Furman invades Memorial tonight

Consider the monkey off the Commodores' collective backs – for now. Though it wasn't pretty, Vanderbilt picked up its first win of the young season on Saturday, beating Elon by a score of 81-70. Ross Neltner had his first big game as a ‘Dore, putting up 18 points and 6 rebounds in a career night. Count Dan Cage among the encouraging signs, too.

The senior added 17 on 6 of 8 shooting in a starting role.  While the defense left much to be desired in the second half, the boys in black and gold certainly made strides in the first of five "turnaround" games.  Now, they have four more games to build upon that first win before the Ramblin' Wreck rolls into Nashville.  The first of those games tips off Tuesday night, as another Southern Conference team, the Furman Paladins, visit Memorial.


Furman, entering Tuesday's contest at 3-2, is led by a man very familiar to Vanderbilt coaches, players, and fans alike.  In his first year at the helm of the Paladins, Jeff Jackson was an assistant under Kevin Stallings for seven years before taking the job at Furman at the end of last season.  A recruiting guru, Jackson's influence is still felt at Vanderbilt today, as he had a hand in bringing most, if not all of the current Commodores to Nashville.


Coach Jackson did not arrive at Furman to find the cupboard bare; on the contrary, the former Stallings assistant inherited a few players likely to merit consideration for the all-conference team.  The centerpiece of the Paladins is swingman Robby Bostain.  The 6-6 senior leads his team in points (17.2), rebounds (7.4), steals (2.0), and assist-to-turnover ratio (1.5 to 1), and is second in assists (3.4).  A preseason All-SoCon selection, Bostain can play three positions and is coming off a year in which he shot 48 percent from the field and 40 percent from beyond the arc.  He's logged two double-doubles already this season.  To be sure, Coach Stallings will make Bostain a top priority on the defensive end.


The Paladin attack doesn't begin and end with Bostain, however, as Furman boasts two other players averaging about 13 points a game.  Senior forward and Senegal native Moussa Diagne averages 12.8 points and is coming off of a career-high 27 point effort in Furman's loss to North Dakota State.  The 6-8 bruiser shot over 50 percent from the field last year, and he's second on the team in rebounds with 5.8 per game.


Senior guard Eric Webb also averages 12.8 points and leads the team in assists with 5.2 per contest.  At 6-2, Webb is a combo guard who poses a problem for opposing defenses because of his ability to score while getting his teammates involved.  He is an excellent shooter, posting a mark of 54 percent from 3-point range.  Webb leads the team with 13 3-point shots in 24 attempts.


Standing 6-4, swingman Gerad Punch is the fourth senior in Coach Jackson's starting lineup.  While he's not a primary option on offense, Punch can toss it in if needed.  He scored 11 points, including three of four from beyond the arc, in a win over Bowling Green.  The senior is prized most by Jackson for his hard-nosed defense; he'll likely draw the task of guarding Vanderbilt's Shan Foster.


The man in the middle for the Paladins is 6-9 sophomore Stanley Jones.  After shooting 53 percent to crack the starting lineup last season, Jones hasn't really wowed anyone this year.  He's averaging a little over four points and three rebounds per game and has only one block on the season.  The Commodore big men should be able to find their shots against the Furman sophomore.


Despite having a considerable size advantage over Elon, Vanderbilt only won the rebound battle by a single board.  More disturbing than that, however, were the nine offensive rebounds Elon collected.  Granted, this is a trend we have come to expect from the ‘Dores over the past couple of years, but the problem must be remedied if they hope to play in the postseason.  The eight rebounds from Byars are nice, but the senior needs help.  The Vandy big men have looked timid at times going after rebounds, and that will hurt them against a relatively athletic Furman team, not to mention SEC teams.


Another discouraging aspect of Saturday's game was the lack of playing time for freshman point guard Jermaine Beal.  In a game that was never really in question, Beal played only ten minutes.  His struggles through two games have been pored over, yet a lack of playing time is one thing certain not to help the freshman improve.  To be sure, Alex Gordon is playing well to this point, but Beal is a prized recruit, and ten minutes a game is not enough.  Keep an eye on this situation through these next four games, none of which should be significantly more of a challenge than the Elon game.


On the positive side, the ‘Dores finally shot the ball well against Elon, hitting exactly half of their shots (and 42 percent of 3-pointers).  The spike in percentages is certainly encouraging for a team that depends on outside shooting as much as Vandy does.  The high field goal percentage is also a result of converting off the fast break, as indicated by the 20 assists logged by the Commodores.


According to Vanderbilt Athletics, the ‘Dores will again go with the four-guard lineup against the Paladins, meaning Dan Cage will get his second start in a row (and second of his career).  While Byars and Foster shot a combined 1-9 from 3-point range against the Phoenix, Cage went 5-7.  He and Alex Gordon (3-5) not only combined for 75 percent shooting from beyond the arc, but they also opened up the middle enough for Ross Neltner to have a career night.


Can the small lineup work again?  Here are the keys to a Vanderbilt win over Furman:


·        Point guard defense:  Eric Webb could pose a problem for the ‘Dores, who have had plenty of trouble with scoring point guards in the recent past (see Jonathan Wallace and Ish Smith).  Either Gordon or Beal must lock down Webb in the half-court, or the help defense must improve markedly, a more reasonable option.  Besides Webb's ability to score and his ability to help others score, containing the point guard better will help Vandy's offense.  The fast break that the ‘Dores hope to run works only when pressure defense creates bad shots and turnovers, and that pressure defense works only if help defenders limit penetration.

·        Containing their star:  Elon's LaVonn Jordan went off in the second half, scoring 22 points and spurring his team on to scoring 49 in the second 20 minutes.  The Paladins have a similar player in Robby Bostain, and he must be a priority for a full forty minutes.

·        Unlock the Cage:  Dan Cage enjoyed a great game on Saturday.  With him in the starting lineup, all five starters have the ability to knock down the outside shot.  Not only does that make for some high scoring nights from the perimeter, but it also opens up the lane for easier looks inside.  Along with his deadeye shooting, Dan provides some much needed toughness and leadership on defense, and he's been a welcome addition in the starting lineup so far.


Prediction:  Watch for the four-guard unit to become more and more comfortable in the open court.  If the threes are falling, things could get ugly for Furman in a hurry.  Final score: Vanderbilt 88, Furman 71.

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