Coming off a mid-week loss to Mississippi State, the Vanderbilt Commodores rebounded in dramatic fashion on Sunday. Derrick Byars scored 26 points and gave the ‘Dores their first lead of the game with 25 seconds to play, and the home team was able to pull out a 67-65 victory over the Kentucky Wildcats. Shan Foster added 21 points to help Vanderbilt grab a one-game lead over Kentucky, Tennessee, and Georgia for second place in the SEC East. On Wednesday, Vandy can clinch a first-round bye in the SEC tournament as they visit East division rival South Carolina.
With a conference record of 4-10, the Gamecocks occupy the cellar of the SEC East. The first time Coach Dave Odom's squad met Vanderbilt this season, the Commodores sent them home with their fifth straight loss. Since then, the ‘Cocks have won two out of three, with a loss to Florida sandwiched between double-digit victories over Tennessee and Ole Miss.
Last season, South Carolina's two clashes with Vanderbilt were decided by a combined three points. While this year's contest in Memorial wasn't as thrilling, the struggling Gamecocks gave the ‘Dores all they could handle, taking a two-point lead midway through the second half before losing by ten points. Vandy overcame negative turnover and rebounding margins with the help of a career-high 32 points from Byars.
Unsurprisingly, South Carolina's leading scorer in Memorial was point guard Tre Kelley. The senior tossed in 21 points against Vanderbilt, hurting the Commodores from beyond the arc and on penetration. A surefire All-SEC performer, Kelley's 20.7 points per game in SEC play lead the conference, and he ranks sixth in the league with 4.8 assists per game. He has led the Gamecocks in scoring in 11 of their 14 SEC games, including seven performances of 20 points or more. Though his numbers looked good in the Gamecocks' loss to Vandy, Kelley faded down the stretch as Derrick Byars got the call to lock down the point guard. In the last home game of his career, expect the senior to play inspired basketball on Wednesday. As usual, Kelley will get his points, but look for the Commodores to throw multiple defenders at him, trying to prevent him from winning the game single-handedly.
As Kelley led the Gamecock attack in Memorial, center Brandon Wallace terrorized the Commodores defensively and on the glass. Of his 13 rebounds, eight were offensive, and his shot-blocking ability kept the Vandy forwards from contributing to the scoring. With the long, athletic Wallace roaming the paint, Ross Neltner led the Commodore front line with just three points. Though he didn't record a block, the 6-9 senior deterred the ‘Dores from attacking the basket. Wallace ranks second in the SEC in both rebounds (9.4 per game) and blocked shots (2.9 per game). While he's not a huge scoring threat, he will hurt the Commodores if he can get garbage points off of offensive rebounds.
Senior guard Bryce Sheldon has been a surprisingly effective scorer lately. His 18-point outing against the Commodores was his best performance in conference play and began a string of four games over which he's averaged 14 points per game, five points higher than his season average. A dangerous three-point shooter, Sheldon leads the Gamecocks in three-pointers and in three-point percentage. He knocked down four shots from beyond the arc in Nashville. A frequent target of Tre Kelley's kick-outs, the senior rarely attacks the basket, preferring to drift around the perimeter or catch and shoot off of screens. Sheldon's shooting helped South Carolina hang with Vandy in Memorial. If the ‘Dores don't give him the Lee Humphrey treatment and keep a defender in his face at all times, the senior could be the difference Wednesday night.
Freshman Dominique Archie also delivered a standout performance against the Commodores. His 15 points in Nashville are the most he's scored in any SEC game. At 8.7 points per game, Archie's scoring ability is still coming along. However, his defensive and rebounding maturity make the freshman a valuable piece in Dave Odom's rotation. His 5.2 rebounds per game are good for second on the team, and at 6-7, he has the size to match up against any wing player in the league. Athletic enough to consistently get to the rim, Archie leads the Gamecocks in field goal percentage at 55 percent.
The fifth Gamecock starter is another freshman, 6-2 guard Brandis Raley-Ross. Averaging just 2.7 points per game in SEC play, Raley-Ross struggled in the loss to Vanderbilt. He scored three points on an atrocious 1-for-11 from the floor. The freshman's offensive game needs work, as indicated by his low scoring and assist totals (he averages just one assist per game). However, like Archie, Raley-Ross is a natural athlete, a solid defender, and a very good rebounder for his size. In South Carolina's last game, a win over Ole Miss, Raley-Ross grabbed eight rebounds.
