In a field that includes power conference teams in Virginia and Northwestern and one of the more successful Mountain West teams in Utah, Vanderbilt has to be considered one of the favorites, especially given their recent success. The Commodores' chances are also improved by tournament seeding. The two other teams with the best chance of winning (Utah and Virginia) are both on the other side of the bracket. Vanderbilt will not have to face the Utes or Cavaliers until the championship game.
As the ‘Dores try to reach that final game and extend their winning streak to eight, here are a few things to watch for in San Juan:
- Star Watch: While Derrick Byars has been Vanderbilt's best overall player to this point, the recent emergence of Shan Foster has been equally important to the team's success. When Foster and Byars shine together, as they did with 25 and 18 points, respectively, in the win over Georgia Tech, the Commodores are tough to beat. Their tall frames pose match-up problems for almost every opponent. If the ‘Dores do face UVA in the most likely of championship game match-ups, the height of the Commodore duo will be especially apparent against a small Cavalier backcourt. If Foster and Byars can maintain their current high level of play, look for Vanderbilt to excel in San Juan.
- Play Together: Although Shan and Derrick are crucial to Vanderbilt's success, the team is at its best when third and fourth scorers get involved. The team as a whole has done a great job of distributing the ball not only to open shooters, but also to cutters to the basket (a la JeJuan Brown). Five Commodores are logging at least two assists per game this season, an encouraging sign considering that LSU and Alabama are the only other SEC teams with that level of widespread distribution. A team as reliant on the outside shot as Vanderbilt needs as many deft passers as it can get, especially in the post, which brings us to…
- Ross Neltner: The junior transfer has been a bright spot for Vanderbilt. He's one of the five Commodores averaging at least two assists per game, he leads the team in rebounding, and he's given the ‘Dores a legitimate scoring threat from the post, averaging 12.7 points per game. Neltner's play will be especially significant when SEC play gets underway, but the big man should also be a key to Vanderbilt's success in San Juan. If teams focus too much on containing Foster and Byars, Neltner or Alex Gordon must step up as they have done lately.
- Rise of JeJuan: The freshman big man has been and will likely continue to be the most important non-starter for the Commodores. His impact around the paint will only improve with added minutes, and if Alan Metcalfe shows rust upon return from a foot injury, Brown will be counted on to play an important role against bigger SEC teams. Already being touted by some as the next big thing at Vanderbilt, the freshman has shown a nose for the ball and toughness around the rim. Keep an eye on his playing time in San Juan.
- Believe!: The more wins the Commodores string together, the less impact the Furman loss has on both the confidence of the players and, given a successful SEC season, the team's postseason tournament chances. While it's much too early to discuss the latter, the importance of team confidence cannot be overstated. The win over Georgia Tech clearly put a hop in their step, but taking home the San Juan title could have a real impact on the start of SEC play, especially if the road to the title goes through a very solid Virginia team.