In losing to the Georgia Bulldogs 83-69 at Athens on Saturday, the Vanderbilt Commodores may have missed their best chance to win a road game in Southeastern Conference play. However, it is early, some teams will get better and others will fade, and upsets are possible.
The Alabama Crimson Tide barely avoided defeat Saturday in their conference opener, coming from behind to edge out underdog LSU 76-74. Overall the Tide is 13-2, the only losses being to Missouri 75-68 (in Kansas City MO) and at UCLA 79-57. The best wins were over Memphis 81-70 (also in Kansas City), Utah 76-61 in Tuscaloosa, Temple 70-67 in Meadowlands NJ, and Notre Dame 79-76 in New Orleans. Other wins, all at home, have been over Mississippi Valley, Samford, McNeese State, Chattanooga, Jacksonville State, Alabama A. and M., Florida A. and M., and Bethune-Cookman. One comparative score: Vanderbilt beat Chattanooga 69-57 in Hawaii, but the Tide struggled to edge the Mocs 74-68 at home.
The scoring star for Alabama is slender 6'8" junior Rod Grizzard, who plays on the wing. He is averaging 15.0 ppg and 5.7 rebounds. Grizzard is a dynamic individual who is co-leader on the team in steals and second in assists, but is somewhat inconsistent, and puts up a lot of threes while making a mediocre percentage of them (30.8%). He drives to the basket often and gets a lot of free throws (82.4% from the free throw line). He will probably get his points against Vanderbilt but it will hurt less if he has to take a lot of shots to do it. Also, he is the weakest defender in the starting lineup.
In many ways, the best player on the team is 6'8" power forward Erwin Dudley, a hard-working, no-nonsense 255-pounder. He is averaging 13.9 points and making nearly 60% of his shots from the field. He is also the leading rebounder (8.5 per game) and a tough defender. The Commodores have found him to be a problem in the past and this year is not likely to be different. Free-throwing is Dudley's only real weakness (58.6%).
The Tide found a good point guard in 6'1" freshman Maurice Williams (9.9 pg). His assist to turnover ratio (71-43) is very respectable for a freshman. He is an outstanding playmaker and will become a better one as he gets more experience. His three-point shooting has been shaky (26.3%), but he is putting up only about four threes per game.
Shooting guard Terrance Meade, 6'2" junior, is scoring 12.3 ppg and helps out a lot with the rebounding (4.1 per game). He shoots frequently from three-point territory, making 37.5% of his efforts. Meade is the sort of streaky shooter who can have a hot night and bomb the opponent right out of the game, as he showed in the SEC tournament against Vanderbilt when he scored 20 points.
Junior center Kenny Walker, 6'9", 220 pounds, is a high jumper who has had a tendency in the past to get in foul trouble, but seems to have found the cure to that problem this year (only 29 fouls in 15 games). He is averaging 10.6 ppg and 6.3 rebounds. All of his scoring comes from close to the basket.
With the loss of 6'3" freshman guard Earnest Shelton (knee injury), the team's leading scorer off the bench (5.6 ppg), Alabama has only five substitutes. The one who plays most is 6'0" sophomore Antoine Pettway (4.5 ppg). The biggest scoring threat is 6'0" junior Travis Stinnett (4.9 ppg), who was a starter in the last third of the schedule last year, and both he and Pettway are good long-range shooters. Another reserve guard is 6'3" sophomore Demetrius Smith (2.9 ppg).
There is very little depth in the frontcourt. 6'7" sophomore Reggie Rambo (3.1 ppg and 3.7 rebounds) plays some, and 6'6" senior Solomon Davis has gotten into eight games. Mostly, to get rest for the two big men, Coach Mark Gottfried shuffles Grizzard in for one of them and brings in another guard. As the conference schedule goes on, this lack of depth may become an adverse factor for the Tide.
Alabama has played good team defense to date, allowing only four opponents to score over 70 points, and none has reached 80. By comparison, Vanderbilt has given up over 80 points to Connecticut, Hampton, Monmouth, Tulane, and Georgia. The Georgia game showed (as expected) that the key to stopping the Commodores is to not allow their three-point shooting guards to get off good shots. (Dawid Przybyszewski's three-point shooting is a lot harder to stop, but pulls a 7-footer away from the basket.) Alabama may be expected to apply the same tactics.
This looks like one of the three hardest games on the SEC schedule for the Commodores (along with the road games at Kentucky and Florida). A win would be a big upset and a loss by 8 to 15 points is the likeliest result.