Vanderbilt hosts #8 Georgetown tonight

Hanging around late after a Thursday practice last week, Vanderbilt Coach Kevin Stallings found himself speaking to a group of dedicated Commodore fans about the state of Vanderbilt basketball. "When I first got here," Stallings explained, "there was a lot of complaining about the lack of high-profile non-conference home games. We've really worked hard to try to change that."

." This Wednesday night, Coach Stallings' statement rings true, as the Commodores open their season with eighth-ranked Georgetown.

As Vanderbilt sputtered out of the gate to a four point win over Northern State, the Hoyas similarly struggled to put away a rebuilding Hartford team in their initial action. In fact, with less than seven minutes to play, Hartford trailed by a single point before Georgetown pushed the final margin to ten. Coming off of a 23-win season and a trip to the Sweet 16, however, these Hoyas cannot be taken lightly.

Led by third-year coach John Thompson III, Georgetown rolls into Nashville with its core intact and its best recruiting class of the "JTIII" regime. The centerpiece of the Hoyas, both literally and figuratively, is once again 7-2 junior Roy Hibbert. A preseason candidate for the Wooden Award, Hibbert is one of the few (and best) true centers in college basketball today. Averaging 11.6 points, 6.9 rebounds, and 1.5 blocks a game last season, the junior didn't appear to fill up the stat sheet, but don't be fooled. Hibbert can be a force on both ends of the floor, and likely would have been a lottery pick in the NBA Draft had he declared. He should take on an increased role in scoring while continuing to improve his defensive numbers. In last year's match-up with Vanderbilt, however, Hibbert struggled. He scored only six points in 13 minutes thanks to foul trouble and the defensive efforts of Ted Skuchas.

Considering Hibbert's performance against the ‘Dores last year, then, of even greater concern to Vanderbilt could be 6-9 forward Jeff Green. Also a Wooden Award candidate, Green posted numbers similar to Hibbert's last year (11.9 ppg, 6.5 rpg). While Green can be effective solely in the post, he thrives as a Byars-like do-it-all man. With scorers Brandon Bowman, Ashanti Cook, and Darrel Owens graduated, expect the junior's numbers to spike across the board. Green led the Hoyas in minutes, points, and rebounds in last year's game against Vanderbilt, and his 17 points again led his team in their opener against Hartford. To put it simply: Jeff Green is the man to contain. Keep a close eye on his match-up with Ross Neltner, as Neltner's ability to stay with him defensively and on the glass could be the difference Wednesday night.

Running the Hoya attack will be 6-1 junior Jonathan Wallace. Averaging only 7.9 points per game last season, Wallace will be expected to be more assertive offensively with the absence of Bowman, Cook, and Owens. He shoots better than 40% from beyond the arc, however, and started the season with three 3-point shots and 13 points against Hartford. Despite his better than 2-1 assist to turnover ratio, then, Jermaine Beal and Alex Gordon must defend him tightly to prevent getting beat from deep.

Junior swingman Tyler Crawford and sophomore forward Marc Egerson will likely round out the starting five for Georgetown. The 6-3 Crawford played sparingly last season, but will certainly see an increased role this year (evidenced by his start against Hartford). Thompson is more than willing to give the junior his chance to prove himself because of his ability to contribute in different areas of the game. Crawford led the Hoyas with nine rebounds and posted eight points on only 3-12 shooting. If his shot is falling, he could be an X-factor for the visitors.

Standing 6-6, Egerson is not a huge scoring threat, but as is the case for many Georgetown players, he can stretch a defense with his shooting touch and deft passing ability. Again, the loss of Owens and Cook will mean an increased reliance on Egerson to play the wing effectively. The sophomore scored seven points and grabbed three boards in 29 minutes against Hartford. At an almost identical size to Vandy's Derrick Byars, Egerson will be counted on to limit Byars' penetration Wednesday night.

At 6-3, sophomore Jessie Sapp is a picturesque "glue guy," constantly racking up garbage points, finding the open man, and even grabbing his share of boards. He saw 20 minutes of action against Hartford and figures to play a role Wednesday night. At 6-9, junior Patrick Ewing is not the player his star father was, but can nonetheless be an intimidating defender and an effective finisher around the hoop. He'll continue to see increased minutes as the season wears on.

