Vanderbilt can answer that question over its final four games, beginning Wednesday night in a showdown with SEC West heavyweight LSU. The 25th-ranked Tigers share the SEC's best conference record with Tennessee at 10-2, but they have recently shown signs of vulnerability. After sprinting to a 7-0 conference record, LSU has dropped two of their last five, with two of the wins coming by a combined five points. The Bayou Bengals narrowly escaped a stunning upset at the hands of cellar-dweller Auburn on Saturday, only pulling out a 65-61 win in the final thirty seconds.
Vanderbilt's season trajectory is quite the opposite. Apart from a thrilling win at Kentucky, the front end of the Commodores' SEC season was fairly miserable. However, Vanderbilt's 2-2 record in their last four games hides the fact that the ‘Dores have been playing phenomenal basketball – despite the absence of senior point guard Mario Moore. Moore will dress out for Wednesday's game, although Coach Stallings has stated that it is "unrealistic" to expect much playing time for the senior. Commodore fans can realistically hope that Moore will provide quality depth at the point guard position. Derrick Byars and DeMarre Carroll will be free to play at their natural positions, and the efforts of those two players will be crucial against LSU.
The Tigers are anchored by their All-SEC forward, 310-pound sophomore Glen "Big Baby" Davis. Davis has averaged nearly a double-double on the year thus far, logging 18 points and 9.7 rebounds per game. He's posted almost identical numbers in SEC play (17.9 points and 9.8 rebounds), establishing himself as the conference's best big man in the process. Big Baby can do it all. He has incredible quickness for a man his size, giving him a set of post moves that will give NBA players fits. Davis is also effective from the high post, as he can knock down a 15-foot jumper, take his man off the dribble, or make the high-low pass to a teammate. Of biggest concern to Vanderbilt, though, is Glen's ability on the offensive glass. He averages slightly over four offensive rebounds per contest, most impressively grabbing nine while being hounded by Florida's tandem of Al Horford and Joakim Noah.
While Big Baby may be the big ticket in the post, his frontcourt mate has begun to establish his own name around the league as he makes his case for SEC Freshman of the Year. At 6-9, Tyrus Thomas has the height to roam the paint with Davis, but at almost 100 pounds lighter, he poses a different kind of threat for SEC foes. Thomas, too, is nearly averaging a double-double, scoring 12.8 points and snatching 9.2 boards per game. However, his attack is more economical than his frontcourt mate's, as Thomas' 1.55 points per shot ranks first on his team (for comparison's sake, Dan Cage leads Vanderbilt in scoring efficiency at 1.49 points per shot). Tyrus' scoring numbers are helped by the double teams Davis commands in the post, but don't be fooled. The frosh can fill it up, and he's been hot lately, putting up 16 and 14 points in his last two contests. Also a formidable defender, Thomas averages three blocks per game.
Though LSU's frontcourt is the best in the West, the Commodores cannot afford to sleep on the Tigers' perimeter attack, led by senior point guard Darrel Mitchell. A prodigious scorer, Mitchell leads the Tigers with 18.1 points per game. While he is an effective point guard, averaging nearly five assists per game, Mitchell possesses a wingman's mentality. He's deadly from beyond the arc, shooting 43.5% on three point shots, but he is also one of the quickest guards in the conference, allowing him to get by defenders off the dribble. His agility and quick first step also make him an excellent defender in his own right, as he averages two steals per game. Mitchell can be careless with the ball at times, averaging slightly above three turnovers per contest, and, at only 5-11, he's not a great finisher in the lane, preferring instead to pull up for a jumper.
Outside of the three-headed monster of Davis, Thomas, and Mitchell, LSU's starting lineup boasts freshmen Tasmin Mitchell and Garrett Temple. At 6-7 and 6-5, respectively, the younger Mitchell and Temple give the Tigers size on the wing comparable to Vanderbilt's. Unlike Shan Foster and Derrick Byars, Tasmin and Garrett do not excel in outside shooting; they are shooting only 29.5% and 24% respectively from downtown. Instead, Coach John Brady wants his freshmen to lock down opponent wingmen defensively and to finish offensively when the defense focuses too much on Davis or the elder Mitchell.
