With 14th-year coach Willis Wilson at the helm, the Owls are in their second season in Conference USA. Last season, a record of 12-16 kept Rice from reaching its third consecutive NIT. However, a number of close conference losses suggested that Coach Wilson's squad would improve its second time around.
This season, however, their 6-5 record includes blowout losses to Gonzaga and Utah and no signature wins. Consequently, the only way Rice has been able to distinguish itself this year is through its best player and the nation's leading scorer, Morris Almond.
At 30.3 points per game, the 6-6 senior has accounted for 39.5 percent of his team's scoring. Through 11 games, he has scored fewer than 20 points in only one, an 88-50 loss to Gonzaga. More than just a scorer, Almond leads the team in rebounding with 6.1 boards per game. A deadly shooter, he shoots just over 86 percent from the free throw line and 46 percent from beyond the arc. Perhaps most impressive, though, is the senior's defensive ability. Prolific scorers like Almond that put forth such effort on the defensive end are rare at the college level, and it is that combination that makes him a likely first-round pick in the next NBA draft.
Tuesday night, Almond will be the best player on the floor and, in all likelihood, the game's leading scorer. Of equal or greater concern to Vanderbilt, then, must be the senior's supporting cast.
The Owls' floor general is 5-9 freshman Chris Hagan. The point guard's 8.9 points per game are good for second on the team, and he leads Rice with an average of almost four assists and two steals. Though the freshman doesn't shoot for a high percentage, he is certainly a threat offensively. Before scoring just two points in the team's last game against Western Carolina, Hagan had scored in double figures in four straight games.
Rice's backcourt is rounded out by 6-2 sophomore Cory Pflieger. The Dickson, Tennessee native averages 7.5 points, 2.5 rebounds and two assists per game, and he trails only Morris Almond with 20 3-point field goals on the year. Pflieger is the third of three very capable shooters in the Owl backcourt, making it unlikely that Vanderbilt will play much zone in Houston.
In junior Patrick Britton and senior Greg Killings, Vanderbilt faces an Owl frontcourt with more size than most of the Commodores' non-conference opponents. At 6-8, 200 pounds, Britton is a good rebounder and capable defender in the post. Though he doesn't offer much offensively, he does have the ability to knock down the 16-foot jumper, stretching an opposing defense.
Senior center Greg Killings may force the taller Ted Skuchas into more minutes Tuesday night. Standing 6-10, Killings was limited to 17 games last season due to injury, but the senior has started this season strongly. He's tied for third on the team with 7.5 points per game, including an 18-point performance in the loss to Gonzaga. His 25 offensive rebounds lead the team, so he's naturally capable of hurting the ‘Dores on the glass.
Senior sixth man Lorenzo Williams plays as important a role as any of the Owl starters not named Morris Almond. The 6-1 guard is tied for the team lead with 3.8 assists per game, and his 1.8-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio is good for tops on the squad. While he's not statistically outstanding, Coach Wilson prizes his senior for his leadership from the point guard spot.
The Rice offense begins and ends with Morris Almond. When a player averages over 20 points more than any of his teammates, there can be no doubt that the ball runs through him on nearly every possession. He will provide a stiff test for Derrick Byars, perhaps Vanderbilt's best overall defender.
Almond aside, the Owls haven't been able to muster much firepower. Though the All-American candidate has the ability to take over games, his teammates have not been giving him enough help. For instance, in Rice's loss to Utah, Almond scored 42 of the team's 64 points. While he went 13 for 16 from the floor, the rest of the Owls combined to go a dismal 8 for 31 (26 percent).
Stopping Almond and the Owls in a road win Tuesday night will give the Commodores some momentum heading into the SEC opener at Auburn on Saturday. To grab the "W," here are the keys to the game for Vanderbilt:
- Team defense: This one may seem obvious, but when facing a dynamic scorer like Morris Almond, teams can fall into the trap of keying on one player and allowing his teammates to go off. The Commodores can afford to let Almond get his points as long as they don't let his teammates hurt them. Byars is a good enough defender that Almond shouldn't produce higher than his average. If the ‘Dores force the rest of the Owls to beat them, chances are that Vandy will escape Houston with a win.
- Star vs. Star: Vanderbilt may be able to throw Almond off of his rhythm by pushing the tempo and forcing him to play constant defense. At 6-6, Rice's star will be matched up against Byars or Shan Foster for as long as the Owls play man-to-man. If Vandy's horses take it to Almond on a consistent basis, the All-American candidate may struggle to find his touch offensively or, even worse, he may find himself in foul trouble.
- Bombs Away: Rice allows its opponents to shoot 35 percent from 3-point distance, and opposing shooters have had field days against the Owls. Belmont's Justin Hare, Utah's Johnnie Bryant, and Oregon's Aaron Brooks all tossed in at least three 3-pointers while putting up 22, 28, and 30 points on the Owls, respectively. If Vanderbilt's shooters can find any semblance of a rhythm, the Commodores should win by double digits.
Prediction: The Appalachian State game aside, the Commodores have been heating up throughout December, especially Derrick Byars. The senior had 20 points against Alabama A&M, and, facing a porous Owl perimeter defense, he and Shan Foster should be able to attain such lofty scoring numbers again. The ‘Dores need a boost before SEC play begins on Saturday, and they'll get it Tuesday night in Houston. Final score: Vanderbilt 84, Rice 70.