Now, Vanderbilt finds itself tied in second place in the SEC with a 4-2 conference record, and a once-unthinkable NCAA tournament bid appears within grasp. First, the Commodores must defend its home court, beginning with a Saturday matinee hosting the Ole Miss Rebels.
At 13-7 (2-4), the Rebs occupy the cellar of the SEC West. Though they've been able to keep games close against Florida and LSU, their tendency to dig themselves a deep hole early has doomed them to close-but-no-cigar status in most conference games. The exception (besides a two-point home win over Arkansas) came Wednesday night against the Chris Lofton-less Tennessee Volunteers. After blowing a big lead, the Rebels held on before pushing the final margin to 14 points over the Vols.
First-year coach Andy Kennedy inherited some talent from the Rod Barnes era, beginning with junior center Dwayne Curtis. After beginning his career at Auburn, the 6-8 Curtis has flourished as a Rebel. At 290 pounds, the junior can be overpowering in the paint, but he also has a nice set of post moves. His 13.2 points per game rank him third on the team, while his 9.6 rebounds per game are good for second in the entire conference. The play of Curtis has been crucial to the Rebels' success in SEC play. While he's been consistently solid in conference games, he was outstanding in Mississippi's two wins, posting 20 points and 12 rebounds against Arkansas and 18 and 9 against Tennessee. Curtis has also grabbed almost four offensive boards per game in SEC play, and his girth and rebounding ability should make him a concern for Vanderbilt.
Leading a capable Ole Miss backcourt attack is senior swingman Bam Doyne. His 16 points per game lead the team, and he is the most athletic of the three starting guards. Adept at getting to the basket off the dribble, Doyne can also score from the perimeter, as evidenced by a mark of 35 percent from beyond the arc. At 6-4, the senior grabs over five rebounds per game as well. Though he's cooled off a bit in SEC play, averaging just over ten points per game, he is the type of athletic, board-crashing wing player that could give the Commodores fits on a good night.
Second on the team with 15.6 points per game is senior guard Clarence Sanders. While Doyne gets most of his points with his mid-range game, Sanders poses a different type of scoring threat. His 50 three-point field goals are good for fourth in the SEC, just ahead of Dan Cage's 48 and Derrick Byars' 45. A 37 percent shooter from long range, the 6-1 senior is a streaky but confident marksman. He can be deadly from distance, but he also has nights like his 1-of-8 performance in a loss to Florida. Even when the threes aren't falling, Sanders can score in bunches. In that game against Florida, he threw in 17 points while connecting on just one three-pointer.
With Doyne and Sanders on the wings, the Rebels have a capable floor general in senior point guard Todd Abernethy. Tied for third in the conference with five assists per game, Abernethy has posted an outstanding assist-to-turnover ratio of 3-to-1 this season. The 6-1 senior is the Rebels' best shooter statistically, leading the team with a 40 percent mark from three-point distance and 84 percent shooting from the free throw line. His ability to play under control at all times is evidenced not only by his assist-to-turnover ratio, but also by his efficiency as a scorer. Averaging almost 11 points per game, Abernethy leads all Ole Miss regulars with 1.3 points per shot.
Rounding out the Rebels' starting lineup is junior forward Kenny Williams. Andy Kennedy inserted the junior college transfer into the lineup against Florida to bang with the Gator frontcourt. Williams fouled out of that game in just ten minutes of playing time, but he remained in the lineup and chipped in nine points and five rebounds in the win over Tennessee. At 6-8, the junior is an athletic and relentless player in the post. Second on the team with 5.7 rebounds per game, Williams leads the Rebels with 53 offensive boards in 20 games, and he blocks a shot per contest as well.
Coach Kennedy can afford to give his starting forwards a rest due to the presence of 6-8 Jermey Parnell on the Rebel bench. In fact, the junior forward has seen a bit more playing time than the starter Williams, tossing in six points and grabbing over four rebounds per game. Though his effectiveness has declined in conference play, Parnell should be excited to see Vanderbilt again – he scored a season-high 14 points against the Commodores last season.
