The win gives Vanderbilt a three-game winning streak and renewed confidence, something they'll sorely need on Saturday, when ACC frontrunner Georgia Tech visits Memorial for a nationally televised contest.
After a strong showing in the first two games of the Maui Invitational, the Yellow Jackets have suffered somewhat of a letdown. UCLA pasted Tech in the final of that tournament, and since then they have barely outlasted a marginal Penn State team at home, then went on the road and lost against a depleted Miami team. While Saturday's game will be Vanderbilt's fourth in eight days, Georgia Tech has played just two games in the past 18.
Coach Paul Hewitt has led the Jackets back to national prominence, reaching the NCAA championship game in 2004. After losing Jarrett Jack, BJ Elder, and Luke Schenscher, among others, last year became a rebuilding season for Hewitt. Tech won just 11 games, failing to reach postseason play.
Amazing what two top-15 recruits will do for a program. The Ramblin' Wreck entered this year nationally ranked due to the arrival of freshmen Thaddeus Young and Javaris Crittenton. Alongside a core of more mature playmakers, the pair of frosh are expected to be the shot in the arm the Yellow Jackets need to make another deep run in the Big Dance.
Tech's foremost shortcoming a season ago was the lack of a true point guard. Consider that problem solved, as Hewitt brings in Crittenton, the top-ranked point guard in last year's stacked recruiting class. At 6-4 and almost 200 pounds, the Atlanta native has the combination of size and up-tempo game trademarked by Georgia Tech point guards like Stephon Marbury and Jarrett Jack. His 5.5 assists per game lead the team and his 14.8 points trail only Lewis Clinch. The only knock on Crittenton's game so far has been his tendency to play too quickly, as indicated by his four turnovers per game.
Even more highly touted than Crittenton is fellow freshman Thaddeus Young. Tennessee's Mr. Basketball, the 6-8 swingman was almost universally ranked in the top five players in his class. Though he's third on the team in scoring (12.8 ppg), Young didn't play in Tech's four-point win over Penn State, and chipped in just two points in the loss at Miami. Top five recruits aren't just prized for their scoring, though, and Young is no exception. He's third on the team in rebounding (4.4) and second in assists (2.0). What makes this Memphis native most dangerous, however, are his knack for grabbing offensive rebounds and his ability to penetrate. The latter makes him a perfect complement to gunners Anthony Morrow and Lewis Clinch.
While the freshmen get the publicity, the sophomore Clinch has carried the Jackets in the early going. With 18 points per game, the 6-3 off-guard leads the team and is fifth in the ACC in scoring. A highly regarded prospect in his own right, he was hampered by a leg injury last season and only really came on in February. This season, Clinch leads Tech in 3-point field goals (22) and 3-point percentage (.489), all while shooting a remarkable 58 percent from the floor. He's posted three straight 20 point games, including a 21 point performance against top-ranked UCLA. With Clinch and Young on the wings, the Yellow Jackets have a combo that rivals Vanderbilt's Shan Foster and Derrick Byars.
Though it's a bit on the short side, Tech's frontcourt is a formidable one. Two juniors, Jeremis Smith and Ra'Sean Dickey, and a surprising freshman, Zack Peacock, make up this unit. The 6-6, 232-pound Smith starts at power forward and leads the team in both total and offensive rebounding. He established himself as a force in the post last season, logging nine double-doubles even while plagued by back spasms. Smith's size and athletic ability will undoubtedly pose a problem for the Vanderbilt frontcourt.
While the freshman Peacock is the starting center, he has been interchangeable with Ra'Sean Dickey thus far. The two have each averaged 20 minutes and eight points per game. The taller Dickey (6-9 to Peacock's 6-7) has grabbed more rebounds and been more of a factor on the defensive end, but Peacock has played outstanding on both ends so far, so Hewitt has stuck with the freshman. Last season, Hewitt started Theodis Tarver over Dickey in a stretch of games as a motivational ploy. It worked, as Dickey finished the season scoring in double figures in 16 out of 17 games. Expect both Peacock and Dickey to get plenty of touches against Vanderbilt.
