Like Furman, the Spartans' star player is an athletic forward – Kyle Hines. At 6'6" and 230 pounds, Hines is a very athletic post player with intensity on both ends of the court. Last year, Hines set a Southern Conference record with 106 blocks during the regular season, and his 13.6 ppg and team-leading 8.6 rpg helped him to be selected SoCon freshman of the year. Hines had six 20 point games, 11 double-doubles, and blocked five or more shots in each of 11 games. The credentials go on and on – first in the Southern Conference in field goal percentage, first in blocks, second in rebounding, third in minutes played, and ninth in scoring. His consistently outstanding play in his freshman season earned him national-level attention when Dick Vitale named him "Diaper Dandy of the Week". So far this season, Hines is averaging 18.5 ppg and 9.5 rpg.
Hines is joined by a gang of young players who play the bulk of the minutes at UNC-G. Brian Beckford is another 6'6" forward, but with a much slimmer frame. Beckford was unheralded last year as a freshman, appearing in only 23 out of 30 games, with negligible contributions to the team. However, this year Beckford has risen in the depth charts and has improved his game to match his larger role. In three games this year, Beckford has 29 points and 20 rebounds. His shooting seems to have improved in the offseason – last year, Beckford was 8 for 18 from the free-throw line, but this year he is already much better at 7 for 10, and he is 2 for 3 from the three point line. Fouls can sometimes be a hindrance for Beckford, so expect the Commodore post offense to go right at him.
Kevin Oleksiak, another sophomore, is a 6'4" shooting guard. He is 5 for 14 from downtown this season, and has missed only 9 of his 66 career freethrows (less than 15%). Kevin will see plenty of playing time this year, but some question whether he is up to the job. He is prone to turnovers, and he will have a hard time keeping the ball if he is matched up against Shan Foster on the offensive end of the court.
With no seniors making significant contributions to this young team this year, junior Ricky Hickman is the most experienced player on the team. Hickman is a pure scorer on the offensive end, ranking 7th in the Southern Conference last year with 14.5 ppg. His 72 steals during the regular season ranked within the top 15 nationwide. Hickman is the second most critical part of the Spartans' offense behind Hines – he scores 16.4 ppg in Spartan victories, but only 11 in Spartan losses. Hickman has played in every game since he arrived freshman year.
The Commodores will be hoping to get off to a quick start, both offensively and defensively, in the first half. Coach Kevin Stallings has been very patient with the team's slow starts, despite various problems that are apparent even to casual fans. With Alex Gordon and Derrick Byars as the top two players on the PG depth chart during Mario Moore's suspension, the offense had trouble clicking against JSU and Furman. In the first half against Furman, a tightly-officiated game caused foul trouble for Byars, Julian Terrell, and Ted Skuchas.
If the return of "Super Mario" is going to spark the offense, it will have to wait for "Red" Gordon to take a breather. After his exception 16 point, 10 assist performance against Furman, Alex has earned the start against the Spartans. Regardless, Mario will certainly see playing time, and his presence will help the Commodores in terms of leadership, organization of the offense, and depth. Gordon was stretched to the limits of his endurance on Sunday, playing a career-high 35 minutes.
This is the last "tune-up" game for the Commodores before they travel to face a tough Georgetown team after Thanksgiving. Thus, the main goal for this game is to get all the key contributors working at peak performance, and to iron out any problems that may still exist. With that in mind, here are the keys to the game for the Commodores:
(1) Derrick Byars and Julian Terrell need to step up their scoring. Both have been productive in other ways, as Julian has had consecutive double-digit rebounding nights, and Byars has been asked to play some point guard in Mario's absence. However, to beat tougher competition, the Commodores need these guys to put the ball in the basket more often. These two players seem to be "forcing" things and asking too much of themselves; if they let the offense flow to them, they will be more productive.
(2) The Commodores need to play a full 40-minute game. If Vanderbilt plays the first half like they played it in each of the previous two contests, it will be a very bad sign for the future. Coach Stallings will have a tough task in managing the point guard situation effectively without disrupting the team's flow. Watch Red and Mario as they are sent back to the bench during the game – their attitude when they are pulled from the game is an important indicator of the team's chemistry and unity.
(3) Vanderbilt's post players must avoid foul trouble. With only Julian Terrell, Ted Skuchas, DeMarre Carroll, and Davis Nwankwo playing significant minutes in the post, foul trouble for even one player can be a big problem as the season rolls on. Look for this to be an emphasis after the problems that foul trouble caused last night.
-The match-up is the second game of a doubleheader that starts with the Vanderbilt-Alabama A&M women's game at 6 p.m. The men's contest will follow 30 minutes after the first game's conclusion.
-Vanderbilt has made great strides in avoiding turnovers. International play in the off-season by four main contributors is said to be a factor in that improvement.
-Ted Skuchas continues to surprise most people with his solid post play. As this writer noted in the pre-season, his improvement is largely due to his increased confidence on both ends of the court. Watch for Ted to continue to improve as the season goes on.
Predicted Score: Vanderbilt 86, UNC-G 50
Vanderbilt MVP: Shan Foster
UNC-G MVP: Kyle Hines