Saturday's game against Tennessee-Martin once again revealed the defensive deficiencies that have plagued the ‘Dores all year. They allowed 85 points, including 61 by Lester Hudson and Gerald Robinson, to a Skyhawk squad that came in averaging just 76 points per game. The Commodores frittered away a 12 point halftime lead, allowing UT-Martin to tie the game with just over three minutes to play. Vanderbilt forced 21 turnovers and took 12 more shots and 12 more free throws than the Skyhawks, yet Hudson and Robinson got whatever they wanted against a sometimes complacent Commodore defense, keeping Martin in the game. For the second straight game, the home team struggled with a clearly inferior opponent; Monday's game gives the ‘Dores a chance to redeem themselves.
The Gaels (5-8) have already eclipsed their win total from a year ago, when they finished 2-28 and lost 22 games in a row to start the season. After suffering a six-game losing streak to begin this season, Iona won five of its last six before getting routed by Louisville at Freedom Hall on Saturday. The Gaels shot just 19.0 percent en route to 36 points against the Cardinals, making just six shots from inside the three-point line. Vanderbilt will be Iona's second ranked opponent; in November, the Gaels lost by 35 in Chapel Hill to top-ranked North Carolina.
Senior forward Dexter Gray has been the Gaels' most consistent player and leads the team in scoring at 12.9 points per game. Academic issues limited Gray's playing time during his junior season, but he seems to have resolved those troubles, as the 6-7 combo forward has played in every game this year. He's scored in double figures in all but two games, one in which he played just 11 minutes due to foul trouble, and most recently against a Louisville team that had the athletic forwards to lock him down. Gray is enjoying his most offensively efficient season, scoring a career-high 1.35 points per shot on 50.8 percent shooting. Adding the outside shot to his repertoire has helped tremendously; after attempting just one three-pointer through his first three seasons, the senior has knocked down 10 threes in 25 tries this year. Gray also ranks second on the team in rebounding (5.5 rpg) and steals (1.0 spg). If he has an Achilles heel, it's his ball handling – Gray averages almost three turnovers per game and posts a 0.5 assist-to-turnover ratio.
Complementing Gray's inside-out game is sophomore guard Milan Prodanovic. Like Gray, Prodanovic has drastically improved his efficiency since last season. Almost exclusively an outside shooter, the 6-2 guard has seen his three-point percentage climb to a solid 36.4 percent, ten points higher than last season. Two-thirds of Prodanovic's shots have come from beyond the arc, so a ten point improvement in that area is significant for the Gaels. On the occasion that the sophomore ventures inside the three-point line, he is adept at getting into the lane and drawing fouls against bigger, less savvy players. Prodanovic has attempted more free throws than any other Iona guard, and he shoots them at an 80.6 percent clip.
Joining Prodanovic in the backcourt is 6-2 freshman Rashon Dwight. More of a combo guard than a traditional shooting guard, Dwight has shown at times that he can fill the role of scorer for the Gaels. Though he averages just 7.5 points per game, the freshman hasn't been afraid to take shots. He scored a season-high 16 points on 6-of-7 shooting against Loyola, and has reached double figures in scoring in two other games. Dwight's 24 assists rank him third on the team, an indication of his distributing ability that complements his talent for scoring.
Senior forward Devon Clarke is Iona's third-leading scorer, putting up 9.5 points in just under 20 minutes per game. The 6-6 Clarke is perhaps the Gaels' best athlete, doing most of his damage around the basket. His propensity for scoring around the rim accounts for his team-best 58.9 percent shooting, and his athleticism has helped him rack up 21 offensive rebounds, good for second on the team.
Running the show for the Gaels is sophomore point guard DeShaune Griffin. A year removed from leading the team in assists as a freshman, the 6-0 Griffin has handed out 2.4 helpers a game this season, good for second on the team. The sophomore is the quickest of Iona's guards and their best bet for penetration, yet he often prefers to linger outside the three-point line. Almost two-thirds of his shot attempts have been threes, and he's converted 33 percent of them. In that sense, Griffin comes out of the Alex Gordon mold of point guard, but he doesn't take care of the ball as well as "Red" does, posting an assist-to-turnover ratio of just 0.97.
