6 ppg). Whipple is the tortoise, steady and unspectacular, handing out 3.2 assists per game and maintaining a respectable assist/turnover ratio. Minor is the hare, often spectacular and just as often out of control, hence Whipple plays 25 minutes per game to his 15. Minor's assist/turnover ratio is a weak 1:1, but he is a better outside shooter than Whipple.
6-9 freshman Regis Koundjia has started almost all of the games, but he averages only 4.0 ppg and seems not yet to have gotten much confidence in his shooting. He does pull off 3.8 rebounds, but does not play as many minutes as Mitchell and Hudson.
6-8 freshman Darrell Lazare (2.5 ppg) plays about ten minutes per game and has been a capable substitute, connecting on nearly 64% of his shots. The only other player likely to get in the game is 6-8 freshman Ross Neltner, but he hasn't scored a single point in his 14 appearances.
Probably the biggest challenge facing Vanderbilt in this game is rebounding. Getting the ball off the board against the beefy Lloreda (245 lbs.) and Bass (240 lbs.) will be a problem, and Hudson, Lazare and Koundjia give them able support. Should Lloreda's game time be limited, or his effectiveness be less than usual, the Commodores will have less of a disadvantage.
This looks like a low-scoring, grind-it-out type of game, dominated by defense. The Tigers will be in a mean mood after letting the Auburn home game get away. On the other hand, the Vanderbilt players should feel an increase in confidence and spirit following the Alabama road victory. Either way, it figures to be close all the way and will probably be decided by less than five points. Vanderbilt is predicted here to be on the long end of the score.