In a game that was supposed to send Vanderbilt home on an eight-game winning streak, the ‘Dores came out flat and stayed that way, finally falling by a score of 87-79.
After stringing together seven straight wins to push their record to 8-3, the loss could have been a devastating one with SEC play looming. Instead, the holidays have given the Commodores a chance to refocus and finish the non-conference slate on a positive note. The first of two final non-conference games comes Friday night, when the Bulldogs of Alabama A&M come calling.
With a record of 5-5, the Bulldogs have faced their share of big conference teams. So far, however, the results have not been pretty for Coach Vann Pettaway and his team, as they lost to Georgia, Nebraska, and Ole Miss by almost 32 points per game.
The loser of last season's NCAA tournament play-in game, A&M's blow-out losses can be attributed in part to a youth movement. Four freshmen occupy starting spots for the Bulldogs, and four more joined the team last off-season in a huge recruiting class.
The floor general and leading minute-man for A&M is freshman Trant Simpson. At 6-4, Simpson leads the Southwest Atlantic Conference (SWAC) in assists at 5.4 per game and chips in ten points per contest. The combo guard's height may force Jermaine Beal into more minutes, as the 5-11 Alex Gordon doesn't match up as well physically.
The Bulldogs' leading scorer is fellow freshman Cornelius Hester. The 6-3 shooter averages 11.2 points and adds almost three rebounds per contest. With 26 3-point field goals in the team's ten games, Hester is A&M's most prolific long-range shooter. At just over 31 percent from beyond the arc, though, the freshman has tried to shoulder a little too much at times.
The third starting freshman for A&M is 6-4 swingman LaNorris Smith. He averages a modest six points and two rebounds per game, but he does have the ability to put up bigger numbers, as evidenced by a 17-point effort in a one-point win over Stillman College. Smith has naturally had his struggles in his freshman year, but one number is particularly troubling. In ten games, Smith has logged just three assists while committing 23 turnovers. In fact, no Bulldog has an assist-to-turnover ratio better than 1-to-1. Smith's 1-to-7.7, however, is a team-worst.
The A&M player with the most potential to hurt Vanderbilt is 6-11 junior Mickell Gladness. Entering this season as the conference's returning leader in blocks, Gladness has rejected over five shots per game this year. At 205 pounds, his slender frame should be overmatched by the bulkier Commodore forwards. His height and athleticism, however, will put him in position to make plays on both ends.
The fifth Bulldog starter (and the fourth freshman in the lineup) is 6-5 forward Jonathan Inman. With just under three points and three rebounds per game, Inman has been a starter based on his size rather than his numbers. In fact, he has been a starter in name only, as his 10.2 minutes per game are good for eleventh on the team.
While Inman serves primarily as a role player, the other major contributor for the Bulldogs has been 6-3 sophomore Evan Hilton. Second on the team in rebounding, assists, and steals, and third in scoring, Hilton has been the "glue guy" for A&M. As one of the only major contributors with college experience, the sophomore has had to take on more of a leadership role, leading to increasing numbers across the board. He'll likely draw the task of defending one of Vanderbilt's dynamic duo, Shan Foster or Derrick Byars.
As disappointing as the loss to Appalachian State was, the Commodores have had plenty of time to regroup. If they hope to regain any momentum heading into SEC play, which begins January 6 at Auburn, they must come out with energy and blow out an inexperienced Bulldog team. Here are the keys to a convincing win for Vanderbilt:
- Create energy: The holidays have just ended, but the ‘Dores cannot afford to come out sluggish. Students are still on vacation, so Memorial will be as cavernous as ever. The Commodores, then, must create their own energy, and that starts on defense. Ball pressure and turnovers will provide Vanderbilt with the spark they need to jump out to a big lead over the Bulldogs. If they sit back and wait for A&M to make mistakes, however, the visitors may hang around longer than expected.
- Exploit the size advantage: Besides Mickell Gladness, no Bulldog has the size to match up with JeJuan Brown or Ross Neltner. The ‘Dores must establish a low-post game early; if they do, look for foul trouble to plague A&M. Feeding the post, especially to a deft passer like Neltner, can only serve to open up shots for Foster, Byars, and company.
- Bringing up baby: A freshman-laden starting lineup from the SWAC has no business hanging around with an SEC team, no matter what kind of struggles the Commodores have faced lately. The Bulldogs turn the ball over far too much and do not shoot at a high percentage; the ‘Dores should be able to exploit both flaws with pressure defense and leave the offense to its own devices.
Prediction: For the second time this season, Vanderbilt seems to find itself at a crossroads after a disappointing loss. The Commodores can either sit back, let A&M hang around for 30 minutes and garner no momentum, or they can come out angry and refocused and put the game out of reach in the first ten minutes and the Appalachian State loss out of mind. After the Furman loss, the ‘Dores took the former route, needing overtime to beat Toledo. Alabama A&M is far weaker than Toledo, however, so expect Vandy to win this one handily. Final score: Vanderbilt 82, Alabama A&M 60.