Junior sixth man Dwayne Day also struggled offensively in Memorial, scoring just two points on 1-for-7 shooting. Day averages just over seven points per game in SEC play. Though he's shooting a modest 31 percent from three-point distance, the junior has attempted just 12 fewer threes than Bryce Sheldon, who shoots them at a much higher clip. Since he's clearly not shy about taking the big shots, Day could provide problems for the Vandy defense if he's on target from beyond the arc. Otherwise, he simply gives the Gamecocks a 6-6 athletic defender to match up against Byars or Shan Foster.
Rounding out the Carolina rotation is 6-7 freshman Evaldas Baniulis. A decent shooter and rebounder, the Lithuanian native has seen his minutes drastically decline over the past few games. After averaging almost 29 minutes per game over the Gamecocks' first ten SEC contests, Baniulis has played for a combined 18 minutes in the past four games. Against the guard-heavy Vanderbilt offense, the freshman will likely ride the pine again, as he's not quick enough to guard the Commodore perimeter players.
Though they rank dead last in the SEC in team field goal percentage (41.4 percent) and next to last in opposing field goal percentage (47.7 percent), the Gamecocks have really improved their play since falling to Vanderbilt. They held Tennessee, Florida, and Ole Miss all under 42 percent shooting and shot over 50 percent from the floor in wins over the Volunteers and Rebels.
Vanderbilt has likely clinched an NCAA tournament bid with the win over Kentucky, but Wednesday's game remains significant for the Commodores. If they win, they clinch second place in the SEC East, giving them a first round bye in the conference tournament. Further, the game in Columbia gives the ‘Dores a chance to get over the road woes that have plagued them recently. Vanderbilt has lost its last three road games by a combined 50 points. To gain some confidence heading into neutral site tournaments and to secure that all-important bye, here are the keys to the game for the Commodores:
- Strand Tre: This key is a carry-over from the first match-up with the Gamecocks, as the Commodores didn't do a good job of defending South Carolina's role players. Sheldon got open shots all night, and had he connected on a few more, the result may have been different. Archie, too, hurt Vandy, giving them two scorers to go along with the dynamic Kelley. In the Gamecocks' two wins in the past three games, Kelley led them in scoring, but three of his teammates also scored in double figures in each game. On the other hand, in the lone loss over that stretch, Florida gave up 19 points to Kelley but held all other Gamecocks to single digits. Granted, the point guard warrants more defensive attention than most players in the conference, but too much focus on him can be costly. The Commodores must play a more inspired brand of man-to-man defense to avoid being the Gamecocks' third straight home victim.
- Better Shots: Vanderbilt has looked all too eager to settle for a three-pointer early in the shot clock lately. Even in the win over Kentucky, the ‘Dores took too many contested shots without trying to work for cuts or inside looks, leading to poor three-point shooting (especially from Byars and Alex Gordon). In the win over South Carolina, the Commodores did a better job of getting good shots through ball movement. They took fewer three-pointers yet converted more. The Gamecocks have the size and athleticism to defend the Vandy guards beyond the three-point arc, so the ‘Dores must show the same discipline to pull out the win in Columbia.
- Pride on the Line: The Commodores have had an unexpectedly great season, but to make the leap from also-ran to contender, they have to prove that they can beat the teams they're supposed to away from the friendly confines of Memorial. Another road loss to an inferior team would detract from the momentum of the Kentucky game and send the ‘Dores limping into the conference tournament (perhaps forcing them to play on Thursday). If Vandy comes out with a chip on its shoulder and plays a full 40 minutes of active defense, then the team should take care of a suddenly feisty Gamecock team.
Prediction: The last two road games have been very ugly for the Commodores, and Tre Kelley and the Gamecocks will come out fighting in their last home game of the season. South Carolina has proven to be dangerous at home lately, and Dave Odom's squad will make tough for the ‘Dores to escape with a win. However, look for Byars and Foster to continue to step up in important games and lead Vandy to a significant victory in Columbia. Final score: Vanderbilt 75, South Carolina 71.