Their last time out, the ‘Dores used a 26-5 second-half run to pull away from an Iona team that left the hosts scratching their heads at halftime. The Gaels scored 41 points in the first half to trail the Commodores by just five points, and it looked as if Vanderbilt was in for a struggle with yet another inferior team. However, the home team made a renewed commitment to its defense in the second half, and the ‘Dores offered a glimpse of how good they can be when functioning on both ends of the court. Shan Foster and A.J. Ogilvy continued to lead the high-powered offense, scoring 20 points apiece in the victory.
The Owls (3-8) have had a hard time adjusting to life without Morris Almond, last year's Conference USA scoring leader and undoubtedly Rice's best player from a year ago. The 6-6 shooting guard averaged 26.4 points per game last season, including a 44 point outburst in a loss to the Commodores. Rice must also cope with the loss of point guard Lorenzo Williams, who led the conference in assists last season. Without last year's senior leaders, the Owls have stumbled out of the gate, putting up a miserable -12.0 scoring margin through their first 11 games.
This year, Rice's leading scorer is senior forward Patrick Britton. A role player thrust into a starring role, the 6-8 Britton is averaging 11.0 points per game, twice his career average. He is a decent scorer around the basket and can knock down the mid-range jumper, but Britton is limited overall on the offensive end. His 42.2 percent shooting is only marginal for a player who makes his living around the basket, and he doesn't offer the passing ability of a forward like Ross Neltner – Britton averages just 0.5 assists per game. The senior does excel on the glass, though, where his 5.5 rebounds per contest are good for second on the team. Britton's 34 offensive boards not only lead the Owls, but are also more than any Vanderbilt player has grabbed this season.
Joining Britton in the frontcourt is 6-9 Paulius Packevicius. The bulky Lithuanian nearly averages a double-double, leading the Owls with 10.2 rebounds per game to go along with 9.4 points per game. Like Britton, the junior was just a role player last season, but he's seen his minutes spike due to the dearth of scoring talent at Rice this year. Packevicius also shoots at a relatively low percentage for a post player (43.5 percent), and his scoring inefficiencies are accentuated by his 2.7 turnovers per game. If the Vanderbilt frontcourt can maintain pressure on the Rice forwards and keep them off the offensive glass, the Commodores should have an easy time with the Owls.
The Owls' backcourt has been depleted by injuries, as probable starters Chris Hagan and Cory Pflieger have missed the past eight and six games, respectively. Stepping up in their absence has been 6-1 junior Rodney Foster. The combo guard has played at least 34 minutes in every game since Pflieger went down, and he's responded by scoring in double figures in four out of those six games. Though his production has increased, his efficiency has bottomed out. Foster is shooting a dismal 29.1 percent from the floor, including 22.1 percent from behind the three-point line. The junior's struggle to find a consistent stroke has resulted in some ugly outings, such as the 3-for-13 effort he put up in Rice's most recent game, a loss to Texas A&M in which the Owls mustered just 41 points.
A pair of underclassmen rounds out Rice's makeshift starting lineup. Freshman Bryan Beasley, a transfer from Texas A&M, played all 40 minutes against his old team, scoring just three points in the process. The 6-0 guard began the year as a role player, so his 40 minutes against the Aggies illustrate just how hard the Owls have been hit by injuries. Beasley has played at least 31 minutes in each of the last five games; over that span, he's averaging 5.2 points and 3.5 rebounds per game. The freshman is Rice's only uninjured player besides Foster to have attempted more than 10 three-pointers this season – he's 4-of-12 from beyond the arc this season.
Sophomore Lawrence Ghoram is Rice's fifth starter. His 5.8 points per game rank fourth among healthy Owls, yet another indication of the team's struggle to find offense without Pflieger and Hagan. The 6-4 guard leads the team in field goal percentage, shooting 46.2 percent from the floor, and he has emerged as a scoring threat in the Owls' last two games. Against TCU and Texas A&M, Ghoram enjoyed the most playing time he's seen all season, scoring 24 points in 34 minutes against the Horned Frogs and 16 in 27 minutes against the Aggies. Shan Foster will likely match up against Ghoram, Rice's tallest guard, and he can't afford to sleep on the suddenly hot sophomore.
As could be expected from a team so depleted by injuries, Rice's depth leaves something to be desired. Freshmen Suleiman Braimoh and Scott Saunders were the only two bench players to log more than three minutes of action against TCU or Texas A&M. Braimoh, a 6-8 forward, and Saunders, a 6-10 center, both bolster the Owl frontcourt, leaving Rice's guards with little relief from the bench.
The Owls have understandably struggled to find any kind of identity this season – losing its two best players to graduation and three key returning players to injury makes it difficult for a team to develop that identity. Unlike a team like Tennessee-Martin, then, Rice should not present Vanderbilt with a significant challenge offensively. The Owls average just 58.1 points per game, and they scored a measly 54 and 41 points against Texas and Texas A&M, respectively, the only ranked competition they've seen so far. Granted, Vanderbilt's defense isn't as stout as the Longhorns' or Aggies', but facing a Rice squad that shoots just 36.8 percent as a team, the Commodores can afford a few defensive lapses.
Thursday's game could prove to be the easiest win of the season for the ‘Dores. The Owls are coming off of a blowout loss at the hands of another ranked opponent, and injuries have prevented them from finding any offensive rhythm. To ensure that they do grab their 14th straight win, here are the keys to the game for the Commodores:
- Killer Instinct: The best way to get upset is to let a team get comfortable in the first half and build some confidence heading into the locker room. The Commodores have accommodated their most recent opponents in this regard, allowing Iona, UT-Martin, and Tennessee State to hang around for significant portions of the game. Against a Rice team that is still developing an identity, the ‘Dores need to take away any hope of an upset early in the action. First-half intensity, especially on perimeter defense, will be key in determining whether this game will be another head-scratching win or the second straight blowout for the home team.
- Point Men: The addition of Jamie Graham has created somewhat of a logjam at the point guard position. Between Graham, starter Jermaine Beal, and freshman Keegan Bell, the ‘Dores have three capable and very different floor generals. With only two games remaining before conference play, time is running out for Kevin Stallings to experiment with his rotation. Will the defensive-minded Graham use his quickness and aggressiveness to find more minutes, or will Beal and Bell maintain their grip on the position?