The game in Chicago was the last road test for the 17th-ranked Commodores (10-0) before conference play starts in January. By beating DePaul, Vanderbilt has set itself up nicely to break the school record for best start to a season. Four very winnable home games precede a visit from UMass on January 5. If the ‘Dores take care of business until then, they'll be 14-0, besting the 2003-2004 team's 12-0 start.
Before 14-0 comes 11-0, though, and the Commodores will have a chance to grab that 11th win when fellow Nashville denizens, the Tennessee State Tigers, come to Memorial.
The Tigers (3-6) enter Saturday's game coming off a loss to another local team, as Belmont handed the TSU its fifth loss in six games on Monday night. Memorial is the fifth straight road destination for Coach Cy Alexander and squad. Among those road games was a stop at #13 Indiana, where the Tigers dropped a 12-point decision to the Hoosiers. Vanderbilt will be the second top-25 opponent for TSU.
The Tigers are led by 6-3 guard Bruce Price. Knee injuries have kept Price off the court for the better part of two years, but he retained a year of eligibility and is thus listed as a junior this season. He is TSU's leading scorer at 21.0 points per game, but what makes Price so scary to opponents is his unlimited room for improvement. He's been wildly inefficient at times this season – take the Tigers' first game against Cumberland, in which the junior scored 20 points while shooting just 1-of-13 from the floor (17 free throws contributed to his total). Price has never shot at a particularly high percentage, but he's bound to improve on his 28 percent from three-point distance. He's proven that he can play at a major-conference level, scoring 34 points against the Hoosiers on 11-of-19 shooting. Besides being the Tigers' best scorer, Price also leads his team in assists (5.8 per game), steals (2.4), and is second in rebounds (4.4). Vanderbilt's perimeter defenders must do a better job against Price than they did against DePaul's guards, but the TSU star's inefficiency makes letting him have his 20 points on 33 percent shooting a viable option.
Nashville native Gerald Robinson, Jr. gives the Tigers another big-time perimeter scorer, making them tough to guard on the outside. The 6-0 freshman has thrived in a starting role since stepping on campus, averaging 16.9 points per game, including 22.7 points over the last three contests. More of an attacker than a perimeter shooter, Robinson is nevertheless shooting almost 40 percent from beyond the arc. The freshman fits the mold of guard that has really hurt the Commodores in the recent past – he's quick enough to get into the lane almost at will, and he can finish around the basket despite his small stature. Averaging 2.2 steals per game, Robinson has also proven to be a legitimate perimeter defender. Alex Gordon will likely match up against the Tigers' shortest starter; the battle between these two will be one to watch Saturday night.
Attrition has hurt the TSU frontcourt, but 6-8 Jerrell Houston remains, and he's anchored the Tigers' inside game. He is the team's third-leading scorer at 10.2 points per game, and he leads the Tigers in rebounding, grabbing 4.8 boards per contest. Houston began his career at Mississippi State, but he has begun to come into his own at TSU. The power forward is athletic enough to create his own shot around the basket, but he doesn't yet have the outside shot that would make him a legitimate SEC talent. Regardless, Ross Neltner will have his hands full with Houston, another in a line of athletic forwards that has given Vanderbilt some trouble this year.
A pair of forwards rounds out the starting lineup for the Tigers. Moraye Ivy, a 6-5 senior swingman, has played in just four games and averaged just 12.8 minutes this year, yet he has claimed a starting job based on his size and experience. He'll likely draw the initial task of guarding Shan Foster, but Ivy will split time with guard Andrae Belton (4.4 ppg). Not much of an offensive threat, Ivy averages just 3.5 points per game. He's more of a defensive role player, grabbing 3.0 rebounds per game and often guarding opponent scorers.
Freshman Darius Cox is TSU's fifth starter, a raw athlete averaging 5.0 points and 3.6 boards per game. At 6-7, Cox occupies the post with Houston, but like Ivy, he doesn't play a whole lot of minutes despite being a starter. Fellow freshman Dontrell Taylor splits time with Cox down low. Taylor, who was recruited by Alabama, has shown flashes of being an impact player in his first season as a Tiger. He scored 16 points and snagged six rebounds in a loss to Colorado State.
Senior LaDarious Weaver is TSU's leading returning scorer. A year after scoring 13.7 points per game, he provides some serious scoring punch off the bench this season. The 6-0 guard has seen his minutes decline this year, but he's still managed to put up 8.4 points per game and shoot over 40 percent from the floor and from beyond the arc. The Tigers can stick Weaver in for Price or Robinson without losing much offense.
The Tigers and Commodores have one common opponent, the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets. In possibly Vanderbilt's best performance of the season, they routed the Jackets at home. TSU, meanwhile, dropped a 99-85 contest in Nashville in their second game of the season. The Tigers, with their arsenal of perimeter players, prefer an up-tempo game. They force over 16 turnovers per game, yet they force their opponents into a full turnover more per contest. The Commodores, who have posted a negative turnover margin to this point, will need to improve their decision-making and overall ballhandling to stifle the Tiger offense.
Saturday's game will be a good measure of the Commodores' progress since the sub-par outing at DePaul. Like the Blue Demons, Tennessee State has an athletic team and guards that can create their own shots. For Vanderbilt to grab its 11th win and remain undefeated, here are the keys to the game:
- Fast Start: Against DePaul, the ‘Dores came out sluggish, making lazy passes and letting the Demons get transition bucket after transition bucket. Against a clearly inferior opponent, it's important for the home team to come out sharp and assert its dominance. The crowd will be smaller than usual due to winter break for students, so it's up to the Commodores to create their own energy, especially against a team that thrives off of opponents' laziness.
- Aussie, Aussie, Aussie: When TSU played in Bloomington, DJ White scored a career high 29 points against the Tigers. Though it's packed with athletes, Cy Alexander's squad lacks a true post man. A.J. Ogilvy should have his way with any Tiger on the court. He struggled in the first half against a similar opponent in DePaul, but the freshman recovered in the second half. With that experience under his belt, Ogilvy should be ready to take on an athletic yet lesser TSU team.
- Paint the Town "Red": While Foster and Ogilvy have been spectacular thus far, the Commodores need a consistent third scorer if they are to be a contender for the SEC title. Alex Gordon is that scorer. He's raised his scoring average to just over 10 points per game, and his shooting percentages are at all-time highs. Against a guard-heavy team, the ‘Dores need "Red" at his best, not only offensively but also as a distributor and a defender. Gerald Robinson is a threat to score 20 points whenever he steps on the floor; if Gordon can corral the freshman, the ‘Dores should roll.
Prediction: Finals are over; ten days of practice have elapsed since the mediocre outing in Chicago. The ‘Dores should be ready to run over an inferior team like TSU. However, the Tigers have the athletes to make things tough on Vanderbilt's guards. If Price and Robinson can consistently create offense from the perimeter and in the lane, the Tigers have a chance to keep it close. Otherwise, the Commodores' size and experience should lead to a rout. Final score: Vanderbilt 93, Tennessee State 77.