The Vanderbilt Commodores come into the NIT Tournament with a 16-14 record, after losing to LSU 69-62 in the opening round of the SEC tournament on March 7.
The Commodores have been erratic in the late stages of the season, with two outstanding victories (at Tennessee and Kentucky in Nashville) sandwiched between six losses. Still fresh in memory is the sequence of four defeats suffered at the hands of Florida and Kentucky (on the road) and South Carolina and Mississippi State at home, just before the Tennessee and Kentucky victories. In those four losses Vanderbilt averaged just 50 points.
Vanderbilt has played the Houston Cougars only once. That was a 73-72 defeat in the consolation round of the Sugar Bowl Tournament, December 29, 1986. That night the Commodores got double-digit scoring efforts from Will Perdue, Barry Booker, Barry Goheen, and Glen Clem, only to fall just short of victory.
This year the Cougars have a record of 18-14. Their best victories have been over Tulane (69-66 and 85-81), TCU (82-71), UAB (80-71 and 76-72), South Florida (91-75), and Memphis (76-73 and 80-74). The second Memphis victory was in the Conference-USA tournament on March 7, probably costing the Tigers an NCAA slot.
Houston is coached by Ray McCallum, who came from Ball State, where he built a winning program. He replaced the very unsuccessful Clyde Drexler. McCallum's first year with the Cougars was 2000-01, when the team's record was just 9-20, and this year's performance represents a big improvement.
Houston's leading scorer is 5'10" senior shooting guard Dominic Smith (15.3 ppg). Smith bears a strong resemblance in his game to Rahsaan Johnson of Monmouth, who caused the Commodores so much grief in Hawaii. He is very quick and drives to the basket often, but can also make the outside shot (47 of 110 threes, 42.7%). He gets a ton of free throws and makes 80% of them, and leads the team in steals (46). Smith had two thirty point-plus games this year (38 against Southern Mississippi and 30 against Tulane).
Smith's running mate at point guard is 6'4" sophomore Kevin Gaines (10.0 ppg, 5.5 assists), who became eligible in December after transferring from Michigan, and played in 21 games. Gaines was twice involved in DUI incidents at Michigan, which led to his being kicked off the team. He is an excellent playmaker, although his assists to turnover ratio could stand some improvement. He is Houston's number two threat from the perimeter, making 35.4% of his three-pointers.
6'3" junior Marcus Oliver and 6'3" freshman Bryan Shelton provide Houston with excellent guard depth. Oliver (6.5 ppg) was the team's leading scorer (with 26 points) in the tournament upset of Memphis. Shelton is a dangerous three-point shooter.
The Cougars have plenty of size and can either go with three guards or three bigger men.
George Williams, 6'8" junior, nearly came to Vanderbilt but decided to not do so when he learned that a coaching change was imminent. With more help in the front line this year his figures (10.3 ppg, 7.2 rpg) fell somewhat from his sophomore season, when he averaged 13.5 ppg. Although athletic, he has been accused of not asserting himself sufficiently. He is quiet, intelligent, and definitely not an "iu-your-face" type; in other words he would have fitted in perfectly at Vanderbilt! He is the leading shot-blocker on the team (54), but also leads in turnovers (98). Williams suffered a sprained ankle in the Memphis upset and missed Houston's subsequent 85-73 tournament loss to Marquette.
6'6" junior Louis Truscott is the team's second leading scorer (13.4 ppg) and leading rebounder (9.2 per game). This is his first year at Houston, after transferring in from Nebraska. He is strong and active.
6'8" senior Patrick Okafor averaged 13 ppg and 6.3 rebounds. Although the tallest starter, he is not a shot-blocker. He gets a lot of free throws and makes 70% of them. He is not as athletic as Williams or Truscott, but is known as a hard-worker.
Coming off the bench to help out in the front line is 6'10" junior Jeremee McGuire, who transferred in from Tyler JC. MeGuire's figures are decent (5.3 ppg, 3.1 rebounds) and he blocked more shots than anyone except Williams.
Houston is essentially an eight-man team and all eight play significent minutes. 6'4" senior Terry Price might also get into the game.
For whatever it may be worth, Houston has the advantage against common opponents. The Cougars won at Tulane 69-66, where Vanderbilt lost, and also edged out the Green Wave in an overtime game in Houston. They lost to LSU 73-69 on the road, whereas the Commodores split with the Tigers.
Houston comes in off an 8-4 record in the last dozen games, in contrast to Vanderbilt's 2-6 in the last eight games. The Cougars are capable of having bad nights (losing 88-57 at South Florida, 83-68 at Charlotte, 87-69 at TCU, 63-46 at East Carolina, and 84-66 at home to Memphis). It may be obvious to say so, but the Commodores will probably win if they play as they did against Tennessee and Kentucky, but they will lose if they perform as they did in their other late season games.