Vanderbilt's SEC woes this season are defined by three games so far: the home contests against Georgia and South Carolina, and the road game at Alabama. If these three games had been Vanderbilt victories instead of heartbreaking last-second defeats, Vanderbilt would be 8-5 instead of 5-8 in the SEC East – one of the toughest divisions in college basketball. However, the Commodores were uninspired in those two home games, and even a superb effort against the Tide just barely fell short. These three games left the Vandy faithful thinking with one mind: "what could have been if this team played against USC and UGA with the same intensity and effort that they showed at Alabama?"
The answer to that question came last week, when Shan Foster led Vanderbilt to a blowout victory in Athens, GA. Vanderbilt gave their "A" effort against the Bulldogs, and the results were reminiscent of pre-season expectations for this team's success. The question now is more complicated – was that result a fluke, or can Vanderbilt duplicate the results in yet another revenge-oriented away game?
Believe it or not, the first matchup between the Gamecocks and Commodores should inspire great confidence in the Vanderbilt faithful, as they ponder today's game. Despite what all agreed was a very poor game by Vanderbilt, it took a highly improbable comeback capped by an offensive rebound and a tip-in for South Carolina to walk away with their first SEC win of the season. As seen in the recent Vanderbilt/Georgia game, the Commodores are strongly motivated when there is revenge involved. That motivation combined with the matchups exposed by the Commodore/Gamecock contest in Nashville spell victory for Vandy this afternoon.
South Carolina had several weaknesses exposed by Vanderbilt when they traveled to Nashville. First, the Commodores were able to control the first half, leading to a halftime score of 28-17. Excellent defense on the part of Vanderbilt combined with a very deliberate tempo and good offensive efficency to open up the lead. South Carolina was notably out of rhythm when forced to play at this slower pace. Vanderbilt's defense and USC's lack of rhythm combined to hold South Carolina's FG% well under 40%.
Additionally, the Gamecocks defended the backdoor cuts in the Commodore offense very poorly. Mario Moore had one of his better offensive performances of the season in the first half of this game, scoring 9 points on highly efficient shooting that included two open layups from backdoor cut plays. Moore, Dan Cage, and DeMarre Carroll sparked the Commodores to a very high energy level in the first half for virtually the first time all season.
Even more importantly, Vanderbilt was able to completely shut down Renaldo Balkman, South Carolina's premier post threat. Balkman specializes in "cheap" points off of second chance opportunities, but he was held to zero points on the night.
But of course, Vanderbilt lost the game. The reasons were many, and inexcusable, but also unlikely to be repeated. The biggest reason for South Carolina's victory was the play of Tre Kelley. As Vanderbilt played strict man defense for most of the game, the Gamecock point guard scored 29 points in a career performance. Vanderbilt's point guards – including Mario Moore, who was playing with an injured ankle – were simply unable to defend their counterpart in this game. Why is this bolt of lightning unlikely to strike the Commodores twice? For one thing, Coach Stallings has repented from his near obsession with man-to-man defense and integrated much more use of zone principles into Vandy's defensive scheme. That should limit the efficacy of a potent penetrating scorer like Tre Kelley. Also, Vanderbilt's perimeter defense seems to have improved greatly of late, especially against opposing point guards. Alex Gordon is playing with more confidence as the unquestioned starting PG of this Vanderbilt team, and is learning to limit his defensive mistakes more each game.
A second reason for South Carolina's victory was the start of the second half. South Carolina scored 18 points in 4 minutes, almost entirely erasing Vanderbilt's first half lead, and matching their scoring output from the entire first half. South Carolina was able to dramatically increase the tempo, which had crawled for the first 20 minutes of the game. Vanderbilt's domination of the first half was erased for two reasons. First, the ‘Dores were uncomfortable and taken aback by the fast pace of the second half. Second, the slowness of the first half prevented the ‘Dores from pushing the halftime margin even wider – with time for more possessions in the first half, Vanderbilt might well have put the game out of reach. Fortunately, the new-look Commodores have been playing a faster brand of basketball since their game at Alabama. Despite a short bench, it is clear to all observers that the ‘Dores are willing to run the court and use the fast break and secondary break as legitimate scoring threats. Vanderbilt will not be taken off guard if South Carolina pushes the tempo again today.
