In one of the most thrilling games of this year's NCAA tournament, the Vanderbilt Commodores defeated the Washington State Cougars after a tremendous second-half comeback and a pair of overtimes. With a stunning array of three-pointers and a game-saving block in the first OT, Derrick Byars scored a game-high 27 points and showed why the SEC coaches selected him as conference Player of the Year. Shan Foster added 20 points after scoring just four in the first half, helping Vanderbilt reach the Sweet 16 for the second time in four years.
Amidst the post-game celebration, Byars yelled to the joyous Vandy faithful, "We ain't ever going home!" But for their leader's words to come true, the Commodores must go through a familiar foe, as the Georgetown Hoyas await them in East Rutherford.
Coach John Thompson III's squad has been one of the hottest teams in the nation over the past two months. The Hoyas have won 17 of their last 18 games, the lone blemish coming at Syracuse in late February. They looked dominant for most of the Big East tournament, earning the No. 2 seed in the East region. There, they dismantled Belmont before outlasting a feisty Boston College team in the second round.
Friday's game will be the Hoyas' second straight trip to the Sweet 16. Last season, they gave Florida all they could handle before bowing out to the eventual national champions. Lofty expectations turned into a slow start for Georgetown, but the team has emerged in the last two months as a real Final Four contender.
Back in November, Georgetown visited Memorial Gym to complete a home-and-home with the Commodores. In a game that wasn't close for much of the second half, the ‘Dores fell to the Hoyas by a score of 86-70. Before you read too much into that result, though, consider this: Alan Metcalfe started that game, while Dan Cage came off the bench. Shan Foster attempted just five shots and scored two points on a pair of free throws. Most strikingly, the Commodores shot a dismal 24 percent from three-point distance and racked up more turnovers (14) than assists (13).
Junior center Roy Hibbert, standing 7-2, poses a match-up problem for any opponent. A unanimous first team All-Big East selection, Hibbert leads the Hoyas in rebounding with 6.7 boards per game and ranks second in scoring with 12.7 points per game. His height, sure-handedness, and drop step make him nearly impossible to stop when he gets within a few feet of the basket – he shoots an astounding 69.3 percent from the floor, tops in the country. In the win over Vandy, Hibbert finished with 18 points and 10 rebounds, undeterred by the defense of Ted Skuchas and Alan Metcalfe. Though he's a potent scorer from close range, the center shines brightest on the defensive end. He clogs the lane, averaging 2.4 blocks per game. Hibbert is a disciplined shot swatter, rarely biting on pump fakes or straying from his position. He fouled out of just one game this year and picked up four fouls in only six others.
While Hibbert is the man in the middle for the Hoyas, junior forward Jeff Green is the team's best player and unquestioned leader. The Big East Player of the Year leads Georgetown with 14.2 points per game and ranks second in rebounding (6.2 rpg) and assists (3.2 apg). A do-it-all scorer and athletic defender, the versatile junior has the size to man the post and the quickness to play on the perimeter. Much like Vandy's Byars, the junior has carried his team offensively at times this season. For instance, in a two-point win over Notre Dame in the Big East semifinal, he put up 30 points on a night when Hibbert was limited to six points in 21 minutes due to some rare foul trouble. The Commodores cannot afford to let Green dominate the post alongside Hibbert like he did in Memorial. He complemented the center's 18 and 10 with 19 and 8 of his own.
Junior Jonathan Wallace has been Georgetown's biggest unsung hero this season. The 6-1 point guard has been a heady floor general, averaging three assists per contest, but perhaps his most important contribution has been his perimeter scoring. He leads the Hoyas with 63 three-pointers while shooting a blistering 48 percent from beyond the arc, also good for best on the team. Wallace gave Vandy fits in the teams' first match-up this year, scoring 16 points on a combination of jump shots and penetration. If the ‘Dores play a significant amount of zone (as is expected against Georgetown), they must stop the Hoya point guard from getting into the middle of the defense off the dribble.
Joining Wallace in the backcourt is 6-3 sophomore Jessie Sapp. With 3.3 assists per game, Sapp has been Georgetown's most prolific distributor, and he has committed fewer turnovers than the point guard Wallace. However, the sophomore has struggled with his shot, particularly down the stretch. He's shooting a moderate 43 percent from the field, but his 29 percent from beyond the arc has been a disappointment. Sapp can hurt opponents from downtown – just ask Belmont, who watched him go 4-of-6 from distance en route to a career-high 20 points. Including that game, though, Sapp has connected on just five of his last 32 three-point attempts, a miserable 16 percent on threes. If he heats up against Vandy, the Hoyas should have the offensive balance they need to handle the Commodores, but if he continues his cold streak, his opponents will be able to sag defensively, focusing more on Georgetown's interior threats.
Georgetown's fifth starter is standout freshman DaJuan Summers. At 6-8 and 241 pounds, Summers gives the Hoyas a third starter with the size to be a real match-up problem for opponents. A good ball-handler, the freshman can put it on the floor and create his own shots in the mid-range or around the basket. For the first half of the season, he was also an accurate three-point shooter, but like Sapp, his numbers from long range have suffered down the stretch. Since mid-February, Summers has converted nine of his last 44 attempts from beyond the arc (20 percent). The Commodores will likely give Summers and Sapp some open looks in order to effectively double team in the post.
