These words are little consolation for a team coming off its first loss to a Southern Conference team in 40 years to fall to 1-3 and a fan base that now faces the very real prospect that its team will not see postseason play of any kind if they continue to struggle as they have. With upwards of 25 games remaining, however, the Commodores cannot afford to dwell on their current predicament.
Junior forward Ross Neltner said as much after the Furman game. "We put a lot of work in, and we're not going to start selling out yet," Neltner said, "We got some work to do, but the season's long from over. It's too early to start losing your swagger. We've got a lot of veteran guys. We'll be back."
If Neltner's words are to ring true, then the comeback must start Saturday night, when Vanderbilt hosts Toledo (2-3) from the MAC.
Led by tenth-year coach and former Toledo standout Stan Joplin, the Rockets came within two possessions of an NCAA tournament berth last season. After winning 12 out of 15 games down the stretch, Toledo lost to Kent State in the conference championship game by a mere five points.
True to their nickname, the Rockets like to play at a frantic pace, perhaps due as much to their lack of size as to their outstanding backcourt. With no player over 6-7 on the current roster, Toledo finished dead last in the MAC in rebounds per game last season and are getting outrebounded by almost six boards per game this year. As was the case with Elon, rebounding is actually an area where the ‘Dores should claim a distinct advantage over the Rockets.
The engineers of the Toledo attack are a pair of undersized but cat-quick guards. At 6-2, senior off-guard Justin Ingram is smaller than many SEC point guards, but the All-MAC performer can certainly fill it up. He's averaging 17.4 points and almost five boards through five games this season. A coach's son, Ingram is Toledo's unquestioned leader and Mr. Clutch, as he averaged almost 20 points per game in last season's conference tournament and led the conference in free throw percentage all year long. While the senior is undersized, Vanderbilt may have trouble with a guard so quick that can score in so many ways.
Standing only 5-9, junior Kashif Payne runs the point for the Rockets. He's averaged just less than four points per game so far this season, but he serves as the catalyst for a Toledo squad that loves to run. According to Coach Jospin via the Blue Ribbon Yearbook, "When Kashif plays fast, that makes us a much better team." Payne leads the team in assists and assist-to-turnover ratio, and he should be able to bring his scoring average up around last year's 8.4 points per game. As with Ingram, the ‘Dores will give up a lot of points if they allow the speedy Payne to penetrate at will.
The third of the three-headed monster that is Toledo's backcourt is 6-4 senior Keonta Howell. Matching Ingram's 17.4 points per game so far, Howell brings some toughness to the Rocket squad. He is the team's leader in minutes played and second in rebounding. Most impressive about his rebounding statistics are his 13 offensive rebounds through five games. At a stout 218 pounds, Howell offers the Rockets their best inside-outside threat.
Rounding out the Rockets' starting five have been senior Florentino Valencia and sophomore Tyrone Kent. The two were teammates at Chicago Crane High school, and both stand 6-5, but Valencia outweighs Kent by 50 pounds, and thus is a very different type of player. Coach Jospin raves about Kent's playmaking abilities from the wing, while Valencia leads the team in rebounding and was the MAC leader in field goal percentage a year ago. The 244-pound senior will be the man that Neltner and company must focus on keeping away from the basket. Though he's only 6-5, Valencia has the bulk to bang with the Commodore frontcourt.
The loss to Furman was a perfect example of "dying by the three" for the ‘Dores. Foster, Byars, Cage, and Gordon combined to shoot 2 of 17 from beyond the arc, a miserable 12 percent. While we probably won't see those four have a night quite that bad again soon, the problem on Tuesday, according to Coach Stallings, was compounded by the fact that "[we] need to throw the ball inside and get some easy baskets, and that's kind of difficult for us to do right now."
Getting those easy baskets shouldn't be such a difficult task against a Toledo team whose height maxes out at 6-7 (and the two 6-7 players log the fewest minutes out of anyone on the roster). Further, though the Commodores don't have that go-to guy in the post, Neltner and JeJuan Brown were both effective Tuesday night. The forwards shot 6 for 6 and 4 for 5 from the field, respectively. They'll be looked to again on Saturday, probably even more than against the Paladins.
The play of Neltner, Brown, and the rest of the Vandy frontcourt is a recurring key to each game for the ‘Dores. With that in mind, here's what else Vanderbilt will have to do to capture their second win:
· Win the turnover battle: Toledo prides itself on pressure defense and the concept of "defense into offense," which entails creating turnovers. However, the Rockets haven't exactly been frugal with the ball themselves. Limiting turnovers will allow the Commodores to set up in the half court and get better looks for their much bigger forwards, which will in turn open up the perimeter game. This is a game, then, in which it might be in Vanderbilt's advantage not to run an uptempo gameplan. Run half court sets to set up Neltner and Brown, but when those Toledo guards cough it up, that's when the ‘Dores should get out on the break. If you thought Vandy's depth was bad, wait until you see the Rockets' (they've only got nine guys in the rotation, too).
· Maintain composure: The Rockets will be looking to create havoc on both ends of the court, as a faster pace will curtail the Vanderbilt size advantage. When it's time for the ‘Dores to go into a half court set, they must be better composed than on Tuesday. When Ted Skuchas is holding the ball 30 feet from the basket, something has gone awry.
· Keep shooting: You know the adage – the best cure for a cold shooter is to keep firing. The Commodores cannot let a 2-17 night make them trigger-shy. At the same time, however, forcing more shots may compound matters. There's a balance to be found, and the ‘Dores have enough good shooters to find it.
Prediction: It's gut check time for Vanderbilt. The ‘Dores gave up a seven point lead at home to a Furman team with inferior talent. Now, they either enter the Toledo game with renewed vigor after an intense few days of practice, or they roll over and let another smaller team have their way in Memorial. They'll get no reprieve from this Toledo team, though, who'll look to run Vandy right into a 1-4 start. Final score: Vanderbilt 75, Toledo 68.