Finally, Vanderbilt utterly failed to execute for the last five minutes of regulation. As Coach Stallings said after that game, "you have to execute, you have to make freethrows, you have to take care of the ball, you have to make lay-ups, and you have to defend." A stunning example is that Vanderbilt was 0-for-4 on freethrow attempts – including the front end of two one-and-one opportunities – to end the game. For a team making well over 65% of its freethrow attempts, this was uncharacteristic. Do not expect Vanderbilt to be "caught sleeping" or choking in this game.
Every player is key for the Commodores, who will again rely on their starters and a woefully short bench to get the job done. Especially important will be DeMarre Carroll. In addition to defending Renaldo Balkman, DeMarre will be asked to grab some much-needed offensive rebounds against the Gamecocks. Vanderbilt has scored very few second-chance points this season compared to their SEC rivals, but Carroll has been the bright spot in this department. With 66 offensive rebounds, Carroll has passed Julian Terrell and become Vanderbilt's leading offensive rebounder on the season, despite playing slightly fewer minutes than Terrell. Carroll also leads all Commodores in FG%, and is second only to Shan Foster in field goals made.
While it will be nearly impossible to completely shut down Balkman again, Vanderbilt needs to limit his offensive rebounds. A key factor in the recent loss to LSU was the fact that the ‘Dores gave up 20 offensive rebounds to Davis and Thomas, while only collecting 15 defensive boards. DeMarre Carroll and Julian Terrell must bounce back from their thrashing at the hands of LSU's frontcourt if the Dores have a chance to win.
While Vanderbilt's post play has been inconsistent this season, Shan Foster has been the one player that Vanderbilt can count on for consistent scoring. Shan has 396 points on the season, over 100 more than any other Commodore. Derrick Byars, however, has been an enigma. He has been described as "missing in action" and "on the outside looking in" for entire halves or even entire games during the season, but his scoring spurts and demonstrations of ability and desire make him one of the most valuable players on the team. Derrick Byars' ability to join Shan Foster as a second consistant scorer from the wing position throughout this game will be crucial to Vanderbilt's ability to win this game.
Finally, Vanderbilt must escape its woes at the point guard position. Make no mistake – this responsibility is on Alex Gordon's shoulders. It is doubtful that Mario Moore will be ready to play on Saturday – some speculate that he will see no action until Vanderbilt faces Tennessee in a week. Meanwhile, South Carolina's coach, Dave Odom, will be crafting ways to give Tre Kelley scoring opportunities. While senior guard Tarence Kinsey has been the most potent scorer for South Carolina this season, Coach Odom has shown a great talent for adjusting to Vanderbilt's weaknesses to pull out the win. As a coach who makes adjustments, Odom will certainly be looking to exploit the point guard position as Vanderbilt's biggest defensive liability. Alex Gordon has countless bumps and bruises, and will need to play his heart out on defense in order to deny Kelley the opportunity for a repeat performance.
That pretty much spells out the keys to the game:
(1) Rebounding – DeMarre Carroll should collect more offensive boards than Renaldo Balkman.
(2) Two-pronged attack – Derrick Byars should lead by example as an offensive threat to rival the potency and consistency of Shan Foster.
(3) Point guard defense – Alex Gordon must realize that revenge is not synonymous with scoring and putting "nails in the coffin." Gordon's best weapon for revenge will be tirelessly defending Tre Kelley.
Vanderbilt has several players – including Julian Terrell and Derrick Byars – who will absolutely never give up on this season. Vanderbilt is playing South Carolina at a great time, after USC lost to Georgia as neither team scored even 50 points. Vanderbilt might be the beneficiaries of a Gamecock's decision to throw in the towel. Regardless, expect Carroll and Terrell to excel and propel the ‘Dores to victory. DeMarre and Julian were embarrassed by both the prior loss to USC and the beating that LSU's Davis and Thomas handed to them. They will play inspired basketball in order to redeem themselves and keep their teammates motivated.
Vanderbilt 70, South Carolina 60
Vanderbilt MVP: DeMarre Carroll
South Carolina MVP: Tarence Kinsey