Now, with a conference record of 3-2 and its momentum sky-high, Vandy has a chance to put itself in great shape for an NCAA bid, as the ‘Dores visit Baton Rouge and LSU Wednesday night.
One of three SEC West teams with a 2-2 conference record, the Tigers have failed to live up to a lofty preseason ranking. A home win over Texas A&M is the only good win on their schedule; although they beat Connecticut, the Huskies have floundered during the conference season and at this point appear to be NIT bound. Most recently, LSU was routed at Arkansas and barely outlasted Auburn and Ole Miss in Baton Rouge.
Despite any struggles the Tigers have had, they remain a tough out for any team. Coming off of a Final Four run, LSU has a strong frontcourt and athletic perimeter defenders. Point guard play has been a problem for Coach John Brady's squad, but with All-American and Wooden Award candidate Glen "Big Baby" Davis, the Bayou Bengals present a match-up problem for most every team.
Averaging a double-double on the season, Big Baby ranks second in the SEC in scoring (18.6 ppg) and first in rebounding (10.6 rpg). The 6-9 junior burst onto the national scene during the Tigers' Final Four run last March, and he's only gotten better since. He dropped 30 pounds in the off-season, making him nimbler in the post and off the dribble. The slimmed-down Davis has shown markedly better conditioning as well. In two meetings with Vanderbilt a year ago, Big Baby scored 44 points and pulled down 24 rebounds. He was especially dominant in a 19-point win over the Commodores in the SEC tournament, posting a season-high 28 points. Though it won't be an easy task, if the ‘Dores can contain Davis (as Washington did, holding him to eight points), they'll likely escape Louisiana with a win.
With the departure of freshman sensation Tyrus Thomas, one of his classmates has had to step into a starring role on this year's LSU squad. Tasmin Mitchell, a 6-7 swingman, has filled in admirably as Glen Davis' sidekick. His 14.1 points and 6.8 rebounds are each good for second on the team, and his inside-outside game complements Davis' nicely. Each can hit the outside shot, though Mitchell has been more reliable and prolific from beyond the arc (25 three-pointers on 40 percent shooting). In fact, the sophomore's shooting improvements have made him a match-up problem for opponents. His combination of height and athleticism makes him a worthy challenge on both ends for Vanderbilt's Derrick Byars.
Having sat out last season due to injury, junior Tack Minor was supposed to inherit the point guard spot left behind by the graduated Darrel Mitchell. However, excessive turnovers and poor shooting have relegated Minor to just 15 minutes a game in a reserve role. Point by default, then, has been sophomore Garrett Temple. Standing 6-5, Temple chips in almost ten points per game, but the Tigers don't value him most for his scoring. The sophomore leads the team with over four assists per game, and he proved to be a lockdown perimeter defender as early as last season. Best known for shutting down J.J. Redick in LSU's NCAA tournament victory over Duke, Temple will likely draw the assignment of defending Shan Foster.
LSU's newest starter is 6-6 sophomore guard Terry Martin. With 27 three-pointers on a dazzling 47 percent from behind the arc, Martin is the Tigers' best shooter. He transferred from Texas Tech after just two months of basketball and has stepped into a crucial role on a team that desperately needed an outside shooter. Most of Martin's 11.5 points per game have come from three-point distance, and he gives the Tigers another ballhandler in the backcourt.
Rounding out the starting lineup for LSU is 6-8 Darnell Lazare. The bulky forward averages 6.8 points and 4.4 rebounds per game. Last season, Lazare gave the Tigers crucial minutes in both starting and reserve roles, particularly in the team's NCAA tournament run. The senior proved especially effective in a 16-point effort against Vanderbilt in the SEC tournament. His strength in the post will be a challenge for Dan Cage, but Cage's ability to score from the perimeter against the slower Lazare should give Vanderbilt the edge in that match-up.
