While three of those four losses were particularly disappointing to the team and its faithful, Saturday night offers a chance at a fresh start, as Vandy visits Auburn to begin SEC play.
Led by third-year coach Jeff Lebo, the Tigers have been firmly entrenched in rebuilding mode for the past two years, having finished 4-12 in conference play each of those seasons. Youth was the culprit then, and youth is the reason that Auburn was widely picked to finish last in the SEC this season. Not a single senior plays for Lebo's team.
Though inexperience has contributed to the Tigers' 10-5 start, the young squad's schedule hasn't exactly been a cakewalk. Four of their five losses have come against teams currently ranked in the top 15, including a one-point loss to Oklahoma State. Most recently, though, Auburn dropped a contest to Southern Miss in which they looked sluggish and erratic. They shot just 29 percent from beyond the arc and committed 22 turnovers in the 56-54 loss.
Lebo's top seven players share a fairly even amount of minutes and touches. If the Tigers do have a go-to guy, it's sophomore forward Korvotney Barber. At 6-7, 220 pounds, Barber leads his team in scoring with an average of 13.5 points, and his 7.1 rebounds per game are good for second on the team. Not much more than a role player at the beginning of last season, Barber came on during SEC play and finished the year as one of the Tigers' key guys. His 43 blocks put him in the top ten in the conference as a freshman, a tribute to his length and outstanding athleticism. What makes him so dangerous to Vanderbilt, though, are his offensive rebounding (over three per game) and his tremendous efficiency. Barber's 65.1 percent shooting ties him with Joakim Noah for tops in the SEC.
Joining Barber in Auburn's starting frontcourt is junior transfer Quan Prowell. The 6-8 forward is playing his first season in a Tiger uniform, as he sat out last year after transferring from Furman. The loss to Southern Miss marked Prowell's first start. By coming off the bench to lead his team in scoring against Texas A&M and Charleston Southern, the junior earned a spot in the lineup. Unlike Barber, Prowell is more of an inside-outside threat than a true post player. Even as the tallest player on the team, he is one of the quicker Tigers, and his 40 percent shooting from beyond the arc leads the team.
Running the show for Jeff Lebo is sophomore point guard Quantez Robertson. The 6-3 dynamo made the SEC All-Freshman team a season ago after ranking third in the league in assists with 4.6 per game. This season, Robertson is dishing out 5.3 assists per contest, tying him with Tre Kelley for the conference lead. After shooting over 36 percent from 3-point land last season, the sophomore has struggled with his shot so far this year, hitting only 28 percent of his 3-pointers. Robertson's most surprising strength may be his rebounding. The point guard averages over four rebounds per game, grabbing in a game against Wisconsin.
Rounding out the starting lineup for Auburn will likely be a pair of 6-4 junior guards. Frank Tolbert led the Tigers in scoring with 18 points in a close loss to Vanderbilt in the first round of last year's SEC tournament. This season, he's averaging 12 points and almost six rebounds per game. At 210 pounds, Tolbert can pose a match-up problem for opponents, as he has skill in the post against smaller guards.
Archie Miaway earned his second start of the season against Southern Miss. A junior college transfer, Miaway ranks eighth on the team in minutes per game and scoring average. Those numbers say "role player," but Miaway's athleticism and defense will earn him playing time against a Vanderbilt team boasting two outstanding wing players.
A couple of sophomores have been in and out of Lebo's starting lineup all season. Rasheem Barrett, a 6-5 gunner, joined Quantez Robertson on the SEC All-Freshman team last season. This year, his 12.3 points per game are good for second on the team, and his 31 minutes per game trail only Robertson's 33.9. Like Tolbert, Robertson, and Miaway, Barrett is a big guard who can score from both beyond the arc and in the lane. He averages almost five rebounds per game and can finish with authority around the basket, but he is more than capable of delivering the 3-point dagger. Barrett leads the Tigers in 3-pointers made and attempted.
Forward Josh Dollard has started six of the nine games he's played in, and he has responded by leading the team in rebounds at 7.7 per game. The 6-7 sophomore rounds out an extremely athletic, albeit undersized, Auburn frontcourt. He averages 11.6 points per contest while shooting 50 percent from the field.
Though Auburn's athleticism is undeniable, their inexperience has led to some very sloppy play. Quantez Robinson provides Jeff Lebo with a steady hand, as evidenced by his assist-to-turnover ratio of better than 2-to-1. However, the Tigers commit almost 18 turnovers per game; only Georgia turns it over at a higher rate.
Further, Auburn's players all have the ability to create for themselves and get to the free throw line. That strength is offset, though, by the putrid 57.6 percent that the Tigers shoot from the line, worst in the SEC.
Like most teams the Commodores face, Auburn has the potential to hurt the visitors in the paint and around the rim. Barber, Prowell, and Dollard are all dangerous with their backs to the basket or taking their man off the dribble. Vanderbilt's big men must be disciplined on defense and avoid cheap fouls. While Auburn's frontcourt is far more athletic, Vanderbilt does have the size advantage. Patience on the defensive end will exploit that advantage.
Though it's the first conference game of the season, Saturday's contest is as much of a must-win game as you'll find in early January for both teams. After hosting Vanderbilt, the Tigers play at Kentucky and LSU before returning home to face Tennessee, so if they don't get their first SEC win in this one, it may take them a while. On the other hand, for the Commodores to build any postseason hopes, they must take care of business against the teams they are supposed to beat. Auburn, pegged by many as the SEC's worst, is one of those teams. For Vandy to have a successful SEC opener here are the keys to Saturday's game:
- Quell Quantez: The sophomore point guard is undoubtedly Auburn's most important player. Not only is he the engineer of the Tiger fast break, constantly looking to set up his teammates, but he also has the potential to explode from a scoring standpoint. Alex Gordon and Jermaine Beal must hassle Robertson early and often, because if he gets into a rhythm, he becomes doubly dangerous to the ‘Dores. Stop the young guard early, though, and frustration may get the best of the playmaker. Scoring point guards have given Vanderbilt fits this season. If Quantez Robertson joins the ranks of Wake's Ish Smith, look for the Tigers to make Vandy sweat.
- Patience makes perfect: Turnovers and hasty shots will spell disaster against a team as athletic as Auburn. The Tigers all love to crash the boards and get out on the break, so Vanderbilt must choose its shots wisely. For that same reason, it's important that the streaky Shan Foster gets and makes good shots early. Good shots don't just come from the perimeter, however. If the ‘Dores are patient and work the ball into the post often enough, Ross Neltner and JeJuan Brown are talented enough offensively to draw fouls on the aggressive Tiger forwards.
- Maintain defensive intensity: Against Rice, the Commodores came out of the gate aggressive and sprinted out to a big lead before somewhat of a second half letdown. A young team like Auburn feeds off the tiniest bit of momentum, so if the ‘Dores fall asleep on a possession or two, it could spark a Tiger run. Conversely, if Vanderbilt can maintain pressure and force this turnover-prone team to make mistakes throughout both halves, as Southern Miss did on Tuesday, the Tigers will wilt.
Prediction: On a good night, Vanderbilt simply doesn't make enough mistakes offensively for the Tigers to win this game. Auburn needs to force turnovers and bad shots in order for them to win the rebounding battle and hurt opponents on the fast break. Alex Gordon is too seasoned and Foster and Byars too savvy to make the mistakes Auburn needs them to make. Look for Vandy to win the turnover battle handily, but Auburn's home court and athleticism in the post will make this closer than the ‘Dores would hope. Final score: Vanderbilt 76, Auburn 70.