Alabama is also fighting for an NCAA bid, but their current resume is a little bit better. With a conference record of 5-3 (including two road wins and one home loss), and an RPI of 50, Alabama looks much better than Vanderbilt if the season were to end today. The only tarnish on the team's tournament resume is a 7-5 non-conference record, but a few losses are to be expected when a team plays the 8th hardest schedule in the country. However, the Tide faces a rough schedule in the near future – after playing Vanderbilt, Alabama plays three of its next four games on the road, with the home contest being against the Tennessee Volunteers. While they are 5-3 in conference now, they could easily find themselves 6-7 heading into their last three SEC contests. Both Alabama and Vanderbilt can be classified as "bubble" teams.
This makes the importance of Wednesday's matchup between the Tide and the ‘Dores even greater. A win for the Commodores could not only reverse the recent losing streak and give Vanderbilt a renewed sense of confidence, it could also help Vanderbilt steal an NCAA tournament bid from their SEC West foe.
In short – this is the most important game that the Commodores have played since their Sweet 16 run two years ago. And they will play it without one of the most loved Commodores of all time – Mario Moore.
Tuesday morning, Vanderbilt announced that Moore would take a leave of absence from the team for an indeterminate amount of time. According to Vanderbilt, an unspecified medical condition is the reason for Mario's early exit. Whatever the exact reason, Moore is not with the Commodores on their trip to Alabama, and there is currently no date set for his return. Alex Gordon will be running the point in Moore's absence, but the physical punishment that he has taken in the last few games may be taking its toll. The balance of the minutes at the point is likely to be taken by Derrick Byars and/or Dan Cage. There is speculation that Byars and Cage could be used as a tandem – with Byars bringing the ball down the court if pressured, and Cage setting up the offense in the half court.
Another effect of Mario's absence is that depth will become a concern for the Commodores. With only Gordon, Byars, Cage, and Shan Foster available at the three perimeter positions, each will be forced to play a greater percentage of the game than they otherwise would be expected to. Derrick Byars, in particular, will need to avoid the foul trouble that has hindered his playing time in a few games this season. Depth will also be a potential problem for Alabama, who only has seven healthy scholarship players available for this game.
The season has been a tough one for Alabama – only four players have seen action in all 20 of their games this season – Jermario Davidson, Ronald Steele, Richard Hendrix, and Alanzo Gee. Chuck Davis – who had been Alabama's scoring leader – had surgery on January 10th to repare a torn ACL and MCL in his right knee. Needless to say, he will not be coming back this season.
However, the move that left Alabama with only seven scholarship players was a puzzling choice by Justin Jonus. Jonus, a sophomore guard, left the basketball team and withdrew from the University of Alabama on January 23rd. According to Alabama's head coach, Mark Gottfried, "[Justin] has told me his decision is based on the recent lack of playing time, specifically the last four games." Because Jonus was unhappy with his playing time, he put his coach into a very tight spot. Gottfried is so desperate that he added his freshman team manager – Willie Watson – to the team's official roster. Greg Cage – younger brother of Dan Cage – is also on the roster, but neither Cage nor Watson have played any minutes for Alabama so far this season.
Since the injury to Chuck Davis, Alabama has relied on the troika of Davidson, Steele, and Hendrix. In fact, since the injury, one of those three players has led the Crimson Tide in scoring in 7 out of 8 games. One of the three has led Alabama in rebounding in all eight of those games.
Vanderbilt and Alabama have a recent opponent in common – the Georgia Bulldogs. Both teams lost to Georgia in disappointing fashion. For Alabama, six players were forced to play 25 or more minutes. Hendrix, Davidson, and Steele accounted for 21 of the 38 Alabama rebounds, 54 of the 79 Alabama points, and were the top three players in terms of minutes played. Ronald Steele, the point guard, is averaging 39 minutes per game in his last several games.
The Commodores this season have been difficult to predict. My record, in terms of correctly picking the winner in the Dores' games, is 14-5. If I had simply picked the favorite in every game, my record would have been 13-6. It is easy at this point to give up and say "who knows which Vanderbilt team will show up?" However, my prediction for this game will be based on the following keys to the game:
(1) "The Changing of the Guard" – Alex Gordon was quoted in a newspaper earlier this season, saying "This is my team now." Well, Alex, be careful what you wish for. Alex will be crucial at the point guard position against Alabama, and he could not face a tougher test in the SEC than Ronald Steele. Gordon, and Derrick Byars, must contain the enormous scoring threat that Steele poses. Also, Steele has put up gaudy rebounding numbers several times this season – including a team high 10 rebounds against Ole Miss. Vanderbilt must find a way to keep Steele off the boards, and Gordon and Byars must box him out on every shot.
(2) Depth Management – Alabama has seven scholarship players at its disposal. Vanderbilt has nine, but one of them (Alan Metcalfe) has played rarely this season. This means that both sides will play with short benches, and neither side can afford foul trouble. For the Commodores, this goes double for Derrick Byars, Julian Terrell, and DeMarre Carroll. Each is critical to the Commodores' efforts, and all three have been in foul trouble this season. Derrick Byars' minutes at the guard position are irreplaceable, and he already fouled out of one contest this season. All three of these players, especially Byars, must be careful not to get into foul trouble. Also, the pace of the game could play a big role in depth management – if one team senses it has an advantage in conditioning or depth, it could decide to push the tempo. Fatigue would then become a big factor in determining the game's outcome.
(3) Defending the post – when Ted Skuchas and Davis Nwankwo both sit on the bench, Vanderbilt's post defense becomes a big problem area. If this area exposed itself as a weakness against UGA, it will do so doubly against an Alabama team that relies on post production so heavily. Carroll and Terrell need to play strong in the post, and Coach Stallings may be forced to keep Skuchas or Nwankwo in the game longer than he would like, in order to bolster the defense. Defensive rebounding is also crucial – Alabama will be crashing the boards for cheap second-chance points all day long, and it will be a tall order for Vanderbilt to keep them away from the glass.
The bottom line is that Vanderbilt needs this win more than Alabama does, and both teams are going through a comparable amount of turmoil. Mario Moore has left the Commodores – perhaps for good – and he will be missed. However, with fewer distractions on this road trip, we will see a new Commodore basketball team led by a more assertive Derrick Byars. Byars and Julian Terrell will lead by example and show Commodore fans that there is still hope for the season. Welcome to game one of the playoffs for the Commodores. If they lose this game, count them out of the NCAA hunt. If they win, anything is possible. The coaches and players understand the importance of this game, and they will go in front of 10,000 Alabama fans and seize a victory to rebound from the embarrassing loss to Georgia.
Vanderbilt 72, Alabama 65
Commodore co-MVPs: Derrick Byars and Julian Terrell
Alabama MVP: Ronald Steele