A thrilling 86-84 win over the Georgia Bulldogs on Saturday has given the Vanderbilt Commodores their first three-game winning streak in SEC play since January, 1998. They haven't won four straight conference games since the drive they made in February 1997, which got them into the NCAA tournament that year.
A great exhibition of three point shooting (31-15) was mainly responsible for the win over the 17th rated Bulldogs, a team that is probably headed for a high finish in conference play and a trip to the NCAA. But another factor that should not be overlooked is that Vanderbilt has been rebounding on even terms with their opponents in these three victorious conference games.
The Commodores now face the daunting task of playing the Mississippi Rebels in Oxford. Vanderbilt last won there on January 11, 1989! Ole Miss is a solid team that will come in with an overall 16-4 record, and 5-2 in conference games.
In non-conference play, the Rebels lost only twice (to Bowling Green and George Mason in close games), their best wins being at home over Memphis, a road victory at Kansas State, and over IUPUI and Texas El Paso to capture the Sun Bowl Classic. In conference action, they have beaten Arkansas on the road, Auburn, Mississippi State, LSU, and South Carolina at home, and lost to Tennessee and Kentucky on the road.
Mississippi's star player is 6'8" sophomore forward Justin Reed (14.5 ppg and 6.2 rebounds). He is a strong, aggressive 220-pounder, and a strong contender for first team all-conference honors.
Sharing most of the tough work under the basket with Reed is 6'8" Derrick Allen, a JUCO transfer who is averaging 10 ppg and 7 rebounds. Both Reed and Allen get to the free throw line a lot and they hit their free-throws well.
On the wings are 6'5" sophomore Aaron Harper (11.4 ppg, 4.2 rebounds) and 6'3" sophomore David Sanders (also 11.4 ppg and 4.5 rebounds). Jason Harrison, the 5'5" senior point guard is scoring 10.6 ppg. Clearly everyone in the Rebel starting lineup is a threat to score. Harrison, Sanders, and Harper are all threats to hit the three-point shot.
Emmanuel Wade, 6'3" junior, is the sixth man and logs well over 20 minutes per game, while scoring 7.6 ppg and grabbing 3.5 rebounds. He is also a threat to hit the three-pointer.
A pair of freshmen, 6'0" Justin Johnson and 6'7" Kendrick Fox, play about twelve minutes per game, and each average about 2.5 ppg. 6'9" junior Richard Kirklin (2.1 ppg) also sees action. 6'7" sophomore Josh Hayes and 6'7" freshman Chris Rhodes also get into most games. The Rebels' biggest player, 6'10" John Gunn, went down with an injury before the season began, and 6'3" freshman Jonathan Loe was redshirted.
Mississippi is a good three-point shooting team (about 20-8 per game). They are scrappy on the boards and play tough half-court defense, as Coach Rod Barnes's teams typically do. In short, they are quicker and tougher defensively than Vanderbilt, but less explosive on the offense and have less height.
Clearly, this is a game that the Commodores are not expected to win, but what would it take to pull out a surprise victory? Another hot three-point shooting exhibition might do the trick but, more realistically, success in this game is likely to require a grind-it-out effort, of the sort that usually requires a lot of mental toughness.
Unfortunately, sound lickings have been the fate of Commodore teams in Oxford since 1989. Should Vanderbilt win for the first time in thirteen years in Oxford, it will be an outstanding accomplishment and they would then be threatening to replace Georgia as the surprise team in the conference. If they play well, but don't quite manage to win, they will still be making good progress.