Junior forward Patrick Ewing, Jr. has emerged to become the Big East's best sixth man. Standing 6-8, the son of the former Georgetown legend gives the team yet another formidable post player that can also play facing the basket. One of five Hoya regulars shooting at least 50 percent from the field (Hibbert, Green, Wallace, and Vernon Macklin are the others), Ewing is also a solid outside shooter, having hit 15 three-pointers in 32 attempts. He'll mostly be counted on to rebound and play the hard-nosed, aggressive defense he's known for, but he'll hurt the ‘Dores if they sleep on him as an offensive threat.
A pair of freshmen gives the Hoyas some depth beyond their top six rotation guys. Vernon Macklin, a rugged 6-9 forward, has been used sparingly since mid-February. He didn't play in the second-round win over Boston College, but he could see time against an undersized Vandy front line. Macklin has made 39 of his 51 shot attempts this year. Jeremiah Rivers, a 6-4 guard, is used to spell Wallace and Sapp. He's not much of a scoring threat, but he dished out seven assists in the first-round blowout of Belmont.
Vanderbilt struggled out of the gate against a physical Washington State defense that forced the Commodores to slow down and really work for their shots. They'll face the same kind of grind-it-out team when they meet the Hoyas on Friday. While the Georgetown perimeter defenders aren't quite as formidable as Low and Weaver, Wallace and Sapp are no slouches, and Byars will likely face the size and strength of Jeff Green.
Inside opportunities will be scarce against Hibbert, so it's more important than ever that the ‘Dores shoot well from the perimeter. Then again, they can't do much worse than the 24 percent they shot from distance against the Hoyas in Memorial. An average shooting night makes it a close game; a better-than-average night may turn the tide in favor of the black and gold.
Offensively, the Hoyas will look to the post at every opportunity. If Hibbert, Green, Summers, and Ewing get good shots around the basket, they should run away with this one. Denying the post and defensive rebounding are crucial. If Sapp and Summers are forced to take perimeter jumpers, the Commodore defense is doing its job.
Friday's game offers the Commodores a rare chance at some true redemption. They were clearly the inferior team back on November 15 – they looked lost on offense and timid on defense. What a difference a season makes. Against the Cougars, Vandy showed real offensive discipline in the second half and the two overtimes, and despite some lapses, they were aggressive on defense and made several winning plays down the stretch. Can the ‘Dores stay hungry and challenge a very good Georgetown team? Here are the keys to a trip to the Elite 8:
- Patience, not complacence: Make no mistake. Vanderbilt must shoot the three somewhere close to the way they did in the win over Florida (10-for-21) to beat Georgetown. However, the Hoyas will make the ‘Dores work hard for every open look. If the men in black start chucking from long range 10 or 12 seconds into the possession, they play into the Hoyas' hands. Georgetown is an excellent rebounding team, and they won't give up many second chances after bad shots. The best way to get good shots is for Ross Neltner to hit a couple of jumpers early, spreading the floor. If he continues to struggle, the ‘Dores can open things up with post entries and kick-outs or simply through penetration from Byars, Alex Gordon, or Jermaine Beal. If Vanderbilt employs one or two of those methods effectively, the shooters will find things much easier on the perimeter. Bottom line: the Commodores cannot settle for contested jumpers and hope to win.
- Under pressure: The Georgetown starters average a combined 10 turnovers per game. To a team that so highly values each possession, those turnovers can be costly. The Commodores were able to combat defensive lapses and a first-half cold snap from the perimeter by forcing 19 Cougar turnovers with consistent backcourt pressure and occasional double teams near half court. Look for the ‘Dores to turn the screws on Wallace and Sapp in a similar manner. If they can force the Hoyas to play in a hurry, Hibbert won't get as many touches and the Georgetown size advantage will be somewhat neutralized.
- Remember Florida: The way the Commodores defended the Gator frontcourt, particularly Al Horford, should be used as a guide to containing Hibbert and to some extent Green. Vanderbilt never allowed Horford to get a clean look at the basket. He scored 13 points, but 11 of those came from the free throw line, and he shot just 1-of-7 from the field. Double teams, fronts, and fouls frustrated the Florida big man, and the ‘Dores can do the same to Hibbert. The first option should be to deny the Hoya center, fronting him and preventing post entries at every opportunity. If he should catch the ball near the basket, Vandy has enough forwards to use a few fouls to keep Hibbert from getting off a good shot. The risk here, of course, is foul trouble to Neltner or Skuchas, which would make things much easier for Green and Hibbert around the tin. The versatile Green will get his points, but Hibbert can be contained.
Prediction: In the second half of the Washington State game, the Commodores showed the mental toughness required to make a deep run in March. If they can hang around with the Hoyas until the final minutes, the playmaking ability of both Byars and Foster and the clutch shooting from Alex Gordon and Dan Cage give the ‘Dores four good options to take a big shot. Georgetown doesn't have that luxury. Both teams are steady from the free throw line, so a trip to the Elite 8 may come down to which team can make the most plays down the stretch. Jeff Green is a formidable scorer, but Byars takes over more often, and that will be the difference as Vandy dances on. Final score: Vanderbilt 79, Georgetown 77.
Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings shoots a basketball behind his back as assistant coach Brad Frederick, left, looks on during basketball practice Thursday, March 22, 2007 in East Rutherford, N.J. Vanderbilt faces Georgetown in an NCAA East Regional basketball game on Friday.(AP Photo/Mel Evans)