When your leading scorer from the year before is now relegated to 16 minute a game, you know you've injected a ton of talent. Such is the case with junior guard Anthony Morrow. Normally a deadly 3-point shooter, Morrow has struggled from beyond the arc this year, shooting only 29 percent (30 percent from the floor). Even in the limited role he has now, though, the junior has proven that he can catch fire at any time.
With Crittenton at the helm of a team full of incredible athletes, the Yellow Jackets love to push the tempo. They've cracked 100 points twice this year, and they'll be glad to run with a Vandy team that is moving toward an up-tempo style themselves. Rebounders, shooters, playmakers, Tech has them all, but two areas are of particular concern to Vanderbilt.
First, the Commodores must find a way to limit the Jackets' second-chance points. Smith, Dickey, and Peacock are all monsters inside, so expect to see less of Vanderbilt's four-guard lineup and more of JeJuan Brown and Ted Skuchas. The Commodore frontcourt must actively go after every rebound; if they sleep on their counterparts, Tech's second-chance points will be too much for Vandy to overcome.
Where the Jackets can be exploited, however, is in the turnover department. They have had trouble with active, trapping defenses, as evidenced by their loss to UCLA. Crittenton, in particular, can be forced into mistakes. If the Vanderbilt guards, especially Jermaine Beal, can create good ball pressure in a favorable home environment, the young Jackets may give the ‘Dores some extra looks. To rattle a player like Crittenton, though, Beal must do a better job of man-to-man defense – he cannot continue to let his man dribble by.
A game after scoring 104 points against ETSU, the Commodores struggled offensively against Lipscomb, shooting only 36.5 percent from the field (23.5 percent from beyond the arc). Just as Foster seemed to be regaining his touch, he scored just five points against the Bisons. As Coach Kevin Stallings remarked, "For [Shan] to have five points and win is a great sign for our team." However, Foster must look closer to his ETSU form than his Lipscomb form for Vanderbilt to have a chance in this one.
A potential match-up with Virginia in Puerto Rico aside, Saturday's game is Vanderbilt's last chance to notch a marquee non-conference win. As poorly as the ‘Dores matched up with Georgetown, the Yellow Jackets could pose even more problems. Their athleticism at every position will give Tech a bigger advantage on the glass than most Vanderbilt opponents have. To overcome this discrepancy, here are the keys to a Commodore victory:
- 1-2 punch: All indications point to a high-scoring affair, so Vanderbilt will need its horses to come up big. To this point, Byars and Foster have not had simultaneous big games. That must change if the ‘Dores hope to spring the upset on Saturday. Ross Neltner is a great third option, but if either Byars or Foster doesn't show up, Vandy will be in for a long afternoon. These two are supposed to be the premier wing combo in the conference, and now is the time to show it.
- Foul trouble: Already short on big bodies, the Commodores cannot afford for Neltner, Brown, and Skuchas to be limited by fouls. If the big men do rack up the fouls, the harm to the ‘Dores will be twofold. First, Tech has some very good free throw shooters, most notably Anthony Morrow. Further, if Vanderbilt is forced into the four-guard lineup for a significant portion of the game, Jeremis Smith will have a field day on the glass. If the trio of Vandy bigs can stay out of foul trouble, they have the size, if not the athleticism to bang with their counterparts.
- Magical Memorial: This will be the first real road test for the Tech freshmen. Memorial can provide a home court advantage unlike anything Crittenton, Young, and Peacock have ever seen, but to get that advantage, the crowd must get loud early and often. Shan Foster has made a habit of waving his arms to get the crowd into the game, and the ‘Dores respond when they do. To beat a team as talented as Georgia Tech, the home court must come into play, especially if it means rattling the freshmen.
Prediction: The current three-game winning streak has undoubtedly boosted the Commodores' confidence, but the Furman game is not far enough in the rearview mirror. If we see any semblance of the "matador" defense and cold shooting from that game, the Jackets may run away with this one. On the other hand, if the threes are falling, and the ‘Dores are creating the turnovers they need, there's always a chance. That chance is too small to predict a Vanderbilt win here, though. Final score: Georgia Tech 87, Vanderbilt 75.