Vanderbilt's 81-67 loss to Monmouth in the second round of the Thanksgiving Classic sent me to the record books. How long has it been since Vanderbilt lost decisively to a team from the lower ranks of Division I? Answer: not since Tennessee Tech (Ohio Valley Conference) beat them 89-76 in the opening home game of the 1989-90 season (Coach Eddie Fogler's first year). The Commodores recovered from that loss, and a later seven-game losing streak, to go 21-14 and win the NIT post-season tournament. But that just shows what is possible and certainly doesn't constitute a prediction. The fact is that the Commodores have rarely lost to teams that don't belong to major conferences. A 66-61 loss to Evansville (Missouri Valley Conference) there in 1996, a mid-major team, is the only defeat suffered to a non-major since the Tennessee Tech disaster.
Why did the Commodores lose to Monmouth? (1) Rahsaan Johnson had a career game; 30 points, 7 assists, and just 3 turnovers. Coach Kevin Stallings said after the game that there are a lot of better point guards in the SEC than Johnson. Well, if there are, I can't think who they might be, although Brett Nelson of Florida (a different type of player) is better known. (2) The two best defending guards for the Commodores are Russell Lakey and Chuck Moore. Lakey played 16 minutes but was ineffective, not yet being fully recovered from his foot injury. Moore, who was also the leading scorer going into the game, played only three minutes. (3) The Pirates hit a hot spell in the second half, at a time when the Dores seemed more intent on trying to get the ball inside than on scoring by whatever means possible, and got command of the game. (4) Vanderbilt was outrebounded 35-30 by a smaller team and seldom got second shots. As usual, Dawid Przybyszewski was the leading rebounder (7), but no one else got more than five (Hundley, Freije, Howard) and Brian Thornton got none.
Now the Commodores must try to bounce back against Tennessee-Chattanooga, a team from down the road that they haven't played since 1960, when Chattanooga was still a private school. At times in the last 20 years, indeed recently under Coach Mac McCarthy, the Mocs (Mocassins) of the Southern Conference, have been a surprisingly strong team. Last year, under Coach Henry Dickerson, they went 17-13 overall (9-7 in conference play), and return three starters. This year, they defeated Tennessee Wesleyan 89-59 in their opener, and Liberty 82-57 in the first round of the Thanksgiving Classic, before losing decisively to Notre Dame 97-84 in the second round.
Clyde McCully, 6'0" senior, returns to play point guard for the Mocs after averaging 8.4 ppg and 4.8 assists last year. McCully is a good team leader and ball handler, but is not known as an outside shooter. 6'3" senior shooting guard Toot Young scored 12.5 ppg as a junior. Neil Ashby, 6'8" slender senior forward, is extremely athletic and a good shotblocker, who started his career at Alabama. His averages last year were 8.6 ppg and 5.3 rebounds. Nick Benson, 6'5" junior, is a transfer from Moberly Junior College who scored 16.2 ppg and grabbed 7.4 rebounds for a very highly ranked team. Dusty Pulliam, 6'8" senior, who scored 8.7 ppg and had 6.9 rebounds last year, completes the starting lineup, and has been characterized as a "blue-collar layer." Chattanooga does not start a true center.
The sixth man is Petie Spaulding, 6'0" junior, who also comes in from Moberly JC, where his figures were 11.6 ppg and 4.8 apg. He scored 24 points in the Liberty game in 31 minutes of action. Rugged Tim Parker, 6'4" junior, will see a lot of action because he is a good three-point shooter (37.4% last year, while averaging 7.7 ppg); he scored 19 points against Notre Dame. Other useful reserves are: Tim Harris, 6'6", another junior transferring from Moberly JC; 6'9" Aaron Morgan, also from Moberly; Michael Townsend, 6'7" senior; and Chris Bishop, 6'6" redshirt freshman.
Chattanooga has pretty good depth, a good mixture of skill and athleticism, and an experienced group of players. On a good night, they are capable enough to extend the Commodores even if the Dores play as well as they did against Hampton. Psychologically, the edge goes to Vanderbilt, coming off a disappointing defeat, whereas Chattanooga may be down a little after playing highly-regarded Notre Dame. Look for Vanderbilt to be much better tonight and win by ten.