Since Justin Cerasoli left the program earlier this season, the Rebels have suffered from a lack of backcourt depth. However, the emergence of 6-5 freshman Eniel Polynice has somewhat alleviated that problem. The lanky backup is a good ballhandler and perimeter defender, and he may see more minutes than usual against the big Vanderbilt wings. Brian Smith, a 5-11 freshman and the son of Tubby Smith, gives Kennedy one more guard to spell Abernethy or Sanders.
Ideally, Andy Kennedy would have a team of superior athletes primed to play at a high tempo and pressure defensively, a la Tennessee, perhaps. This year, Kennedy's first, he doesn't have the personnel or the depth to play at the pace he'd prefer. When your best player is a center, it's not smart to run him ragged playing at a frenzied pace, and Kennedy knows this. Therefore, the Rebels will often mix styles to get the best from their talent.
With an experienced point guard in Abernethy and two dynamic scoring wings in Sanders and Doyne, Ole Miss can get out on the break and score in transition at times. However, the presence of Dwayne Curtis and lack of backcourt depth force them to play in the half court more often than not. For the Rebels to be successful, Curtis must get touches early and often. If they can establish the inside game at the outset, their wing scoring will feed off of the double teams Curtis can command.
After two huge road wins at Kentucky and LSU, the Commodores control their own destiny as far as an NCAA tournament bid is concerned. With ten games left, precedent has shown that five more wins, which would give the ‘Dores nine conference victories, should earn Vandy an invite to the Big Dance. Memorial Gym will be the site of six of the team's final ten games, so if they can protect the home court, chances are good that Vanderbilt will be in the field of 65 for the first time since the 2003-2004 season.
To hold serve at home, the ‘Dores must start by beating an inferior but dangerous Ole Miss team on Saturday. These are the same Rebels that outscored Florida by ten points in the second half in Gainesville, so the Commodores can't overlook Curtis and company. To grab win number five and take one step closer to the Dance, here are Vanderbilt's keys to the game:
- Size Matters: At 6-4 and 6-1, respectively, Bam Doyne and Clarence Sanders are undersized relative to the 6-7 Derrick Byars and 6-6 Shan Foster. While they are talented scorers who can't be expected to struggle on the offensive end, Doyne and Sanders may have trouble guarding Vanderbilt's star players. Besides their ability to shoot over defenders from the perimeter, Foster and Byars have demonstrated a propensity for getting to the rim and posting up smaller defenders this year. If the Vandy wings pour it in early, the Rebs may be forced to go to a zone, and given the way the Commodores have been shooting lately, that may spell the end for Andy Kennedy's squad.
- Interior Defense: Ross Neltner and Ted Skuchas, among others, shined on the defensive end against LSU, holding Glen Davis to 12 points on 5-of-15 shooting. Double teams and different looks on the inside flustered Big Baby, and Skuchas' shot-blocking gave Vanderbilt all the momentum during the senior's stint on the floor. Look for more of the same strategy against the burly Dwayne Curtis. While he's no Davis, Curtis has the ability to put up big numbers, especially if he's allowed to grab his offensive boards. If Neltner and Skuch can contain the Rebel center like they did Big Baby, the ‘Dores will be in line for a big win.
- Remember Furman: After a couple of early-season losses to inferior teams, Vanderbilt has no reason to overlook anyone. However, the recent high-profile wins and a looming showdown with Florida would have many teams peeking ahead. To avoid a letdown, the Commodores need to come out with the same intensity they showed in the early going against Alabama, Kentucky, and LSU.
Prediction: While the Rebels have been able to hang tough on the road, they haven't really put a scare into any of their hosts. Considering the way Vanderbilt has played at home, that shouldn't change on Saturday. Look for a rejuvenated fan base to welcome the red-hot ‘Dores home with a noisy reception, and expect a monster game from Foster, Byars, or both in a convincing Vandy win. Final score: Vanderbilt 84, Ole Miss 70.