The responses to Vanderbilt's struggling 69-64 victory over California Poly were predictable. The coach was furious and some of the fans were saying that all is lost for this season. There is little doubt that the Commodores should have won much more easily, but all too often teams tend to perform up or down to the opposition, depending upon its quality, especially in pre-conference play. Most of the players weren't as focused as they should have been, but I seem to remember the same thing happening to just about every other team I ever followed closely. The game did give walk-on Matt Carter a chance to make a substantial contribution for the first time. One wonders if he will get further opportunities?
The Commodores aren't likely to underestimate their next opponent, the Western Kentucky Hilltoppers. Any team that goes into Rupp Arena and beats the Kentucky Wildcats there has accomplished something that no Vanderbilt team has ever done. The Hilltoppers bring a 4-1 record into the Vanderbilt game, having beaten Kentucky 64-52, George Washington (also in Lexington) 73-48, Evansville and Murray State in Bowling Green KY by scores of 90-64 and 101-77 respectively, and sustained their only loss to a good Creighton team there, 94-91 in double overtime. The Hilltoppers are a top-20 team now and the Creighton loss probably won't change that.
Western's top player is 7'1" senior Chris Marcus, a genuine All-American candidate, who is averaging 14.6 ppg and 9.2 rebounds. The 285 lbs Marcus is a one-time project who has worked out in a big way, improving steadily after arrriving at Western with a limited background in basketball. He has already blocked eleven shots this season, more than the entire Vanderbilt team. He is hitting 55.8% of his shots from the field and goes often to the free throw line, having made 25 of 35 (71.4%). To sum up in basketball parlance, he is "a load" and seemingly gives Western a big advantage in the area in which Vanderbilt is weakest-- rebounding.
There is a lot more to Western than Marcus. The Hilltoppers are loaded with good point guards and wing players. Derek Robinson, 6'1" senior, is both a capable point guard and a good scorer, averaging 13.2 ppg and four assists. Raynardo Curry, 6'0" junior (who didn't play his freshman year) is averaging 10.2 ppg and has over three assists and three steals per game. Mike Wells, 6'3" junior, is averaging 9.8 ppg, and 6'1" freshman Patrick Sparks is scoring 7.6 ppg and has as many assists as Curry in a lot less playing time. Sparks, a Kentucky boy, is an outstanding passer who seems to be a better player than fellow-Kentuckian and point guard Adam Chiles, who was successfully recruited by the Kentucky Wildcats. Filip Videnov, 6'4" junior, currently averaging 7.0 ppg, has proved himself a considerable scoring threat in past years. Tremain Rowles, 6'4" senior, 3.3 ppg, is an experienced role player. Wells, Robinson, Sparks, and Videnov all shoot three-pointers well.
Marcus doesn't have to do it all underneath. His main helper is 6'8" junior David Boyden, 8.6 ppg and 4.5 rpg. Boyden is hitting 52.9% of his shots and is capable of getting hot at any time. Todor Pandov, 6'9" sophomore, like Videnov a Bulgarian, is averaging 7.0 ppg and making 57.7% of his shots from the field. Nate Williams, 6'8" junior, and Caleb Holcomb, 6'10" sophomore, complete the cast of players likely to see significant action.
Expect to see three of the guards, Boyden, and Marcus in the game together most of the time, with Pandov playing a lot of minutes too. The guards pick up a lot of rebounds and Curry (undoubtedly the quickest player on the team) is easily the biggest threat to steal the ball. Boyden is said to be the best defensive forward in the Sun Belt Conference, to which Western belongs. With Marcus guarding the basket, don't underestimate Western as a defensive team.
Obviously the Commodores have a big obstacle to overcome. But they have an intangible going for them that shouldn't be underestimated. In nine tries, Western hasn't beaten Vanderbilt since 1946! And two of those wins came in the last two years, including a 70-66 loss in Bowling Green last year. Nearly all of the Western players know what it is like to lose to Vanderbilt.
The Hilltoppers will be expected to win by 6 to 12 points and, if Vanderbilt doesn't shoot well and/or turns the ball over a lot, it could be considerably worse than that. The prediction here is for a very close game and don't be too surprised if Vanderbilt finds the range from the three-point zone and makes it ten in a row!