Monday evening will be the first meeting ever between Vanderbilt and Central Michigan; the Chippewas the Mid-American Conference come in with a 5-3 record. CMU has won all of its home games, including a 68-55 win over Valparaiso and a good 88-77 triumph over East Tennessee. On the road the Chippewas have lost all three, to Evansville 100-85, Kent State in a conference game 81-72, and Minnesota 77-63. Central Michigan has lost 16 consecutive road games.
The Chippewas are coached by Jay Smith (right, AP photo by Ann Heisenfelt), whose composite record with them is 86-121. Earlier in his career he was an assistant coach at Kent State for one year and then spent seven years at Michigan under Steve Fisher. His first head coaching job was at Grand Valley State University (from which he graduated in 1984). He then took the Central Michigan job, where his fortunes have fluctuated tremendously. In seven full years, he has had five bad losing seasons, but achieved a 20-8 record in 2000-01 and 25-7 in 2002-03, when Chris Kaman (now in the NBA) was the star. After the 2002-03 success, CMU sank to a 6-24 record last year.
Central Michigan has five freshmen on the roster, one of whom starts; three starters are seniors and one is a junior. The leading scorer is 6-foot-3 junior shooting guard Kevin Nelson (17.1 ppg). With a 40.7% percentage from 3-point territory, he is the team's biggest outside threat, but he drives to the basket enough to get to the free throw stripe quite often and is tied for second in rebounds (3.9 per game).
Nelson's running mate is the lone freshman starter and point guard, 5-10 Giordan Watson. Obviously there are some risks in having a freshman running the team, and Watson's assist/turnover ratio is not much better than 1.0. He is very quick and gets over three steals per game, while scoring 11.9 ppg.
On the other wing is 6-3 senior Tony Bowne (11.9 ppg), the second best outside shooter (36.8% on threes). He is the spiritual leader of the team, a gritty defender, and a decent rebounder (3.9 per game). He is also the most experienced player, having worked alongside Chris Kaman the season before last.
Two 6-8 seniors round out the starting lineup. Steve Harris is a 250-pounder who is easily the team leader in rebounding (6.1 per game). In fact, neither he nor Tom Pantlind (215 lbs) are big scoring threats, Harris averaging 6.4 ppg and Pantlind 5.4 ppg. Pantlind is a former walk-on. There is no doubt that Central Michigan looks to the outside players to provide the offense.
Central Michigan's key reserves are 6-5 senior Robert Sevalia, 6-6 Sophomore Eddie Spencer, 6-7 freshman Justin Blevins, and 6-8 freshman Jeff Bohnhoff. Sevalia, who has been averaging about 24 minutes and 10.1 ppg, is in his second year at CMU after transfering in from Midland College. Spencer (averaging 16 minutes per game) is a slasher who can also shoot the three; he is scoring 4.6 ppg. Blevins and Bohnhoff both play about 11 minutes per game and average 2.3 and 2.0 ppg respectively.
7-1 freshman Drew Walker, 6-6 sophomore Sefton Barrett, and 5-11 freshman Reynold Walters round out the roster. None of them have played much, but Walker could be called upon to try to match the height of Vanderbilt's big men.
Bowne might be matched up against Mario Moore in an attempt to shut down Vanderbilt's chief outside threat. However, if that happens, the 5-10 Watson will be left with the difficult task of trying to guard the much taller Jason Holwerda or Shan Foster. On the other hand, Holwerda can take on Nelson defensively, and should be able to hold him reasonably in check, and CMU's big men aren't likely to be major offensive threats.
Central Michigan will probably rely on half-court defense, and emphasize pressure in the passing lanes to create turnovers. The Chippewas don't appear to have the manpower to seriously threaten the Commodores unless they somehow get loose outside the three-point line and rain in the trifectas. With the advantage of the home court on its side, Vanderbilt is picked to win by 12-20 points.