Led by A.J. Ogilvy's 23 points and Shan Foster's 22, the ‘Dores posted a season high 95 points in the win over the Braves. After building an 18-point halftime lead, Vanderbilt withstood a furious rally that brought Bradley to within a single point with less than three minutes to play. Excellent free throw shooting (28 of 31) was the difference for the Commodores, who sent Ogilvy and Jermaine Beal to the All-Tournament team along with the MVP Foster.
On Thursday, the Commodores return to Memorial looking to continue their perfect start against the visiting South Alabama Jaguars.
The Jaguars (4-2) return three starters from a team that made its second consecutive trip to the postseason last year. An NIT bid was a step down from the NCAA Tournament bid South Alabama received two years ago, but despite the loss of coach John Pelphrey, the team is primed to make a run back to the Big Dance this season.
New coach Ronnie Arrow made a splash in the college basketball world last March, when his Texas A&M-Corpus Christi team took second-seeded Wisconsin to the wire in the first round of the NCAAs. Now, he takes over a talented team coming off of a regular season Sun Belt championship.
The Jaguars' success starts with its backcourt, where seniors Demetric Bennett and Daon Merritt provide a pair of scoring threats. Bennett, a 6-4 shooting guard, leads his team in scoring with 19.3 points per game. One of the most dangerous perimeter shooters in the country, he drained 81 three-pointers last season while shooting at a 44 percent clip from beyond the arc. Like Utah State's Jaycee Carroll, Bennett does a little bit of everything for the Jags. His 6.0 rebounds per game are good for second on the team, and he is South Alabama's best perimeter defender, averaging over a steal per game for the past two seasons. While he's not as talented a scorer as Carroll, Bennett has added to his offensive repertoire; he's on pace to make twice as many trips to the free throw line as he did last season. The senior has proven he can hurt SEC teams, scoring 28 in a close loss to Ole Miss in the Jags' second game of the year.
A 6-0 point guard, Merritt is an excellent distributor but also forces opponents to respect his scoring ability. After averaging 12.7 points per game last season, he has seen his scoring dip a bit with the emergence of junior forward Brandon Davis and former Cincinnati guard Dominic Tilford as offensive threats. This season, Merritt is scoring 11.3 points per contest while handing out a team-best 4.7 assists. He'll improve upon his 2-for-15 start from three-point range, but where Merritt can hurt opponents most is in the lane. Quick off the dribble, Merritt is adept at getting into the paint and drawing contact. He led the Jags with 142 free throw attempts a year ago, an impressive feat for a point guard.
Though junior Dominic Tilford comes off the bench, the junior college transfer and former Cincinnati Bearcat is second on the team in scoring (15.0 ppg) and third in minutes (27.8 mpg), behind only Bennett and Merritt. A 5-10 combo guard, Tilford has been lights out for the Jags in his first six games, shooting 53 percent from the floor and 46 percent from three-point distance. In South Alabama's most recent game, a 17-point win over UT-Chattanooga, Tilford led the team with 26 points and five three-pointers in eight attempts. Ronnie Arrow can stick him in for Bennett or Merritt without losing much, or the Jags can utilize an undersized but dangerous three-guard attack. Arrow usually opts for the latter, replacing 6-1 sophomore starter B.J. Ford with Tilford early and often. Ford is averaging 5.7 points in 14.8 minutes per game, and he's 8 for 14 on three-pointers this season.
The South Alabama frontcourt is anchored by 6-7 junior Brandon Davis. He's nearly doubled his scoring output from a season ago, scoring 10.3 points per game to become the fourth Jaguar to average double figures in scoring this year. Davis makes his living near the basket, rarely venturing out beyond 15 feet from the hoop. His propensity for finishing around the rim has brought impressive results so far – the junior is shooting a blistering 66 percent from the field.
Like Dominic Tilford, forward DeAndre Coleman joins the Jags after spending his freshman season at Cincinnati and his sophomore campaign at a junior college. Standing 6-7, Coleman starts at forward alongside Davis and leads the team in rebounds, averaging 8.3 boards per game. His 5.3 points per game are underwhelming, but Coleman has a decent offensive repertoire, including a jump shot out to the three-point arc. His shooting percentages are low so far this year, but he could be a key player for the Jags as he improves.
Rounding out the regular rotation is junior center Ronald Douglas. This season is Douglas' first with the Jags; he is the third junior college transfer in South Alabama's regular rotation. At 6-9, Douglas doesn't offer a whole lot offensively, but he is a solid defender in the post, leading the team with 16 blocks on the year.
South Alabama has had a predictable start to their season. The Jags' four wins have come against teams they were supposed to beat, and they've been the underdog in their two losses. However, the losses to Ole Miss and Miami of Ohio came by a combined eight points. The Jaguars' backcourt trio of Bennett, Merritt, and Tilford can pose match-up problems for almost any opponent; if those three shoot well from beyond the arc, South Alabama will be in the game to the end.
The Jaguars are just the latest in a string of tough lower-conference teams on a Commodore non-conference schedule that is more difficult than in recent years. Like Austin Peay and Bradley before them, the Jaguars are among the favorites to win their conference this season. To pick up another quality win against an underrated opponent, here are the keys for the Commodores:
- Limit Penetration: Daon Merritt is the kind of point guard that has terrorized Vanderbilt recently. He's quick enough to get into the lane and create his own shots or get to the foul line, but he can also step back and consistently knock down three-pointers. If Alex Gordon allows Merritt to get past him and into the lane on a regular basis, the Jaguar shooters could have a field day. Vanderbilt's other perimeter defenders need to stick close to their man when Merritt drives to the hoop, allowing A.J. Ogilvy and the Commodore posts to protect the rim.
- Exploit the Size Advantage: The ‘Dores will have a size advantage at four out of five positions, most notably in the post, where the 6-11 Ogilvy will match up with the 6-7 DeAndre Coleman, and on the perimeter, where Shan Foster should be able to find shots over the smaller Demetric Bennett. Ogilvy has already proven capable of exploiting such match-ups, and if Foster can follow suit, taking Bennett close to the basket as well as launching shots with his trademark high release, the pair could once again combine for 40 points. Bennett is a very good defender, but Foster is looking like a potential All-American.
- Glass Work: South Alabama has outrebounded its opponent in each of its four wins, averaging 12.5 offensive boards per game in those wins. Conversely, the Jags were outrebounded by Ole Miss and Miami of Ohio. Brandon Davis, Ronald Douglas, and DeAndre Coleman all have at least 14 offensive rebounds this season. If the Vanderbilt frontcourt can limit second opportunities, something they finally did over the weekend against Utah State, the ‘Dores should win fairly comfortably.
Prediction: The Commodores' primary goal will be to stop South Alabama's three-headed monster in the backcourt. The Jaguar guards are all quick and can all shoot the lights out, and Bennett is a threat to score 30 points whenever he steps on the court. The ‘Dores did a great job defending a similar player in Jaycee Carroll, however, so Merritt and Tilford may be the biggest threats. Ultimately, the Jags just don't have enough in the frontcourt to combat Ogilvy; if the Vanderbilt guards can match USA's trio, look for the Commodores to grab their sixth win. Final score: Vanderbilt 83, South Alabama 72.