Of the Commodores' six wins, none have come against pushovers; each team Vanderbilt has faced has a chance to win its league. Nonetheless, the ‘Dores will face possibly their biggest test on Saturday, when Georgia Tech of the ACC visits for a Memorial matinee.
Led by eighth-year coach Paul Hewitt, the Yellow Jackets (3-3) have gotten off to a slow start. An NCAA Tournament team last season, Tech lost stud freshmen Javaris Crittenton and Thaddeus Young to the NBA draft, and Mario West, its best defender, graduated and is now with the Atlanta Hawks. Bouts of offensive inconsistency hurt the Jackets in losses to UNC Greensboro and a depleted Winthrop team, and if not for a Matt Causey buzzer-beater, they would have lost to Notre Dame, too. In their most recent game, though, they hung with 15th-ranked Indiana, losing by a mere four points in Bloomington.
Georgia Tech relies on a pair of wings to set the pace. Junior Lewis Clinch is the team's returning leading scorer and most exciting player. After averaging 13.2 points through the Jackets' first 12 games last season, Clinch found himself academically ineligible for the second semester. He discovered his touch from three-point distance last season, shooting 46 percent from beyond the arc, and he's been better this year at 48 percent. The 6-3 guard isn't just a long-range threat, however. He shot over 50 percent from the field last season, and though he's struggled in the mid-range so far this year, Clinch has the strength and quickness to get to the rim consistently. Last season, he drained 3 of 4 three-pointers en route to 13 points against the ‘Dores. If the Vanderbilt wings allow Clinch the kind of looks they gave South Alabama's guards, he'll score more this time around.
Senior Anthony Morrow is also a threat from three-point distance, shooting 49 percent from beyond the arc. The 6-5 wing is on pace for a career year, averaging a team-high 18.7 points per game. Last season, an injured back held him to just 9.9 points per game, but he's healthy now and displaying the range that struck fear into Tech's opponents throughout his sophomore season. Morrow, like Vanderbilt's Foster, is athletic and long enough to get his shot off against most defenders. He's not as good a shooter as Foster, but he uses his athleticism to get into the lane more often and grab more rebounds than the Commodores' leading scorer. Morrow was held scoreless in 15 minutes in Memorial last season, but don't count on history repeating itself on Saturday. The senior has scored in double figures in every game this year.
Tech's formidable frontcourt has had a surprising leader thus far. Junior Alade Aminu is the team's second leading scorer and rebounder with 12.8 points and 6.7 boards per game. Stepping into the starting lineup in the absence of suspended center Ra'Sean Dickey, the 6-10 Aminu has been more than a capable stopgap. He's shooting 60 percent from the field, up from 58 percent last year. Aminu is the first opponent that can match Ogilvy's height and athleticism. Though he's not a true center, he's closer to it than anyone the Australian freshman has faced so far.
Joining Aminu in the starting frontcourt is 6-8 senior Jeremis Smith. An ox of a power forward, Smith leads the Jackets in rebounding at 8.2 per game. He's increased his scoring output from 8.3 last year to 11.8 points per game this year, in the process becoming the fourth Tech starter to average double figures in points. Smith has posted a double-double in each of the past two games, including a 10-point, 11-rebound effort at Indiana. Last season against the Commodores, he scored 10 points and grabbed eight boards, including four offensive rebounds. Smith is averaging over four offensive boards this season, so the Vanderbilt frontcourt will need to make a concerted effort to keep him off the offensive glass.
Rounding out the Jackets' starting lineup is 6-5 swingman D'Andre Bell. Averaging just 5.3 points per game, Bell is valued most for his defense. He'll likely draw the responsibility of guarding Shan Foster, and he's got the quickness to stay with the Vanderbilt leader and bother his shot. On offense, Bell is efficient if not prolific. He's converted on 11 of 17 field goal attempts this season (65 percent).