Though the Georgetown starting lineup will likely feature no freshmen from the highly-touted recruiting class, the Commodores should see plenty of 6-3 guard Jeremiah Rivers and 6-8 bruiser Dajuan Summers. The pair logged 11 and 10 minutes, respectively, against Hartford. With Wednesday's game coming so early in the season, however, the ‘Dores catch a break, as they may not see the Hoya freshmen at their most prepared. In fact, the best of the bunch, McDonald's All-American Vernon Macklin, didn't see any action against Hartford, indicating that he may not yet fully grasp their system. If Macklin plays Wednesday, though, the ‘Dores will have their hands full with the frosh.

The Commodores struggled with both offensive and defensive consistency in their exhibition with Northern State, but don't consider the margin of victory too heavily. An exhibition is meant to be an opportunity for coaches to experiment with different rotations, sets, and defenses, and Stallings did just that. The emergence of George Drake and the promising start of Jermaine Beal were both facilitated by Coach Stallings' willingness to tinker in an exhibition. Now, the pair of guards has a chance to really make a difference Wednesday night.

Vanderbilt has undoubtedly spent countless hours fine-tuning an up-tempo offense that too often looked sloppy and turnover-prone against Northern State, and they must have if they hope to topple a top-ten Hoya team. Here are the keys to an opening-night upset:

  • The battle for tempo: With a frontcourt like Georgetown's, the Hoyas will naturally cherish each possession as a chance to pound the ball inside on a weaker Vanderbilt frontcourt. The ‘Dores, meanwhile, will have their horses (Shan Foster and Derrick Byars) ready to run. A frenetic pace like the one Vanderbilt hopes to establish starts on defense. If Beal, Foster, Byars, and company can maintain pressure and create turnovers from a thin Georgetown backcourt, look for the offense to thrive. Meanwhile, if the Hoyas can take the air out of the ball for 40 minutes, the Commodores had better pray for a banner night from beyond the arc.
  • Ross Neltner: While Foster and Byars are always the key guys offensively, Neltner's ability to defend and rebound with Jeff Green is crucial to Vanderbilt's chances. A fifteen-footer or two from the junior would also help to open up the floor for Commodore cutters. While the rebounding battle will be a key for Vanderbilt in every game, Neltner's role against a potential All-American (one who killed Vandy last year) stands out on this night. Keep an eye on a Skuchas-Hibbert match-up as well, as Ted did a nice job against the big man last season.
  • Don't just settle for threes: Here in Nashville, we are all too familiar with the phrase "live by the three, die by the three." The ‘Dores have the personnel to beat Georgetown from beyond the arc, but their chances will be much better if the perimeter guys, particularly Byars, attack the basket as much as they settle for a jumper. Relentlessness in driving the lane will not only draw defenders, setting up better outside looks, but it will lead to a few easy buckets and could land Green or Hibbert in foul trouble.
  • Bring the noise: The last time Vanderbilt beat a non-SEC top ten team in Nashville was in 1992, when the Louisville Cardinals went home losers. That's fourteen years ago, folks. If the prospect of opening the year with an upset of that magnitude doesn't bring down the house at Memorial, I don't know what will. The home crowd must get loud early and often for the Commodores to win.

Wednesday's game epitomizes the "tale of two teams" type of contest. On the one hand, take eighth-ranked Georgetown. Coming off of a breakthrough season, the Hoyas return the pieces of their star-studded frontcourt and look primed to pound their way to another deep NCAA tournament run. On the other hand, the Commodores come off of a frustratingly disappointing year into a season filled with question marks, outside of perhaps the best wing combo in the SEC. Coach Stallings looks to a freshman point guard to run a brand-new up-tempo offense against a depleted Georgetown backcourt, while counting on a largely inexperienced, undermanned frontcourt to bang with the Wooden candidates in grey. Can the Commodores put it all together in their first game and stun the Hoyas? Or will Hibbert and Green overpower a rusty Vanderbilt squad?

Prediction: The close score in this one will surprise the experts, but Hibbert will actually show up in this one, and that will be the difference. Georgetown 76, Vanderbilt 72.


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