In the first of a crucial set of four games in eight days, the Vanderbilt squad did little to assuage the worries of its fans, but as the old saying goes, "a win is a win," and the Commodores certainly needed one.
"We knew tonight was a must win game for us, and we wanted to get a victory by any means necessary," said leading scorer Derrick Byars, "We have a bunch of competitive guys in that locker room, and being 1-3 was disappointing. We came out and tried to start a nice win streak."
The win over Toledo pushed Vandy to 2-3, and if Byars and company hope to extend that winning streak and reach .500 on Tuesday night, they'll have to beat an East Tennessee State team (5-4) that's on a little winning streak of its own.
Led by fourth-year coach Murry Bartow, the Buccaneers of the Atlantic Sun Conference will make Memorial its last stop on a seven game road trip that began with a loss to Auburn. The Bucs have won their last three, however, including two conference games over Mercer and Stetson. They look to make Vanderbilt their fourth straight victim before they head home to Johnson City.
Three years removed from a 27-6 season and an NCAA tournament berth, ETSU has struggled to find consistency this season after losing star guard Tim Smith to graduation last spring. Outside of super-soph Courtney Pigram and big man Brad Nuckles, the Bucs don't have a player averaging over 8.4 points per game. Four other Buccaneers have scored in double figures in Division I action, but so far no one has emerged as a consistent third option on the offensive end.
The inside-outside combo of Pigram and Nuckles has worked for ETSU recently, however, as the two have combined for 34, 29, and 36 points in their past three contests (all ETSU wins).
Standing six feet tall, Courtney Pigram emerged not only one of the Buccaneers' best players, but as one of the premier players in the conference. At 12.4 points per game, Pigram was his team's second-leading scorer and garnered Atlantic Sun All-Freshman honors. With the departure of Tim Smith and the loss of senior guard Travis Strong (out for the year with a knee injury), Coach Bartow will look to his standout sophomore to be his go-go guy. Averaging over 16 points per game this season, Pigram has already dropped in a game-winning three pointer, downing rival Chattanooga with 1.8 seconds remaning. He's clearly the number one option for ETSU, as he's taken almost 27 percent of the Bucs' shot attempts so far.
Senior forward Brad Nuckles has the size and skill to give Vanderbilt even more trouble than Furman's Moussa Diagne or Toledo's Florentino Valencia did. At 6-9 and 250 pounds, Nuckles is active on both ends of the court, averaging almost 13 points per game on 56 percent shooting and grabbing over 8 rebounds per contest. A la Ross Neltner, the senior can even step out and hit the three-pointer; he's 4 of 9 from beyond the arc this year. Given the Commodores' trouble with opposing bigs, Nuckles could have a breakout game on Tuesday.
The tandem of Pigram and Nuckles will miss the unselfish play of freshman point guard Dequan Twilley, who, after averaging 7.8 assists through his first four games, hasn't played since November 19 due to "personal/family reasons." Instead, the ‘Dores will likely see sophomore point guard Tayloe Taylor. Second on the team with 3.8 assists per game, Taylor scored a career high 14 points in the Bucs' most recent game, a win over Stetson. Taylor and Twilley are the only Buccaneers with more assists than turnovers.
Rounding out ETSU's starting lineup will be senior swingman Eryk Thomas and junior forward Andrew Reed. The 6-6 Thomas also had a career night against Stetson, finishing with 20 points and seven rebounds. As a junior college transfer, Thomas spent last season getting comfortable in the Buccaneers' system. Now, they need him to make a substantial contribution, particularly with Strong and Twilley sidelined.
At 6-8 and 215 pounds, Andrew Reed has been touted as one of the best athletes in the Atlantic Sun. After posting back-to-back 15-point games in late November, he's cooled off a bit, playing only 16 minutes in the win over Stetson. Vandy can't afford to sleep on Reed, though, as he has the potential to make big plays against a Commodore front line that hasn't been good defensively.
Finally, freshman forward Mike Smith has been as good a sixth man as you'll find this year. He's the Buccaneers' third-leading scorer at 8.4 points per game. Standing 6-6, Smith is a versatile swingman out of the Derrick Byars mold, and he's likely to match up against Byars or Shan Foster at some point during Tuesday's game.
Look for a catalyst for ETSU's three-game winning streak, and you'll find two important elements in each win. First, the Buccaneers' 1-3-1 zone has caused recent havoc among their opponents. Marked by constant trapping and pressure on the wings, Bartow's edition of the 1-3-1 has produced an average of 19.3 turnovers over the past three games. The Buccaneers have been able to build solid leads early by turning pressure defense into easy baskets on the other end.
Offensively, the most important factor to the Bucs' success has been the emergence of a third option to complement Nuckles and Pigram in each game. Thomas enjoyed a career night against Stetson with 20 points, Taylor scored 11 and handed out seven assists against Mercer, and Reed chipped in 15 points and seven boards in the win over Southern. In contrast, the three starters other than Pigram and Nuckles combined for five points in a loss to Sam Houston State, and Pigram himself failed to reach double digits against Morehead State.
Meanwhile, Vanderbilt scraped past Toledo thanks in part to the precocious play of freshman Jermaine Beal. While Byars, Foster, and Ross Nelter lived up to expectations and then some, Beal had a coming out party of sorts against the Rockets. The frosh scored 13 points on 4 of 5 shooting, and he added four rebounds, four assists, and a game-winning three point play to boot. After struggling through four games, Beal finally looked like the four-star point guard Vanderbilt signed to be its floor general.
With that in mind, here are the keys to a second straight Vanderbilt victory:
· Ball handling: This might seem elementary, but it's crucial against a team with a unique defense that creates bunches of turnovers. Yes, Beal and Alex Gordon must limit mistakes from the point spot, but a 1-3-1 forces the offense into a two-guard front, meaning Byars and/or Foster will share ball-handling duties some of the time. If the wings try to force the issue, whether it's bad passes or hasty shots, the Bucs will get their share of transition points.
· Tired Pirates: I repeat: Tuesday's game is the seventh straight road game for ETSU. Tayloe Taylor has played all 40 minutes in each of the past three games; Brad Nuckles has played all but three of those 120 minutes. If ever there was a time to hone this newfangled fast-break offense, Tuesday is it. The key here is defensive rebounding and the ‘Dores creating turnovers of their own. If they can do that, look for Vandy to run the Bucs ragged.
· Confidence Booster: The game against Toledo certainly increased the confidence of Beal and Neltner, each of whom had career nights. Now, let's see if the entire team can click on both ends for a collective ego boost. A comfortable win in this one should make things a little less tenuous around here when the friendly neighborhood Bison of Lipscomb come calling on Thursday.
Prediction: A local rival in Lipscomb and an ACC heavyweight in Georgia Tech loom, but you won't catch this desperate Vandy bunch looking ahead. The ‘Dores end the Bucs' winning streak (and perhaps begin one of their own?), but the tough and unique defense of the Buccaneers won't let VU off the hook easily. Final score: Vanderbilt 82, ETSU 76.