Well, this season, they are absolutely critical for the Commodores for several reasons. First, the Dores are playing opponents with similar preseason expectations. These will all be close games and tough tests that will ready the team for the conference schedule. Second, the SEC is seen as weak going into the 2005-06 season, so our conference record may not have the same strength in the eyes of the NCAA selection committee as it would have in other years. These games could be important in regards to whether Vanderbilt makes the tournament this season, and if Vandy is selected, the games will certainly effect the team's seeding. The final reason that these games are important is that they will test individual Commodores in important ways, helping both the players and the coaches to understand where the team's strengths and weaknesses are as the SEC season begins. Let me highlight some important matchups for you.
The way to find important matchups is to start by deciding what a team's "question marks" are. Question marks could be untested players, problematic aspects of the team's game, or even an area that a player may have improved on over the off season. Vanderbilt has lots of question marks. How much can Davis Nwonkwo, George Drake, Kyle Madsen, and Alan Metcalfe contribute? Can Julian Terrell (photo at right by B. Wiseman) play like he did at the end of last season? Will DeMarre Carroll play at the 4, or will Julian move to the 4 and let DeMarre take a flexible "sixth man" role? Will Derrick Byars play to his full potential, or will accusations of poor work ethic follow him from Virginia? Can Shan Foster recreate his excellent freshman season, or will he fall victim to a sophomore slump? Did Alex Gordon really improve his ball distribution skills over the summer? Will Mario become more selective with his shots this year now that he is surrounded by scorers like Byars and Foster? Will the team change its offensive scheme as players leave and enter the program? There are plenty of things for Commodore fans to wonder about as we approach the season ever so slowly.
When and how will these questions be answered? Well, many of them will be answered when the Commodores match up with Georgetown on November 26. Georgetown is returning all 6 of its key players from last season, including four players who attempted at least 125 three pointers, and a 7'2" center who is a former teammate of Davis Nwonkwo.
One key matchup will feature Georgetown's Brandon Bowman. Bowman withdrew his name from the NBA draft on June 14th, setting Georgetown up to have an excellent season. At 6'8", Bowman is a natural forward, Georgetown's leading scorer, and a serious threat from the 3-point line. He might remind some of a bigger Corey Smith, and he is definitely the most threatening offensive player on the team. Since Bowman plays as a forward, this will answer some fans' questions about Vandy's "four." DeMarre Carroll will probably be the best defensive matchup to face Bowman, as he has experience as a perimeter and a post defender. If DeMarre plays most of the minutes against Bowman and fares well in the post, it could mean that he will be Stallings' first option in that position. However, if Julian Terrell faces Bowman and holds his own, while Ted Skuchas and Davis Nwonkwo match up against 7'2" Hibbert, it would be a sign that Stallings has enough confidence in Ted and Davis to move Julian to forward. It would also imply some changes in the offensive scheme, as Julian is more of a pure post player than past Vanderbilt forwards.
Another focus will be on Derrick Byars. This will probably be Byars' first big game with the Dores, and perimeter defense will be a key in this game. Keep an eye on Derrick's defensive effort. At Virginia, Derrick was accused of lacking intensity and work ethic on defense, but most in the Vanderbilt program are saying that Coach Stallings has gotten through to him. It will be a great sign for Vanderbilt if Byars is working hard on both sides of the floor.
Georgetown also highlights a strength of this team -- with Byars and Foster at the two wing positions, one of the two will be guarded by Georgetown's 6'2" off guard. If Vanderbilt can capitalize on this height difference with great shooting and prehaps some Holwerda-esque plays in the post, it will be a good sign for the Vanderbilt offense. Shooting opportunities from the off guard position also mean that Dan Cage will likely see plenty of minutes in this game. This game could give Dan a good chance to regain the confidence he lost in the later parts of last season, as Vanderbilt fans hope to see him make 40-45% of his 3 pointers.
Another interesting out of conference road game will come against the Dayton Flyers. Dayton went 18-11 overall last season, and 10-6 in the Atlantic 10, despite losing to the Commodores 90-74 in Nashville. This is a talented, young team who will be returning 4 starters; last year, six of their freshmen averaged 10 or more minutes per game. However, the offseason was rough for the Flyers, who lost Trent Meacham as a transfer to Illinois. Meacham averaged 18 minutes a game as a backup point guard, making 46% of his 3-pointers and 89% of his freethrows. With about 7 points and 3 assists per game, his presence will be missed on the roster.
Meacham's transfer leaves Warren Williams as the only true point guard on the team with any significant experience. This game will be the chance for Commodore fans to see Alex Gordon in a featured role. If he has learned to be more selective with his shot and to distribute the ball better, fans will be able to see it in this game. The Dayton matchup will also be a tough road test for the Commodores, as the Flyers ranked 18th in NCAA men's basketball attendance with an average crowd of 12,569. However, officially speaking, UT was 20th with 12,225 despite having visibly empty stadiums for many home games, so it is unclear how meaningful these rankings are. But you can't argue with the Flyers' 82-20 home record in the last six seasons. If the Dores perform well in this game, fans can be more hopeful when it comes to road games in the SEC and neutral site games in post season tournaments.
Of course, the Commodores will highlight home games against Oregon and Cincinnati as important chances for the team to avenge last season's losses, and of course as tough tests in their own right as both opponents are contending for NCAA tournament bids this season. As those games approach, you can visit VandyMania for more information. But even this far away from the season, it is clear that the road games against Georgetown and Dayton will give crucial insight into the way the Dores' season will turn out. If the Dores continue to have their road woes, it will be tough for them to fulfill fans' high expectations for this season. But if Vanderbilt can beat these two teams on the road, and other "question marks" are resolved in a positive way, the season outlook will get brighter and brighter.
Mario Moore (VM/Bryce Wells)
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