The regular season is coming down the homestretch, and for the fourth third consecutive February the Vanderbilt Commodores are fading out of contention. Saturday's 66-43 loss at home to unranked South Carolina was the low point of the season, and the worse home loss since a 120-81 defeat by the Kentucky Wildcats on February 7, 1996. (But that loss was to the number one team in the country and ultimate national champion.) The 43-point output against South Carolina was the least in a home game since a 51-39 slowdown loss to LSU on January 6, 1988.
The Commodores looked to be disheartened and disorganized in the South Carolina game, as is likely to happen to a team when it makes only 25.5% of its shots (on a mere 14 field goals out of 55 tries). The offense seemed to suffer from confusion and a lack of leadership. Vanderbilt was also outrebounded 42-30 but, overall, the defense wasn't too bad, holding the Gamecocks to just 41.5% on field goal attempts, and under their seasonal average of points per game.
The Mississippi State Bulldogs come into Wednesday's game with a 19-7 record, and 6-6 in conference play. Their latest game resulted in an 89-53 win at home over Auburn, their second victory over the Tigers this year. They have also beaten Kentucky, Tennessee, LSU, and Alabama, all at home.VandyMania.com- Your number one source for Vanderbilt news, forums, and fan fun.
State is led in scoring and rebounding by 6'9", 265 lbs sophomore Mario Austin (15.5 ppg, 7.7 rebounds). He plays the low post and all of his shots come from the inside. Given the acknowledged weakness of Vanderbilt in that area, the muscular Austin will be tough for them to stop.
The second leading scorer is 6'5' senior Marckell Patterson, who is averaging 13.3 ppg on the wing, and contributing 4.6 rebounds. He is a 35% three-point shooter. Indeed, the Bulldogs have become a dangerous outside-shooting team lately, with four other players who hit the three fairly consistently.
Timmy Bowers, 6'2" sophomore (10.9 ppg) has emerged as the most dangerous outside threat, connecting on nearly 40% of his three-point tries. 6'9" junior Michal Ignerski (8.6 ppg, 4 rebounds), who was injured a lot early in the season, is likely to see the most action at high post. 6'5" senior Michael Gholar (7.1 ppg, 6.1 rebounds) is perhaps the best defender. 6'5" freshman Ontario Harper (4.5 ppg) helps out on the wing.
The point guard is 6'2" junior Derrick Zimmerman (9.0 ppg, 6.2 assists). He is a high leaper who actually leads the team with 27 blocks, and is a good defender, but no threat from the outside. He has emerged this year as a dependable playmaker and also averages over two steals per game. He may be the team's most valuable player.
The Bulldogs have considerable depth. Although Austin, Patterson, Bowers, Zimmerman, Ignerski, Gholar, and Harper see the most action, there are four other players who contribute. They are point guard Guy Gardner (6'2" senior), center Michael Campbell (7'0", 265 lbs freshman), post player Lincoln Smith (6'9", 270 lbs sophomore), and wing player Winsome Frazier (6'4" freshman). Also, in last year's loss to Mississippi State, 6'3" sophomore Roy Goffer came off the bench and hit some damaging three-pointers to help defeat Vanderbilt 80-63.
State has tended to turn the ball over too frequently, and a pressing defense by Vanderbilt might pay dividends.
Vanderbilt can no longer be considered to be in realistic contention for the NCAA tournament. Winning the SEC tournament could get the Commodores there, but would require a mind-bending reversal of form. Although one hesitates to identify play in the NIT as a goal, this seems to be the only pay-off that this young and uncertain team has a reasonable chance to attain.
Certainly, the Mississippi State game is one that Vanderbilt could win if they can get the offense untracked. Indeed, it is the best chance for a victory in the remaining four regular season games.