Junior transfer Dameon Mason gives LSU a scoring threat off of the bench. The 6-6 guard played his first two seasons at Marquette and has started a few games for the Tigers this season. Though he's not a great outside shooter, Mason is yet another supremely athletic Tiger who can get to the rim or score from mid-range. Though his minutes have declined during SEC season, the Commodores shouldn't sleep on Mason, as he can be a dynamic scorer.
Sophomore Magnum Rolle hasn't been the standout Tiger fans hoped he'd be, but the 6-10 forward provides them with an athletic defensive presence off the bench. His 19 blocks trail just Glen Davis' 25, and his 4.9 rebounds per game rank third on the team. If and when Big Baby needs a breather against Vanderbilt, look for Rolle to step in and clog the lane with his outstanding shot-blocking ability.
Although LSU hasn't wowed anyone lately, their depth and athleticism in the frontcourt makes them a tough match-up for the Commodores. Not many teams have an answer for Glen Davis, but the muscle of Darnell Lazare and the height of Magnum Rolle may especially bother Vanderbilt.
The good news for the ‘Dores, though, is that a great way to beat the Tigers is to shut down their perimeter game. In LSU's five losses, the opponent has been able to keep Temple, Martin, and Mason in check. Alabama's ten-point win over the Tigers is a great example; Davis and Mitchell scored 24 and 19, respectively, yet no other LSU player scored over five points. Further, LSU shot just 3-of-17 from beyond the arc.
Yet again, tempo will be vital in determining whether or not Vanderbilt comes out on top. LSU, like many of its SEC counterparts, prefers to play games in the half court. The Commodores, meanwhile, want to continue playing at a fast pace and getting shots in transition. The ability to dictate tempo is even more important to the visitor. Just as they did against Kentucky, Vandy must establish itself on the perimeter early to diminish the effect of the home crowd.
The Commodores have won their last four games against ranked opponents. A win on the home court of the 22nd-ranked Tigers would do wonders for Vanderbilt's NCAA resume, and the visitors appear to have all the momentum. The Bayou Bengals will be eager to redeem themselves after a 20-point undressing at the hands of Arkansas. Will the ‘Dores find themselves up against a team hungry for a win, or will they further expose a squad that seems to be on the decline? Here are the keys to Vanderbilt victory:
- One-Two Punch: In the wins over Alabama and Kentucky, Byars and Foster led the Commodores in every aspect. They shot well from the outside, got to the basket, crashed the boards, and got the rest of the team involved. In short, they played like the All-SEC guys they have the potential to be. Kevin Stallings has repeatedly emphasized the importance of Byars and Foster playing well at the same time. If both show up early against LSU, the ‘Dores will give the Tigers all they can handle.
- Turn over the Tigers: Though LSU prefers a grind-it-out pace, they commit too many turnovers relative to their tempo. If Vandy can pressure the green Tiger backcourt into coughing up the ball at least 13 times (LSU's average) and convert their mistakes into significant points in transition, look for the Commodores to get the road win.
- Crash Course: LSU has grabbed 49 offensive rebounds in four SEC games, an average of just over 12 per game. Big Baby, in particular, gets a ton of second-chance points. This is the one area in which having Cage at the forward spot could be a major liability for the Commodores. If the Tigers get second and third looks at the basket early, Skuchas, Brown, and Metcalfe must be able to come off the bench and crash the defensive glass. If LSU can consistently get multiple shot attempts in a given possession, it will be a long night for Vandy.
Prediction: At a glance, this is a game between teams headed in opposite directions. LSU, an early top-ten team, has nearly dropped from the polls after a blowout loss, while Vanderbilt has just beaten two ranked teams and garnered its first votes in the polls. A win for the Commodores would bring them even closer to a spot in the NCAA field, while a home loss for the Tigers could be a confidence killer. For that reason, expect a feisty effort out of the hosts. Vandy is the hottest team in the league, though, and that confidence will allow them to make some noise in Baton Rouge. This one will be a nail-biter; whichever team makes the most plays down the stretch will take it. Right now, the Commodores have more playmakers. Final score: Vanderbilt 74, LSU 71.