Tuesday's game marked Vandy's first 100-point game since 2001 and their largest margin of victory in Coach Kevin Stallings' eight year career at Vanderbilt.
The ‘Dores carried over the momentum from an exciting overtime win over the weekend, and it was evident from the opening tip that they are finally becoming a more cohesive unit. "We converted down the stretch [in the Toledo game] and showed the makings of a good team with good chemistry and trust," said Derrick Byars. "We brought that today and we need to build off it."
If Vanderbilt hopes to build off of this impressive win, they'll have to do it Thursday night, when they renew an old rivalry with local foe Lipscomb University.
Entering the game with a 6-2 record, the Bisons (yes, with an "s") are coming off of an Atlantic Sun regular season championship, and they were an overtime away from beating cross-town rival Belmont for an automatic berth into the NCAA tournament.
This year, despite the loss of two starters, Coach Scott Sanderson and the Bisons look primed to make another run at a conference championship and a potential trip to the Big Dance. So far, though, they've lost twice in two attempts against big-conference teams, once in Columbia, Missouri to the Tigers, and once in Columbia, South Carolina to the Gamecocks.
Lipscomb makes the three-mile trip to Memorial with a pair of first-team all-conference performers at its disposal in Eddie Ard and Brian Fisk. Their leader in scoring and assists so far, however, has been the surprising Trey Williams (18.4, 3.8). Standing 6-2, the senior guard has poured it in through the first eight games, posting 24 and 23 point performances against South Carolina and Mizzou, respectively. Williams also leads the Bisons in 3-point field goals (33), 3-point percentage (.493), and, naturally, minutes played (33.9 per game). Given Vanderbilt's penchant for getting torched by offensive-minded point guards, look for Williams to give the ‘Dores some trouble Thursday night.
As for the all-conference guys, 6-5 junior forward Eddie Ard leads the team in rebounding (6.5) and is second in scoring (14.0). Named the Atlantic Sun's preseason player of the year, Ard can play on the wing and on the block, but the Bisons' depth at backcourt usually forces him to the forward spot. He has struggled from the floor so far this year, shooting just under 40 percent from the floor (6 for 21 in his past two games) and a meager 25 percent from beyond the arc. If Ard continues his cold shooting, the Bisons will struggle to get points inside against Vandy.
Senior guard Brian Fisk joined Ard on the All-Atlantic Sun team last season. At 6-2, Fisk is a bit undersized to match up with Vanderbilt's off-guard, Shan Foster, but the senior is Lipscomb's best defender and a capable scorer. He's been a bit mercurial lately, scoring 22, 2, 27, and 5 points in his last four games. Fisk shoots almost 40 percent from behind the arc, though, so if he gets hot early he could be the X-factor for the Bisons.
Joining Fisk and Williams in Lipscomb's starting backcourt will be sophomore Michael Lusk. At only 6-3, Lusk, like Fisk, is small compared to the Commodores' wing players. He's building a reputation as a good defensive guard as well, though, an attribute that offsets his scoring average of 3.6 points. The match-ups on the wings between Lusk and Fisk and Byars and Foster will be crucial.
The man in the middle for the Bisons will be 6-8 sophomore Thomas Pfaff. After backing up junior Jason Hopkins for the first four games, Pfaff has started the last four for the Bisons, averaging 5.5 points and 6.0 rebounds over that span. The duo of Hopkins and Pfaff has averaged almost five offensive rebounds per game; the Commodores need to keep the Bisons' bigs off of the glass to avoid giving up chip shots.
Lipscomb's current four game winning streak has been built on defense and creating turnovers. Albeit against weaker competition, the Bisons have forced an average of 19 turnovers from their past four opponents, including almost 10 steals a game.
A defensive-minded team like Lipscomb thrives on both ends when it forces its opponent into making mistakes offensively, most notably turnovers and bad shots. However, the Bisons have been shaky on the boards lately. In their past four games, which include wins over 1-7 North Florida and 1-10 Winston Salem, Lipscomb has only out-rebounded its opponent by an average of three rebounds per game. Vanderbilt has significantly more size and talent in the post than do Winston Salem and North Florida, so rebounding could actually be an advantage for the ‘Dores in this one.
Against a tired ETSU team, the Commodores finally put together two good halves of basketball. Not only did they top the 100-point mark and post an assist-to-turnover ratio of 25-9, but they also played solid defense throughout. The ‘Dores were markedly improved in preventing guard penetration, and the big men contributed to this, doing a much better job hedging off of ball screens.
On the offensive end, Vanderbilt did exactly what it had to do against a team finishing up a seven game road swing – they ran the Buccaneers right out of the gym. With a season-high 14 3-pointers and 25 assists on 37 shots, the ‘Dores were firing on all cylinders against ETSU. Can they do the same against a not-so-road-weary Lipscomb team? The Bisons will come out focused on beating their neighbors in the first contest between the two schools in 51 years. Here's how Vanderbilt can avoid a letdown:
· Let it fly: Due to Vanderbilt's substantial size advantage on the wings, Lipscomb's Coach Sanderson may be tempted to play some zone, but the barrage of long-range shots the ‘Dores unleashed on ETSU poses the Bisons with a dilemma: Play man-to-man and allow Foster and Byars to shoot over the smaller Fisk and Lusk, or risk letting the ‘Dores pick apart a zone? The boys in black and gold must force the issue early. If the shots are falling for Vandy in the first five minutes, Scott Sanderson will have some tough choices to make that may decide his team's fate.
· Ross the Boss: To say that the play of Ross Neltner has been a pleasant surprise is an understatement. The 6-9 forward has done it all; from burying a crucial 3-pointer in the Toledo game to doing the dirty work underneath, Neltner has been a smashing success to this point. If he can again emerge as a third scorer against Lipscomb, the Bisons may not be able to find the firepower to keep up. Further, as Vanderbilt's leading offensive rebounder, Neltner has another opportunity to cause damage on the glass against a questionable Lipscomb frontcourt (watch for JeJuan Brown and Ted Skuchas to get some good looks underneath, too).
· Confidence men: The ‘Dores have to be feeling good after delivering in the clutch against Toledo and blowing out ETSU. A loss to rival Lipscomb, though, would be devastating before a huge game on Saturday. To be sure, the Bisons will test the Commodores. Byars and Foster, in particular, must step up and lead this team on both ends if they want to carry this momentum into the Georgia Tech game.
Prediction: This one will be fun. Memorial will house its share of Lipscomb fans as these neighboring schools duke it out. The Bisons led South Carolina at halftime before bowing out, but they are more than capable of pulling the upset here. If Vanderbilt plays Mr. Hyde for a half, as we've seen before, don't be surprised to see Lipscomb leave with the "W." The ETSU game, however, was just the shot in the arm the offense needed. Look for Foster to follow his monster performance with another big game as he begins to remind us why he was named to the preseason all-conference team. Final score: Vanderbilt 81, Lipscomb 71.