While the double-digit home loss undoubtedly still stings Byars and company, the ‘Dores must cast aside any lingering feelings toward the opener. Even after a loss to Old Dominion, Georgetown is one of the top 25 teams in the country. Vanderbilt is not. Where the Commodores fall after that, though, remains to be seen. On Tuesday, Vanderbilt travels to Winston-Salem for another gauge, this time against the ACC's Wake Forest Demon Deacons.
Coming off of a dismal 3-13 conference record and a last place finish in the ACC, Wake is no Georgetown. However, with an experienced center and an ACC-worthy core of youngsters, the Deacons are no Unknown State University A&M, either. Their predecessors, such as Chris Paul and Eric Williams, have been the class of the ACC before, achieving the #1 ranking two years ago. While this will likely be another rebuilding year for the Deacons, they have the young talent to sneak up on some teams.
Led by sixth year coach Skip Prosser, Wake has opened their season 3-0. Before a 73-48 drubbing of Elon, though, Prosser's team struggled to outlast a pair of weak non-conference opponents, giving up 82 points to James Madison University and beating a depleted Bucknell team by only three points in overtime.
The brightest spot on this Wake team has been the emergence of senior center Kyle Visser. A backup to Eric Williams for his first three years in Winston-Salem, Visser gave the Deacons solid minutes at times, but, as Prosser put it in the Blue Ribbon Yearbook, "He has had some moments in the past, but not consistent ones."
If the first three games of his senior season are any indication, however, Visser has finally put it all together. A year removed from averaging just five points and 4.3 rebounds per game, Visser has exploded onto the scene in 2006, scoring 23 points on 10-10 shooting in the opener and following that up with 26 points against Bucknell and 20 more against Elon. His nine rebounds a game are almost six more than any of his teammates. At 6-11, Visser is clearly the top threat to the Commodores.
The only other upperclassman on a team full of freshmen and sophomores is 6-6 senior Michael Drum. Drum, a former walk-on, has started just one game this season, but is fourth on the team with 24 minutes per game. Prosser prizes Drum's experience and shooting touch; the senior is second on the team with five 3-point field goals and is a career 39% 3-point shooter. One of four Deacons averaging double figures in scoring, he is shooting at an astonishing 59% clip from the field (43% career). Drum will be one of three to draw the unenviable task of defending Derrick Byars and Shan Foster (unenviable, because surely Foster can't go another game without a field goal, right?)
Wake Forest's eager, if not overly precocious group of underclassmen is led by a pair of guards. With 13 points per game, sophomore Harvey Hale is Wake's second leading scorer and has shot at a high clip from inside and out. A year after Prosser heavily (and futilely) experimented with using him at the point, Hale has averaged a turnover and a half for every assist he's dished out. A streaky shooter, he laid an egg against Elon after scoring 19 and 20 points in Wake's first two contests.
Hale's backcourt mate has been freshman point guard Ishmael Smith. The Deacons' leader in minutes played, "Ish" has been very effective running the show for Coach Prosser. At almost 11 points and just over eight assists per game, the youngster has 2.5 dimes for every turnover thus far. According to Prosser in Blue Ribbon, "[Ish] is blessed with excellent quickness and an innate ability to push the ball. He will allow us to become more of an attack team." His counterparts, Alex Gordon and Jermaine Beal, must be able to pressure the freshman more effectively than they pressured Georgetown's Jonathan Wallace if they hope to set up the high-octane attack Kevin Stallings desires.
Rounding out the top seven for Skip Prosser are a trio of inexperienced wingmen. 6-7 sophomore Kevin Swinton and 6-4 freshman L.D. Williams have been the only Deacons besides Visser to start each of the first three games, though Swinton, averaging only 13 minutes and six points per game, has been more of a de facto starter due to his experience relative to the freshmen. Williams' biggest contribution has been defensively, as he leads Wake in steals. If he gets the call to guard Shan Foster, look for Foster to try to heat up shooting over (and hopefully attacking) the smaller Williams.
Finally, highly touted freshman Jamie Skeen has already begun to show that he can be a difference-maker for the Deacons as early as this season. He's averaged almost eight points in 23 minutes per game. At 6-8 and 220 pounds, Skeen can ably man the post, but, according to Prosser, "he does have perimeter skills and can shoot the ball." Shooting over 50% from the field, the freshman has been Wake's most effective scorer in their three games, with an impressive points-per-shot ratio of 2.56.
The Demon Deacons have mirrored this year's Vanderbilt squad in two major ways. First, the teams' up-tempo offenses have been sloppy in limited action. Removing Ish Smith's 25 assists and 10 turnovers, the Deacons have dished out only 17 assists while committing a whopping 37 turnovers. In their lone contest, the Commodores handed out 13 assists compared to 14 turnovers. For Vanderbilt to turn this similarity into an advantage, Jermaine Beal to be more assertive both in the fast break and in penetration, and the ‘Dores on the other end of his passes must do a better job of finishing high-percentage shots. Against Georgetown, Vandy shot 41.5% while allowing the Hoyas to shoot 52.5%. That gap must be closed to beat Wake.
Further, the Deacs and ‘Dores have been unable to hold opponents to even a modest field goal percentage. The Elon game aside, Wake allowed JMU and Bucknell to shoot 50% and 54%, respectively, while Georgetown shot 52.5% against Vanderbilt. Chip shots near the basket became the Commodores' undoing against the Hoyas. To avoid dropping to 0-2, here are the keys to the game for Vanderbilt:
· Perimeter defense: Though Visser's no Roy Hibbert, it appears that he's going to get his points against Vanderbilt's front line. However, if the Commodores can more effectively pressure the perimeter, create turnovers, and limit outside shooting, then they can pack the lane to create double teams against the Wake center.
· Battle of the frosh: The match-up between freshman point guards Jermaine Beal and Ish Smith is a crucial one. Both teams will try to run, and both will depend on their point guard to create opportunities for the scorers. Smith has been effective so far; Beal struggled mightily against Georgetown. If Jermaine has gotten past his first-game jitters and can better manage the Wake game, you can bet that both Byars and Foster will have better games as well.
· Where's Shan?: This one's obvious, but important nonetheless. Foster was nonexistent in the opener. Chances are more than good that he'll improve upon his 0-4 shooting from beyond the arc, but he has to prove that he can do more than fire from deep. Wake's defense is nowhere near Georgetown's, so look for Shan to rebound and live up to his All-SEC billing, or look for the ‘Dores to lose again.
If Vanderbilt hopes to carry any momentum or confidence into a stretch of very winnable home games, they have to be more prudent on offense and more focused on defense. Turnovers on the offensive end and easy baskets on the defensive will lead to another high percentage night for a Vandy opponent. Fortunately, the same can be said for the Demon Deacons. The team that improves the most upon its thus far shaky defense and cuts down on their turnovers will take this one, sloppy as it may turn out.
Prediction: Wake has had two more games than Vanderbilt to work out the kinks, and the Deacons seemed to put it all together against Elon. Still, they are inexperienced and, frankly, have less talent than Vanderbilt. Look for Beal and Foster to rebound nicely against another team that has played little defense, and for Vanderbilt to win a high-scoring affair. Vanderbilt 88, Wake Forest 79.