But one question looms even larger than these. It represents a problem that has plagued Coach Stallings and the Commodores in recent years – a problem that Vanderbilt must overcome if it is to have as successful an SEC season as many hope. Can the Commodores win tough games on the road? Dayton might not be the first school that comes to mind when you think of large home-court advantages, but they do rank 18th in the NCAA in average home attendance, with an average crowd of 12,569. The Flyers are 8-5 overall, but they are 7-1 at home.
Those fans certainly have plenty of reason to show up, because Dayton's program has had consistent success over the past many seasons. In the past five seasons, Dayton's RPI ranking has been 57th, 61st, 20th, 43rd, and 122nd. They have averaged well over 20 wins a season during that period.
Last year was a tough one for the Flyers, as they were only able to win 18 games, falling short of the program's high hopes. Nobody blamed the Flyers' second year coach, Brian Gregory, whose career record as head coach is a healthy 42-20. Nobody blamed the efforts of the six freshmen who were asked to contribute as parts of the Flyers' 11-man rotation. Dayton needed a year to rebuild the program, and this year they are back with a vengeance. All but two critical players return: starting guard Mark Jones graduated, and Trent Meacham – a rising star at point guard – transferred to Illinois.
There is no doubt that that Meacham's transfer was a disappointment for Flyer fans, but they still have reason for high hopes in 2005-06. Forward Monty Scott, the only Flyer to average double figures, returns to a maturing squad. The freshmen have matured into a class of "super sophomores," and shooting guard Brian Roberts will combine with Scott to form a lethal combination – both players shoot three-pointers very well, and both are capable of scoring points in the paint.
Coach Gregory comes from the Tom Izzo school of basketball, emphasizing a balanced attack on offense rather than relying on a single star player. Last year, no Flyer averaged more than 25 minutes per game, as the staff worked hard to develop their young team. This season is a slightly different story, as Roberts has evolved into a star perimeter player for this team. He is averaging 32.5 minutes and over 17 points per game, taking the reins of a Flyer attack that is still 10 deep. Roberts is also taking up backup point-guard duties in the absence of Meacham.
Norman Plummer, one of the "super sophomores", is the only other Flyer to start more than 10 of the 13 games they've played so far. Plummer, last season, was the first freshman to start his very first game at Dayton since 1997. Plummer, as a freshman, was third on the team in scoring and second in rebound, and he will be counted on to counter Julian Terrell's physical presence in the paint. This year he is averaging about 9 points and 7 rebounds per game. Warren Williams will start at point guard, where he consistently looks first to pass, shooting very infrequently from the perimeter.
Rumors from more than one source inside the Commodore program suggest that Coach Stallings might employ a new starting lineup against the Flyers – one that may include DeMarre Carroll. If this is the case, the Flyers might feature Marques Bennett in a larger role than he usually plays. Bennett is a hard work and a tenacious defender who specializes in neutralizing larger wing players.
This is not the type of non-conference game that will provide an easy victory for the Commodores – they will have to work hard and succeed in many areas to take home the win. These areas include the following:
(1) Improved output for the starters. Regardless of who plays the first few minutes, the Commodores need to get out to a quicker start on offense than they have been able to thus far. Somebody needs to make shots early for the Commodores.
(2) Neutralize Brian Roberts. Vanderbilt has struggled against quick perimeter scorers this season, especially those who can create points off the dribble. Roberts fits that description to a T – expect Coach Stallings to use a matchup zone or some other form of zone defense. If Vanderbilt starts a taller than usual lineup, it is a sign that they want to deny Roberts and Scott's three-point attempts.
(3) Continue to rebound successfully. Julian Terrell and Ted Skuchas give Vanderbilt a size advantage in the post, but Dayton's frontcourt is the strength of their team. Defensive rebounding is more problematic if the Commodores shift to a zone defense, and the Flyers will likely win if they are allowed to get cheap second-chance points on offense.
Vanderbilt has had a rest and an opportunity to prepare for a tough Dayton team. I expect the defensive schemes to be more complicated, and I expect DeMarre Carroll to yet again play a critical role in a win for the Commodores. Ted Skuchas will be a major factor in the post with his size advantage and whispers that he is regaining the confidence that is so important to his play. The situation at the point guard position is still murky, but the Flyers' lack of depth at point guard could allow Alex Gordon or Mario Moore a few extra scoring opportunities. Expect a lower-scoring game than many that Vanderbilt has played this year. My final prediction: Vanderbilt wins a 68-65 nail-biter after holding the lead for most of the game. Shan Foster and Julian Terrell share MVP honors, and Monty Scott gets a hot hand from the perimeter for the Flyers.
Dayton's Brian Roberts, left, drives past Northern Iowa's Ben Jacobson, right, and Erik Crawford during the first half of a college basketball game in Las Vegas on Friday, Dec. 23, 2005. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)