Scouting Report: Vandy hopes to sting Jackets

9:00 p.m. on Monday was a busy time in Atlanta. While the Vanderbilt men's basketball team entered the local Marriot hotel, focused on the upcoming game against the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets, the rest of the city was busy watching the Sugar Bowl being played in the Georgia Dome for the first time. While it's okay for Atlantans to be preoccupied with the SEC, the Commodores need to stay fixed on the task at hand – winning on the road against an ACC team to close out the non-conference schedule.

Georgia Tech is in what many would call a "rebuilding" season. With the loss of nearly every critical player on the team, the Jackets lack experience and depth. Tech's wins have come in home games against UNC-Asheville, Elon, Virginia, Tennessee State, Jacksonville, and Bethune-Cookman. The Yellow Jackets have lost all three of their road games so far (at Michigan State, Georgia, and Air Force), and they also tarnished their home record with an embarrassing 22 point loss to Illinois-Chicago.

Tech's offensive attack from the perimeter starts with Anthony Morrow. Morrow is making over 45% of his three-pointers so far this season, and his teammates have combined for only half as many threes (14) as Morrow has made on his own (28). Point guard Zam Fredrick is second on the team with four 3pt buckets, but he only makes 14% of his attempts.

Tech's perimeter has also suffered significant injuries. Mario West and Lewis Cinch are expected to miss the contest against Vanderbilt with foot injuries.

Tech's best offensive presence in the post is Ra'Sean Dickey, who has started 6 of the Jackets' 10 games this season. Dickey averages 11 points and 7 rebounds per game. Dickey has the skill and size (at 6'9") that it takes to become a dominant center in the ACC. However, many observers of Tech's program think that Dickey has been thinking too much for his own good, and according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution Ra'Sean himself agrees: "I'm thinking about what I want to do too much… I'll want to do one move, and then they'll play me differently and I have to do something else."

Jeremis Smith is the other half of the Jackets' sophomore duo in the post. Smith played at the wing in high school, but because of his physical toughness and Georgia Tech's personnel needs, he has become the starting power forward this season. Smith dislocated his right kneecap in Tech's first game last season, knocking him out of competition for 17 games. After returning from injury, Jeremis earned minutes at power forward and averaged 4 points and 5 rebounds per game during the ACC tournament. Smith's knee injury was eerily reminiscent to an injury sustained by fellow post player Theodis Tarver. Tarver, a senior, has started the last four games in Dickey's place while Dickey has struggled to play up to his potential. Tarver is not the offensive threat that Dickey or Smith represent, but he does have 15 blocks on the season, reflecting his natural talent and experienced decisionmaking on defense.

With recent injuries to West and Cinch, the Jackets have been forced to rely on D'Andre Bell and Paco Diaw for minutes at guard positions. Bell is a 6'5" freshman shooting guard who turned down offers to Michigan State, Georgetown, and UCLA. Paco Diaw, a freshman from Senegal who will turn 21 in April, has been collecting playing time at the wing guard position. Tech knew they would need some contributions from Bell, who is one of eight jackets to average at least 15 minutes and 3.5 points per game this season. However, Paco Diaw has only appeared in 8 of the Jackets' 10 games this season, averaging only 8 minutes when he does make a showing. Diaw has 9 total points on the season, to go along with 11 personal fouls and 7 turnovers. He is, however, a relatively skilled passer.

Vanderbilt has recently seen a resurgence in defensive intensity, especially on the perimeter. Derrick Byars has emerged as the team's best on-the-ball defender in recent games, and Shan Foster's early-season complacency on defense has been replaced by energetic efforts. The Commodores played excellent defense against the Dayton Flyers by challenging every pass and disrupting both of the Flyers' star players. The question is, how will the Commodores defend against the three-pronged attack of Morrow, Dickey, and Smith?

Morrow (averaging 16.5 ppg) must be the top priority for the Commodores. Shan Foster and Derrick Byars will be asked to disrupt Morrow much like they disrupted Dayton's Brian Roberts. Fredrick, Tech's point guard, is not shooting well enough (under 35% from the field) or passing well enough (41 assists to 42 turnovers) to be considered a big offensive thread in his own right. Jeremis Smith will likely be assigned to DeMarre Carroll and Julian Terrell, while the taller Ra'Sean Dickey will have to overcome the defensive efforts of Ted Skuchas.

Vanderbilt's offense is designed to force the opponents' defense to constantly make correct decisions and never fall asleep. Those who criticize the "Princeton" style option-motion offense often say that experienced teams don't make enough mistakes for the offense to be effective. However, even the critics would agree that the offense is likely to capitalize well on Georgia Tech's youth and inexperience. Another concern for Vandy's offense this season has been to get Derrick Byars and Shan Foster playing dynamic basketball at the same time. For the first time in the season, that seemed to occur at the end of the Dayton game, as Foster and Byars combined to score all of Vanderbilt's final 20 points. If Foster and Byars are on the same page again on Tuesday, the Yellow Jackets could be in for a long night.

The keys to the game for the Commodores are the following:

(1) Keep up the defensive intensity. Playing defense with the energy that Commodore fans saw in the Dayton contest will be critical, especially against a young Georgia Tech team. Particularly, the ‘Dores must disrupt Anthony Morrow's game.

(2) Force Tech into offensive and defensive mistakes. Those who saw Tech drop to Air Force noticed many "freshman mistakes" by Yellow Jacket starters. Don't be surprised if Coach Stallings makes limited use of the press to challenge Tech's inexperienced guards.

(3) Force Zam Fredrick (PG) and Jeremis Smith (PF) into foul trouble. Both average nearly 3 fouls a game, and both have fouled out of at least one game this season. Mario Moore and Julian Terrell, as seniors, should be expected to play intelligently and bring the offense to these foul-prone defenders.

(4) Get Foster and Byars on the same page on offense. This one is obvious – when both of Vanderbilt's star wing players get hot on the same day, this team will be tough to beat.

(5) Regain shooting touch. Vanderbilt beat Dayton despite hitting only 5 of their 19 three point attempts, and had similar shooting struggles against IUPUI. This is a team that should shoot for better percentage, and if anything, Georgia Tech's defense is slightly better than that of those two teams.

If the Yellow Jackets are to pull out a home victory, the top priority is to avoid freshman and sophomore mistakes. Turnovers are what cost them the game against Air Force, and turnovers and fouls could be the story of the game against Vanderbilt as well. Tech also needs Ra'Sean Dickey to quickly find his A-game if they are to generate much post offense. If Dickey and Jeremis Smith fail to force double-teams in the post, it is unlikely that Anthony Morrow will be able to get many open looks from the perimeter. Without shooting opportunities for Morrow, Georgia Tech will be relying too often on their 4th and 5th offensive options.

Vanderbilt has the momentum going into this game with a 9-1 start and two road victories, while the young Yellow Jackets' confidence has been continually shaken by disappointing losses. I expect DeMarre Carroll and Derrick Byars to continue playing excellent defense for the Commodores, and that defense will be what decides the game.

Predictions:

Vanderbilt 70, Georgia Tech 57

Vandy MVP: Derrick Byars

Tech MVP: Anthony Morrow


Georgia Tech guard Zam Fredrick (35) brings the ball up under pressure from Bethune-Cookman guard Antonio Webb, left, during the second half of a college basketball game Saturday, Dec. 31, 2005, in Atlanta. (AP Photo/John Amis)

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