This Saturday, the ‘Dores travel to Rupp Arena to take on Kentucky before playing at LSU next week. First, however, they must play host to ninth-ranked Alabama on Wednesday night.
Coach Mark Gottfried's squad fell flat in their SEC opener in Fayetteville, losing by 27 points to an enigmatic Arkansas team that has since lost two straight. The Crimson Tide then regained its status as favorite in the West division with an emphatic win over LSU. A preseason Final Four choice by some, they displayed their ability to bounce back from a tough loss in the ten-point win over the Tigers.
Alabama comes into Memorial having beaten the Commodores just once in the past four seasons. In last year's contest, a buzzer-beating dunk by Alonzo Gee sent the game into overtime, and the Tide rode that momentum to a three-point win in Tuscaloosa. Vanderbilt's best win over Alabama came in 2003, when the Commodores shocked the fourth-ranked Tide, pulling off the upset by a single point.
The visitors have been frequent victims of Memorial Magic, having lost eight straight to the Commodores in Nashville dating back to February of 1990. This year, however, Coach Gottfried's team comes to town as balanced as ever and well-equipped to end 17 years of Memorial futility.
The Crimson Tide attack runs through preseason All-American and Wooden Award candidate Ronald Steele. Though the 6-3 junior has seen his numbers decline from a year ago due to an injured right knee, he is still widely considered the best point guard in the SEC and one of the premier guards in the nation. As his 1.94-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio would indicate, the junior has great vision. While he's not the best athlete around, he has more than enough ability to create for himself and his teammates, and his size allows him to be a formidable defender. Steele's most important trait, however, has been his durability. He averaged over 40 minutes per game in SEC play last season – Alabama played two overtime games – and even while hampered by his knee, he played 35 minutes against Arkansas and 36 against LSU. While the Tide has better athletes and perhaps more talented scorers, Ron Steele is undoubtedly their most important player.
Alabama's other preseason Wooden Award candidate is 6-10 senior forward Jermareo Davidson. Joining LSU's Glen Davis and Florida's Joakim Noah and Al Horford among the SEC's elite big men, Davidson averages 13.9 points and 9.4 rebounds per game. A great finisher with a soft shooting touch, Davidson is also a tremendous defensive player, especially coming from the weak side. His 3.2 blocks per game lead the SEC. While the senior may do the most damage against the Commodores, Vanderbilt fans will be hard-pressed to root against him. Davidson's brother and girlfriend both passed away this winter, and he has still managed to play at an extremely high level.
Steele and Davidson may be the heart and soul of the Crimson Tide, but it has been a pair of sophomore forwards that has shouldered much of the scoring load. With 14.9 points and 8.8 rebounds per game, 6-8 forward Richard Hendrix has been a phenomenal complement to Davidson in the post. His 265-pound frame allows him to get just about any shot he wants in the post. As a result, Hendrix ranks fourth in the conference in field goal percentage at 61 percent. He and Davidson are loads in the paint individually; together, they spell trouble for the Vanderbilt front line.
Second on the team in scoring with 14.8 points per game is 6-6 wingman Alonzo Gee. After a solid freshman campaign, Gee's game has taken a huge step forward this season. His scoring average is up six points, by and large due to the spike in his three-point shooting. A good shooter out of high school, Gee shot just 29 percent from behind the arc last season. This year, his 46 percent shooting from distance has contributed to his coming out party. From the field, Gee shoots over 53 percent, showcasing his ability to get to the rim.
Mark Gottfried picked up his fifth starter from the junior college ranks. Mykal Riley, a 6-6 guard, has made an immediate impact on this Alabama team. A pure three-point shooter, Riley leads the Tide with 34 field goals from beyond the arc. After the graduation of gunner Jean Felix, the juco transfer has filled in admirably at the two spot. He has the size to shoot over many SEC guards and the length to be a very good perimeter defender. He'll have a great opportunity to showcase his defensive chops on Wednesday night going up against Shan Foster.
Because the Tide starters play so many of the team's minutes, sophomore Brandon Hollinger is the only Alabama reserve averaging over 15 minutes per game. The 5-11 guard started a stretch of games for Gottfried last season when Chuck Davis went down with an injury. This season, he has returned to his role as a spark plug off the bench and an insurance policy for the rare occasion that Steele needs rest.
Alabama is the most balanced team in the SEC, if not the nation. The frontcourt of Hendrix and Davidson overwhelms opponents in the post and on the glass. Riley and Gee can both light it up from downtown, and Gee offers the ability to create his shot off the dribble. The centerpiece, though, is Steele. The point guard shoots almost 50 percent from three-point distance; combined with Riley and Gee, the Tide have the ability to play up-tempo and beat you from the perimeter. With his experience, Steele allows his team to play under control at all times, whether they're firing from deep or grinding it out down low.
In an 88-61 win over the Crimson Tide, Arkansas routed Alabama by running an up-tempo game plan centered on its backcourt. Gary Ervin, Patrick Beverly, and Sonny Weems each scored 18 points. Meanwhile, Davidson and Hendrix combined for 12 points and eight fouls as the Razorbacks ran them ragged.
Controlling the tempo is a crucial part of any basketball game, but against an Alabama team that thrives on controlling a game at all times, being able to direct tempo will be the difference for Vanderbilt. Can the Commodores pull off their second straight home win against a ranked opponent? If so, here's how they'll do it:
- Follow the Hogs: The Vanderbilt backcourt trio of Alex Gordon, Shan Foster, and Derrick Byars are can be better than the Razorbacks' perimeter guys, who destroyed Alabama from outside and on the break. In big wins over Georgia Tech and Tennessee, these three showed the ability to play at a fast pace while remaining under control. As a result, they were able to hit big shots in transition, especially against the Yellow Jackets. Gordon, Foster, Byars, and Dan Cage must be able to consistently find good looks in transition before the Alabama big men can establish rebounding position. If they can, the Tide's huge rebounding advantage will be somewhat neutralized, and Vanderbilt will have the added benefit of a few transition three-pointers.
- In the trenches: While Vanderbilt would love to run the fast break for 40 minutes, Steele and the Tide simply won't let that happen. Hendrix and Davidson will be eager to bang with a much weaker Commodore frontcourt. The Vandy forwards, Ross Neltner in particular, must be strong defensively but, more importantly, more active on the offensive end to combat Alabama's stellar bigs. If Neltner can knock down a couple of jump shots early and bring Davidson away from the basket, things will go much more smoothly for the Vanderbilt cutters and slashers.
- Don't die by the three: Against Georgia, nearly half of Vanderbilt's shot attempts came from beyond the arc. Ironically, their lack of discipline on offense likely resulted from hitting so many early three-pointers. The Commodores desperately need to find an offensive rhythm against a much better Alabama team. If the transition looks aren't there, they must work the shot clock to find one, not hoist up the next available three-pointer. Run Neltner from the high post, have him slip a screen, isolate Byars or Beal, but don't settle for 23-foot contested jumpers. If half of Vandy's attempts come from three-point land again, the Tide will win handily.
Prediction: Alabama presents the biggest match-up problem for Vanderbilt outside of Gainesville. Hendrix and Davidson are monsters in the post, and Riley and Gee have the size to match up with Foster and Byars. To win this one, the Commodores need Shan back in top form, Derrick to stay on his current tear, and a huge night from a third option, preferably Neltner so that the ‘Dores have some kind of post game. Some early fireworks will keep Vandy in this one into the second half, but look for Steele and the Crimson Tide to grind out a solid victory in Nashville. Final score: Alabama 78, Vanderbilt 69.