Vanderbilt's game with Hampton gives the Commodores their first attempt to recover from their 86-71 loss to Connecticut. This loss, and the final margin, was not unexpected but the manner in which it came about was unforeseen. The first half saw the Commodores "lose their composure," as Coach Stallings said in the postgame interview, and fall behind 47-24 at halftime. However, in the second half they bounced back, cut the lead down to as little as ten points, and outscored the Huskies 47-37, with Chuck Moore's three-point bombs leading the comeback.
A decisive or disappointing loss on the road in pre-conference play has been happening yearly to the Commodores. Last year it was the 97-74 debacle at Boston College, which unfortunately occurred just before conference play began. The year before it was a 70-65 loss to a weak Florida State team in Tallahassee. And in 1998-99 it was a 90-70 licking at the hands of a good Oregon team out there. This trend could be traced back in time for a good many years, but hopefully the point is made, which is that this year's pre-conference licking may be less damaging than some others, provided that the players have learned from it and don't get taken by surprise in the future.
The Hampton Pirates will arrive in Hawaii with a 2-0 record. Their first game was an amazing 77-69 upset of the North Carolina Tarheels in Chapel Hill. This was followed by a 73-72 squeaker with Central Florida, touted as one of the better teams in the Atlantic Sun Conference, to which also belong Georgia State, Samford, Belmont, and Mercer. The Pirates represented the Mid-Eastern Conference in the 2001 NCAA tournament, scoring a thrilling 58-57 upset of Iowa State before being eliminated 76-57 by Georgetown.
Coach Steve Merfield, who has a 64-50 record in his four years as head coach at Hampton, has two starters returning from last year's 25-7 team. One is 6'3" senior Tommy Adams, 10.2 ppg and 50 steals, at shooting guard. Adams was the leading scorer in both games to date, with 20 and 24 points, and made 8 of his 22 three-point shots. The other returning starter is 6'8" junior Cleveland Davis, who averaged 8.2 ppg and 6.3 rpg last year, but missed the North Carolina game and returned to score 4 points and grab 2 rebounds against Central Florida. Isaac Jefferson, 6'5" junior (5.4 ppg, 6.7 rpg last year), is not a big scorer but has combined the skills of rebounding (24) and playmaking (12 assists) in the first two games. 6'3" junior Barry Hairston is the second leading scorer to date (18.5 ppg and 4 of 5 from three-point range). Forward Devin Green is a 6'6" freshman who is scoring 13.5 ppg. The reserves who are likely to see the most action are Marcus Pitts (6'8" sophomore) and David Johnson (6'7" sophomore). Four others who played in each of the first two games are 6'8" sophomore Dwayne McNeal, 6'2" senior Mackel Purvis, 5'10" sophomore Donald Didlake, and 6'0" junior Jamaal James.
Lacking any really large players, Coach Merfield revolves his men around to different positions, as needed. Although the tallest player in only 6'8" (but there are three of those), Hampton lost the rebounding battle to tall North Carolina by only 49-47 and edged out Central Florida 36-35 on the boards. The Pirates were 24-6 on threes against the Tarheels and 27-11 against Central Florida.
Expect the Pirates to be quick, scrappy, and opportunistic. Obviously they don't have the talent that Connecticut has, but they are very well coached under Merfield. If they can hold down their turnovers against Vanderbilt they have a chance for another upset (they had only 10 against North Carolina, but 22 against Central Florida).
On the other hand, Vanderbilt has superior outside shooters, greater height, and a set of players who are potentially considerably better than those of Hampton. The prediction is for a close game all the way, with Vanderbilt prevailing by 4 to 7 points, and having a chance to win more decisively if the shots fall. This should be a good test for the Commodores.