With junior guard Tack Minor out for the season, the Tigers have been hurt by a lack of depth. In SEC play, four out five starters have averaged over thirty minutes per game, the exception being Thomas at 28 minutes. Only two bench players, 6-8 forward Darnell Lazare and 6-1 guard Ben Voogd, are averaging above 6.5 minutes in conference play. Lazare is a minor scoring and rebounding threat, but Voogd is used only to spell Darrel Mitchell and averages less than a point per contest.
Overall, LSU has enjoyed a very successful season to date. The Tiger frontcourt is considered not only one of the best in the conference (rivaled only by UF's Horford and Noah), but also one of the best in the entire nation. Their one point loss to UConn in January is a testament to the tremendous ability of Davis and Thomas on both ends of the floor, as well as to the leadership and energy of Darrel Mitchell. LSU will likely secure better than a #6 seed in the NCAA tournament, and are even considered a dark horse to make the Final Four by some. For the ‘Dores to pull the upset in Memorial on Wednesday night, here are the keys to the game:
- Vanderbilt cannot hope to stop Glen Davis, but the Commodores must contain him, particularly on the offensive glass. Ted Skuchas, Davis Nwankwo, and even Alan Metcalfe will be used to limit Davis and perhaps draw some cheap fouls. If Big Baby's minutes are limited due to foul trouble, the Commodores should win. Otherwise, JT, DeMarre, and company must prevent Davis and Thomas from creating an advantage in offensive rebounding. As fans saw in the Florida game and several others, when the ‘Dores get killed on the offensive glass, they lose.
- The Commodores have shown recently that with Alex Gordon at the helm, they are capable of executing on the break. In Athens, Foster showed more aggressiveness in creating his own shot. Foster, Byars, and Cage have already proven that they can hit the transition jumper, while DeMarre has proven relentless in attacking the rim. Vanderbilt will fare well against LSU in a higher tempo, higher scoring affair, particularly given the Tigers' lack of bench production. Effective pressure defense on Mitchell can lead to turnovers, and Vanderbilt must have enough confidence in the fast break to turn those mistakes into good shots and easy baskets. Conversely, Gordon must take good care of the ball against a defender the caliber of Darrel Mitchell. Should this game get into the high 70's or 80's, the advantage goes to the Commodores.
- LSU starts three freshmen. In the Tigers' loss in Gainesville, Thomas, Temple, and Tasmin Mitchell showed an ability to be rattled. Vanderbilt's edge here is twofold. First, the Commodores must take advantage of their greater experience, especially on the wings, where Byars and Foster will match up against Temple and Tasmin Mitchell. Each should be able to create his own shot and get to the line against a freshman defender, and each should ratchet up his defense knowing that a freshman mistake could be right around the corner. Secondly, the home crowd could prove to be huge. If the three freshmen let their emotions get the best of them in a hostile environment, it will be very difficult for Davis and Darrel Mitchell to beat Vanderbilt by themselves.
While LSU has seemed to falter of late, Vanderbilt finally seems to be on the upswing. After losing a disappointing six of seven in SEC play, the Commodores have won two out of their last three, looking impressive even in the loss to Florida. Team confidence looks to be at a high after a 17 point victory in Athens, as the athletic Vandy team, sparked by the high-energy play of DeMarre Carroll, has shown that it can play successfully at different speeds. The ‘Dores are desperate. They need a high-caliber win, and they need it now. The faithful will come out in force, giving the team even more energy. If the Commodores maintain their confidence – especially on the fast break – they can beat LSU.
Prediction: A little Memorial Magic is in order down this crucial stretch. Vandy 77, LSU 70.
Vanderbilt Co-MVPs: Shan Foster and Derrick Byars
LSU MVP: Darrel Mitchell