Alabama A&M hopes to shock Vandy

Vanderbilt fans were less than thrilled with the recent loss at home against Cincinnati. The loss broke a 28 game home winning streak against non- conference opponents, but the Commodores hope to begin a new streak today against the Alabama A&M Bulldogs.

The Bulldogs are coached by Vann Pettaway (photo at right), who has coached A&M for 16 full seasons. When Pettaway took charge of the program, they played in Division II, but under his leadership the program rose to Division I status in 1998. The Bulldogs play in the Southwestern Athletic Conference (SWAC), which is generally considered one of the weaker basketball conferences in the country. However, Pettaway's team is undoubtably the team to beat in the SWAC as they hope to repeat as conference champions. Last year, A&M beat Alabama State on national television to capture the SWAC title, but lost to Oakland in the play- in game of the NCAA tounament.

The trip to Nashville is the first of three consecutive road games for the Bulldogs, who currently boast a 2-1 record after their latest victory over Tuskegee. On 12/21, the Bulldogs travel to Nebraska, and on 12/27 they will face Tennessee in Knoxville. Vanderbilt, Nebraska, and Tennessee are the only major-conference teams that Alabama A&M will face this season. This is not the first time that Coach Pettaway's crew has traveled to face an SEC foe – last year, A&M fell 71-54 to Georgia.

It would be easy for the Commodores to take this game for granted. The Bulldogs are not nearly as talented as several teams that Vanderbilt has already defeated, and they come from a conference that cannot even be described as mid-major by any stretch of the imagination. But Alabama A&M won't come into Memorial waiting to hand Kevin Stallings and company an easy victory. The Bulldogs return almost every contributor from last year's team, including 6'1" guard Obie Trotter. Trotter averaged nearly 15 points and 5 rebounds per game last season, along with a remarkable 102 assists and 85 steals in total. However, Joe Martin is overshadowing Trotter so far this season, averaging 14 points and 13 rebounds in 3 games. The Bulldogs return several other solid players, but Trotter is the most likely player to take over a game. Coach Pettaway is another big factor – he has led his team to a 62-27 all-time record in the SWAC, and a career record of 326-121. His teams are always well-coached and ready to punish their opponents' miscues.

The fact that the Commodores are coming off of a tough loss will only hurt the Bulldogs. Vanderbilt has been toughening up their man-to-man defense over the past week, and every player is hoping to improve their personal performance. Sources close to the program say that Shan Foster is especially focused after the Cincinnati loss. Shan is working hard to develop the characteristics of a "mentally tough" competitor, and he will work hard to re-establish his leadership role on the Commodore squad. Ted Skuchas is also coming off of a rough performance (9 minutes, 5 turnovers, 4 fouls), but he will likely have an easier time establishing himself against an Alabama A&M squad that is much smaller and less physical than the Cincinnati Bearcats. Ted's teammates hope that he will retain his confidence, because confidence has been the single largest factor in his improvemement between this season and last.

Julian Terrell, Derrick Byars, and DeMarre Carroll are coming off of strong games. Byars has scored 20 or more points in two consecutive games, and DeMarre Carroll is playing his role off the bench to a tee. Terrell has stepped up as the inner strength of the Commodores, both literally and metaphorically – his physical presence against the Bearcats helped keep the Commodores in the game.

As Coach Stallings has been telling the Commodores this week, this game is about whether Vanderbilt can return to form. Barring a major disaster, Vanderbilt should win this game fairly easily. However, the Bulldogs could come out ahead if the following things happen:

(1) Commodore starters continue to struggle – Mario Moore, Shan Foster, and Ted Skuchas all struggled in their last game. If these three players cannot make meaningful contributions, the Commodore bench will be shortened greatly, and the team might get off to another slow start.
(2) Obie Trotter gets a hot hand – Trotter is not an excellent three-point shooter, but the Commodores have seen some of their opponents' best shooting performances in recent games. Trotter could give the Commodore defense fits if he gets on a hot shooting streak. The Bulldog offense needs a big game from their best returning player if they are going to beat the Commodores.
(3) Vanderbilt loses the rebounding and turnover battles – Joe Martin is a tough post player, and Coach Pettaway will have his guards crashing the offensive boards frequently. The Commodores will need to execute on their defensive rebounds, and the guards and wing players absolutely must put a body on their marks when a shot goes up. As Coach Stallings has emphasized, turnovers above the freethrow line were a big problem for Vanderbilt last week, and they are one of the things they will be looking to correct against the Bulldogs.

Vanderbilt could play this game rather poorly and still pull out a victory, but that will not satisfy their fanbase. If this Commodore team is going to make a run at an SEC title this season, they will need to improve their perimeter defense, minimize turnovers, improve free-throw shooting, and get their preseason all-SEC players back in gear. If Vanderbilt accomplishes three of those four goals in this game, it can be considered a success for the team and a harbinger of better things to come as the conference season approaches.

Vann Pettaway photo above by AP's Al Behrman.

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