On Saturday night, the ‘Dores begin a stretch of five games in which they can start over. That stretch will see Elon, Furman, Toledo, East Tennessee State, and Lipscomb visit Memorial. To be sure, after the first two losses, none of these five teams are a guaranteed victory. However, none of them are as talented as Vanderbilt, either, giving the Commodores a chance to build confidence and work out kinks before a December 9 home date with Georgia Tech. The first step to restoring not just confidence, but also any hopes of March Madness, takes place Saturday, when Vanderbilt takes on Elon University of the Southern Conference.
Entering the game at 1-2, the Phoenix have already suffered defeats at the hands of two opponents shared by the Commodores, falling to Georgia Tech and Wake Forest. Their lone victory was an 85-72 win against the NAIA's Montreat College.
Led by fourth-year coach Ernie Nestor, Elon is coming off their best season since joining Division I basketball. Jumpstarted by a five-point road win over Clemson, the Phoenix reeled off an early eight game winning streak that propelled them to the Southern Conference's Northern Division championship, the first such championship for any Elon team.
The Phoenix will play without their on-court leader, senior guard Montell Watson, who is out until January with an ankle injury. Until then, Elon will look to its other two seniors, swingman LeVonn Jordan and forward Chris Chalko. Standing 6-6, Jordan leads the Phoenix in scoring with 21 points per game, including a career-best 30 point effort in the loss to Wake Forest. With 5.3 boards per game, he's also Elon's leading rebounder, as well as the team's best all-around athlete. He should prove a formidable match-up for Vandy's Derrick Byars.
The 6-8, 220 pound Chalko was named to the all-conference team as a junior, averaging 12.6 points and 4.5 rebounds. Aside from the Wake Forest game, in which he was held scoreless, the senior has thus far maintained his numbers from last season, logging 13 points and 5 rebounds against Georgia Tech, and 12 and 4 against Montreat.
Brett James, a 6-5, 190 pound guard, also earned SoCon all-conference honors, as he was named to the All-Freshman team. So far this season, he's been the Phoenix's second-leading scorer with 11 points per game. With Jordan and James, Elon has the height, if not the strength and athleticism, to match up with Byars and Shan Foster at the wing positions.
Running the show for Ernie Nestor is 6-2 junior point guard Brian Waters. Though he leads the Phoenix in assists, he's never had an assist-to-turnover ratio of 1.0 or above in his career. This year, his 14 assists have been outweighed by 15 turnovers.
The final spot in Elon's starting lineup has been juggled between sophomore Ola Atoyebi and freshman Scott Grable. At 6-8, 220 pounds and 6-9, 235, respectively, Atoyebi and Grable are the biggest bodies on the Elon roster. The Phoenix's lack of size makes it all the more crucial that Ross Neltner, Ted Skuchas, and JeJuan Brown win the rebound battle.
The injury to Metcalfe is the last thing the Commodores needed after suffering two big losses, especially with only ten scholarship players to begin with. Without the big Englishman, the frontcourt rotation is severely limited. Only Neltner, Brown, and Skuchas remain to man the four and five spots. The likelihood increases, then, that we'll see the ‘Dores move to a smaller lineup, a la Tennessee or Villanova, with Byars or Dan Cage at the four. With depth even more limited and a substantial size advantage over the Phoenix, don't be surprised to see a four-guard look on Saturday night.
Shoving the loss and the Metcalfe injury aside for a moment, the Wake Forest game did have its bright spot. Shan Foster rebounded from a two point effort against Georgetown to score 23 points on 8 of 17 shooting. As the season progresses, the ‘Dores will count on Foster to shoot better than 3 of 10 from beyond the three point line, but at this point they needed scoring from their marksman, and on Tuesday it was scoring they got.
With Foster's offensive struggles against Georgetown and defensive struggles in both games (he's been largely ineffective, particularly on help defense), the Commodores' best player has been Derrick Byars. After the loss to the Hoyas, Coach Stallings remarked that Derrick often "relies on defensive stops to get himself going," and we've seen that trend in each game this season. With 18 points and 12 rebounds against Wake, Byars turned defense into offense time and again. The team desperately needs to follow the senior's example, as the "trading baskets" method clearly failed in the second half against the Deacons.
Beyond Byars, Vanderbilt has been able to count on Alex Gordon for added scoring punch. "Red" is the team's leading scorer and assist man, and as long as Jermaine Beal's struggles continue, the junior will need to maintain his fast start. If Gordon can be a consistent third scoring option, Vanderbilt may finally be able to find open shooters this year. As for Saturday's game, here's what the ‘Dores must do not only to win, but to grab some momentum moving forward from a lackluster start:
· Rebound, finally!: For once, Vanderbilt must win the battle of the boards. Elon is badly undersized, even relative to the Commodores. For the Vandy frontcourt to save face and begin an upward trend, they have to outmuscle and, most importantly, show more heart than their opponent in going after rebounds. Improvement in this area is critical over the five game stretch before Georgia Tech comes calling.
· Let him play: Though it's clear that Jermaine has struggled to make the leap so far, he now has a few games in which the pressure will be low. Any hopes the Commodores have of making noise in SEC play fall on Beal's ability to fulfill his potential sooner rather than later. Consequently, he must remain the starter and take his knocks now or risk losing his confidence. During the next few games, keep an eye not only on his progress, but on his demeanor.
· Byars vs. Jordan: LaVonn Jordan has emerged as Elon's best player in the early going. He's a dynamic scoring threat and a legitimate Division I athlete. His match-up with Derrick Byars will be the most entertaining and the most important one in this contest, as the two teams' best players square off.
Prediction: The Commodores need this one. They're undermanned and winless, and they'll be hungry to go out and get their first "W." Vanderbilt 75, Elon 59.