Senior Kyle Camper splits time with Griffin at the point guard spot. Griffin and the 6-3 Camper have put up similar numbers, but the senior is a bit better at distributing the ball (3.5 apg), while Griffin is a more efficient scorer. Camper does average 7.5 points per game, but he's shooting just 38.0 percent from the floor, as he's struggled to finish in the lane and in the mid-range.
Giving the Gaels some frontcourt depth is 6-9 junior Gary Springer. A knee injury forced him to miss all of last season, and he's missed seven games already this year. Springer has played in the last five games, though, and will be in action on Monday afternoon. Iona desperately needs him at the top of his game to have any hope of defending Ogilvy. The junior is a solid post defender, a great rebounder (leading the team with 8.0 rpg) and can hold his own on the offensive end as well with a smooth mid-range jumper. His 8.7 points per game are good for fourth on the team.
Senior John Kelly will also get a shot at defending the Australian freshman. Kelly stands 7-0 and weighs in at 270 pounds, giving him the size, if not the athleticism or skill set to match up with Ogilvy. He's seen his minutes decline due to limited offensive production in the past five games (1.2 ppg), but looks to see some playing time against a big man like Ogilvy.
Rounding out the Gaels' regular rotation is freshman guard Andre Tarver. The 6-2 Bronx native shined early, scoring a season-high 16 points against UNC, but recently he has seen inconsistent minutes and given inconsistent production to match. Tarver is shooting a respectable 37.5 percent from three-point land, but he prefers to use his quickness to get into the lane, where he is a tough finisher.
Iona plays at a slower tempo than Vanderbilt, averaging about four fewer possessions and almost twenty fewer points per game than the Commodores. One reason that four fewer possessions translates to twenty fewer points is Iona's abysmal assist-to-turnover ratio. The Gaels are a fairly young team, but even their veterans have turnover problems. As a result, they average just 12.9 assists per game compared to 19.3 turnovers, a staggering number of turnovers for a team that doesn't play at a fast tempo.
With a win on Monday, the Commodores will break the school record for best start to a season. More importantly, though, this game gives the ‘Dores yet another chance to prove that they can play with a big lead, because they will most assuredly have one at some point. For Vanderbilt to pick up its 13th straight win, here are the keys to the game:
- Under Pressure: The Gaels are an incredibly inefficient offensive team, relying on one-on-one play to create shots far too often. Iona turns the ball over on an astounding 27.1 percent of their offensive possessions, and there are no primary culprits. Every Gael that plays at least 18 minutes per game commits at least 2.0 turnovers per game. A team like this gives Vanderbilt the perfect opportunity to benefit from raising their intensity level on defense. More dedication to ball pressure at each position will present the Commodores with the transition opportunities they love, which may lead the ‘Dores to buy into the kind of defense Kevin Stallings has been longing to see all season.
- Mismatch: Iona prefers to utilize a three guard, two forward lineup, but none of their guards has the size to guard Shan Foster on the wing. Consequently, the Gaels may be forced to go big, playing Springer, Clarke, and Gray with two guards so that the 6-6 Gray can match up with the SEC's leading scorer. However, if Iona coach Kevin Willard does rely on a bigger lineup, the Gaels will probably not be able to get the penetration and kick-outs that a three-guard lineup would afford. Also, a forward-heavy Iona lineup would eliminate a ball handler, making the Gaels even more turnover prone and allowing the Commodores to get out in transition more often and more effectively.
- Matter of Pride: At this point in the season, the Commodores need to prove to themselves that they can take care of business against an inferior opponent rather than letting the underdog hang around and build confidence for the entire game. It's up to seniors Foster, Gordon, and Neltner to take control of the game and lead by example, maintaining intensity throughout, especially on the defensive end. SEC play is just around the corner, and the halfway efforts the ‘Dores gave against TSU and UT-Martin will lead to more losses than wins in conference.