Vanderbilt's players have been looking forward to defending their home court against Auburn ever since last year's SEC tournament. Auburn executed perhaps the biggest upset of the event by defeating the Commodores in the first round, sending Coach Stallings and crew back to Nashville with NCAA hopes dashed. Vanderbilt again visited Atlanta, site of last year's SEC championship, earlier this week. Vandy's 76-67 loss to the Yellow Jackets was disappointing, but their stay at the Marriott Marquis (only a few blocks from the Georgia Dome) may have given some Vanderbilt veterans a sour reminder of their disappointment at the hands of Auburn. Expect payback to be an emotional factor for the Commodores, who are ironically still trying to prove themselves after a 9-2 start.
Despite notable wins against Georgetown, Dayton, and Oregon, the Commodores have only shown brief flashes of what the team's fans expect out of this talented squad. Coach Lebo of Auburn knows that the Commodores are capable of better basketball: "I think they're a very good basketball team and an NCAA tournament team, a team that's won on the road and shown some toughness… They are very athletic."
Auburn guard Ronny LeMelle told the associated press earlier this week that Vanderbilt is not the only team with something to prove. "This is the time of year you find out who the real players are," LeMelle said. "Nonconference counts in the win-loss column but when SEC play comes, that's when it really counts and you've got to step up your game two or three notches." But if Auburn is going to reach that higher level of play, they will be forced to rely on the youngest starting lineup in the SEC.
It all starts with point guard Quantez Robertson, a 6'3" freshman point guard from Ohio. Robertson has been a highly effective distributor of the ball for the Tigers, averaging 5.3 assists and only 1.7 turnovers per game. Robertson's versatility is demonstrated by his rebounding abilities – his 3.8 rebounds per game are second amongst Auburn starters.
Auburn's two top scorers are Ronny LeMelle and freshman sixth-man Rasheem Barrett, both of whom average over 12 points per game. LeMelle has made a remarkable 45% of his three-pointers this season, and Coach Lebo hopes that he will become a more vocal team leader on this young squad. Barrett apparently learns quickly – his scoring average for the most recent six games is over 16 ppg, a healthy improvement over his first 5 appearences. Frank Tolbert, a sophomore, also starts at guard for the Tigers. At 6'4", 210 pounds, Tolbert is a strong player and a rebounding threat.
Auburn's leading rebounder and best post presence is highly touted freshman Korvotney Barber (6'7", 220). Averaging nearly 5 rebounds and 2 blocks per contest, Barber helps the Tigers regain much of the size and post talent that they were missing last season in the wake of Killingsworth's transfer. Rounding out the starting lineup is 6'8" freshman forward Joey Cameron, whose stats this year are rather unimpressive. Cameron has had a hard time bringing down rebounds against Auburn's tougher opponents this season, but is a player with the potential to flourish later in the season.
Vanderbilt's projected starting lineup is the controversial "big lineup" that has started the last two games. The shortest Commodore on the lineup, Shan Foster, is listed at 6'6" – taller than three of the Tigers' starters, and within a couple inches of the tallest Auburn player on the court. The "big lineup" also boasts four players averaging over 10 points per game and three players who average at least four rebounds – Auburn's starting lineup only has one of each.
On paper, this should be an easy win for the Commodores. Therefore, the keys to a Vanderbilt victory all basically boil down to one thing: make this game turn out how it looks like it "should" turn out on paper.
(1) Out-rebound Auburn. In the recent loss to Georgia Tech, Vanderbilt allowed the Jackets to grab the rebound on over half of their own missed shots. Vanderbilt out-sizes Auburn by a wide margin and has more depth and experience in the post. Julian Terrell averages more rebounds per game (nine) than any two Tigers combined. Vandy should dominate the boards.
(2) Disrupt Auburn's shooters. Auburn's quick three-guard set is designed to get players like Ronny LeMelle open for three-point shots. Size matters on defense, and Vanderbilt's Derrick Byars and DeMarre Carroll have demonstrated the ability to vastly decrease the effectiveness of opposing shooters. If the Tigers have a chance to get hot hands from the perimeter, Vanderbilt is at risk of losing control of the game.
(3) Win the turnover battle. It's very cliché, but the team that collects more "cheap" points off of 2nd chance shots and points off turnovers usually wins the game. Vanderbilt should not have difficulty on the boards, so a healthy turnover margin should seal the deal. Auburn's freshmen are playing their first SEC game and have never won a college game on the road, so the Commodores have a great chance to force them into early mistakes that could destroy their confidence.
If Vanderbilt executes well in the three areas above, there is very little doubt that they will win the game. However, if the Commodores could see stability at point guard in the form of Mario Moore's triumphant return to last season's form, even a 1-0 SEC record would be vastly overshadowed. Watch Moore when he's playing defense today – a strong defensive performance by the senior leader would be a strong sign that he is ready to be the all-SEC caliber player that he has been expected to be.
When all is said and done, the Commodores will realize that the SEC season has come, and it is time to step up the intensity a notch or two. Expect crisper back-cutting in the offensive set. Early in the game, Julian Terrell and company will take the offense straight to Korvotney Barber, hoping to get the tough freshman in early foul trouble. If Barber or Quantez Robertson are forced to sit out with early fouls, the game could get out of hand fairly quickly for the Tigers. Vanderbilt's intensity will lessen the offense's woes, but Auburn's shooters look at the performances that other perimeter players have put up against the ‘Dores and hope. This will be a relatively high-scoring contest that will only be close if the Tigers' three-point shooting % is quite high.
Vanderbilt 78, Auburn 68
Vanderbilt MVP: Julian Terrell
Auburn MVP: Quantez Robertson
Auburn's Quantez Robertson drives against Southeastern Louisiana's Scott Roniger during the first half of an NCAA basketball game in Auburn, Ala., Wednesday, Dec. 14, 2005. (AP Photo/Todd J. Van Emst)