On Saturday night, the ‘Dores have a chance to make it five in a row before heading to Puerto Rico for the San Juan shootout. This time, they look to make the Southland conference's Nicholls State University the victim of Memorial Magic.
Nicholls State has quickly fallen to a dismal record of 1-11 by racking up road games against the likes of Washington, LSU, and Texas. One stretch saw NSU play four games in four days. Saturday's game will be the last of five against SEC opponents for the Colonels, who have already lost to Mississippi State, LSU, Ole Miss, and Auburn. Outside of the big conferences, they have dropped games to Centenary and North Texas, most recently losing by 20 points to Lipscomb on Thursday.
Led by third-year coach J.P. Piper, the Colonels are coming off of a season in which they finished 10th out of 12 teams in the Southland conference with a team comprised mostly of sophomores and freshmen. Now, with its senior and best player Stefan Blaszczynski back from an early injury, NSU looks to build confidence and add some wins heading into conference play.
After missing the team's first six games, the 6-6 Blaszczynski has led the Colonels in scoring in five out of the six he's played in, including a 27-point performance in a 92-87 overtime loss to Auburn. Naturally, then, the Australian leads the team in scoring average (20.3 ppg), but he is also the Colonels' leader in rebounding (6.8 rpg), 3-point percentage (45.9 percent), and is tied for the lead in assists (2.9 apg).
While Blaszczynski is unquestionably the Colonels' best player, the most important to their success may well be 6-2 junior Adonis Gray. Though he's taken a backseat to Blaszczynski since the senior returned, Gray emerged as a viable scoring threat in the early going, posting 26 points against Texas, 29 against Washington, and 33 against Pepperdine. The junior leads the Colonel starters in field goal percentage (50 percent) and is second on the team in rebounding at 5.4 per game. Gray's biggest shortcoming this year has been from beyond the arc, where he has shot a miserable 23 percent.
The Colonels have relied on a by-committee approach for the point guard spot this season. Sophomores Gil Verner and Justin Payne and freshman Eddie Crockett have all seen significant minutes, with Payne emerging as the best candidate for the job early on. Besides being among the team's leaders in assists, Payne is the only NSU regular to post a positive assist-to-turnover ratio.
Besides Blaszczynski and Gray, a pair of 6-6 swingmen has also averaged above 30 minutes each. Junior Aaron Scott, a transfer from East Tennessee State, has averaged 10.3 points while struggling percentage-wise from the floor (37 percent overall, 23 percent on 3-pointers). Scott also shares the team's assist lead (2.9 per game). Sophomore Ryan Bathie, another Australian, is averaging 11.9 points and 4.4 rebounds. Bathie leads the Colonels with 35 3-point field goals, shooting them at a 39 percent clip.
Nicholls State gets its few post minutes from 6-7 junior James Dixon and 6-10 freshman Mitch Boyce. Though Dixon has played in just three games this season, he started and played 30 minutes in the loss to Lipscomb, and he will likely get the start against Vanderbilt to provide the Colonels with at least some semblance of size inside. The freshman Boyce leads the team in field goal percentage (51 percent) in just over 14 minutes per contest. Look for Boyce to see more minutes against a Vanderbilt team that should have a substantial advantage in the post.
If you thought Vanderbilt was trigger-happy from beyond the arc, wait until you see the Colonels. NSU's 309 3-point attempts ranks third among Division I schools, trailing only Pepperdine's 318 attempts and the outrageous 598 attempts of the Virginia Military Institute. For comparison's sake, Tennessee's 230 attempts puts them 25th in the country, while Vanderbilt's 181 attempts puts the Commodores just out of the top 100.
Obviously, then, Nicholls State loves nothing more than to push the tempo and fire away from beyond the arc. Every rotation player besides Dixon has attempted more than 15 3-point shots, indicating that the Colonels want to stretch the opposing defense with five shooters and simply pick the opponent apart. The downside, of course, has been the huge numbers opponents have been putting up on the Colonels. Each of the four SEC teams they faced scored at least 90 points, and three other teams have also reached that mark against NSU.
Just as Vanderbilt caught an up-tempo but tired East Tennessee State team at the end of a long road trip, the ‘Dores meet the Colonels in the ninth game out of eleven in which NSU has had only two home games. With four starters averaging over 30 minutes each, Nicholls State should not pose much of a threat to Vanderbilt's current winning streak. Here are the keys to a Commodore "W":
• NSU tag team: With Blaszczynski and Gray scoring 20.3 and 15.9 points per game, respectively, Nicholls State appears to have the Southland's version of Shan Foster and Derrick Byars. The Colonel combo shares this with their Commodore counterparts, as well: When Blaszczynski and Gray both show up, NSU can be tough. In their lone win, the duo posted 22 and 18 points, respectively. Vanderbilt must put pressure on all the NSU shooters, but if the ‘Dores can contain one or both of the Colonel leaders, this one shouldn't be close.
• Fire with fire: Against Georgia Tech, the Commodores were at their best when playing solid, pressure-filled defense (including some zone!), and turning opponent mistakes into open looks for Foster, Byars, and Gordon. Facing a much less athletic Nicholls State team, the ‘Dores should be able to create the same opponent mistakes and the same great looks for the shooters. If those shooters are as hot as they were early in the Tech game, things could get ugly for the Colonels.
• Exclamation point: After a four-game streak in which the ‘Dores looked brilliant at times, they can carry more momentum into an important non-conference tournament in San Juan by coming out eager to rout a clearly inferior NSU team. They must show the same intensity on defense and discipline on offense that they exhibited against the Yellow Jackets. If they do, not only will they push the winning streak to five games, but they will be well-equipped to compete for the title in San Juan.
Prediction: Perhaps the most encouraging sign in the win over Georgia Tech was the Commodores' noticeable swagger. Vanderbilt finally seems to be building some confidence, and with that has come much better play. With a week to prepare and forget about the big win, there's no reason that swagger shouldn't show itself Saturday, leading to a big win for the ‘Dores. Final score: Vanderbilt 91, Nicholls State 69,