Though neither has started in the past three games, Tech has two point guard options. Senior Matt Causey makes Georgia Tech his third college in four years this season. He leads the team with 4.5 assists per game and has good range on his jumper, as Notre Dame can attest to. Causey hit a three-pointer with two seconds remaining to beat the Irish in the Paradise Jam tournament. Freshman Maurice Miller gives the Jackets a more athletic option at the point. Miller is a more talented scorer but less of a pure point guard than Causey, giving Tech a real change of pace.
The most heralded recruit in the Yellow Jacket freshman class is 6-8 forward Gani Lawal. The hometown kid has averaged 7.7 points and 3.2 rebounds in 16.5 minutes per game. Already mature enough physically for the college game, it's only a matter of time before Lawal becomes a real impact player. With his athleticism, he could be a game-changer on Saturday, as Vanderbilt has no counterpart with Lawal's height and athletic ability.
Sophomores Zack Peacock and Mouhammad Faye round out the regular rotation. The 6-8 Peacock gives Tech some depth in the post. He started nine games last year and has the potential to be a starter this year, but the emergence of Aminu has relegated him to a reserve role. At 6-10, Faye gives the Jackets a rangy defender on the perimeter. If Foster catches fire from beyond the arc, Paul Hewitt may look to the sophomore to limit his perimeter looks.
The Yellow Jackets have been a tough team to figure out in the early going. They're not particularly turnover prone, nor do they get outrebounded on a regular basis, yet they've already had a couple of head-scratching losses. One consistent weakness has been perimeter defense against teams that can shoot the three-pointer well. UNC Greensboro and Winthrop each hit nine three-pointers en route to a win over the Jackets. The Commodores are certainly capable of replicating that feat.
Offensive-minded post men have also had success against Tech. Greensboro's Kyle Hines, Notre Dame's Luke Harangody, and Indiana's D.J. White scored 25, 22, and 18 points, respectively, against the Jackets. If the first six games of the season are any indication, A.J. Ogilvy could get another 20 points on Saturday.
Saturday's game will be the first for the Commodores in which their opponents are more athletic. Clinch and Morrow on the perimeter and Aminu in the post could give the home team trouble on both ends. To stretch the winning streak to seven games, here are the keys for the Commodores:
- Bounce Back Red: Alex Gordon hasn't been at the forefront of a game since he scored 19 points in the opener against Austin Peay, but he had a particularly frustrating effort on Thursday night. The senior went just 2 of 8 from the floor and sat on the bench for much of the first half. Against a team susceptible to the three-pointer, the ‘Dores will need Gordon to be a third reliable scoring option. Look for them to try to get him involved early on Saturday; if Gordon responds with a 14-15 point effort, the home team will be in line for a win.
- Transition Defense: This was a weak point for the Commodores against South Alabama. Jaguar point guard Daon Merritt beat the Vanderbilt defense up the floor consistently, leading to a few layups and more than a few open perimeter looks. The Yellow Jackets have the athletes at every position to get out and score in transition. The Commodores, their posts in particular, must do a better job of getting back on defense to avoid giving up the same kind of easy baskets they allowed on Thursday.
- Take Care of the Ball: The ‘Dores committed 19 turnovers against the Jaguars, many of which came off of lazy and ill-advised entry passes. The Yellow Jackets are too athletic to make those kinds of passes against. The offensive sets are getting Ogilvy and Metcalfe good looks under the basket, but too often the guards are forcing that pass from the wing and the corner to the post. Committing 19 turnovers on Saturday could be fatal against a Paul Hewitt coached team that loves to press and get out in transition.
Prediction: Saturday's game is the third in a four-year series between Vanderbilt and Georgia Tech. Last season, the Commodores overcame a halftime deficit to beat the Yellow Jackets by a score of 73-64 in Memorial. This time, the Jackets come into Memorial with a new-look squad looking for some revenge. Behind the shooting of Clinch and Morrow, Tech will keep it close throughout, but once again, Ogilvy will be too much for the opponent, and Vanderbilt will get its seventh win. Final score: Vanderbilt 80, Georgia Tech 74.