Needing to fix turnover problems and defensive lapses before Thursday night's showdown in Knoxville, the ‘Dores only got half of the job done. Tennessee used 21 Vanderbilt turnovers to sprint out to a 21-point second half lead and withstood the visitors' rally, ultimately winning 80-60. On a night when scoring in bunches was essential, the Commodores' collective shooting touch deserted them. Shan Foster set the tone, shooting an uncharacteristic 1-of-11 from three-point range, and the team as a whole could only muster 14.3 percent shooting from distance. For the second straight game, A.J. Ogilvy could get nothing going inside and, combined with Foster's struggles, left little hope for a win against the top-ten Volunteers. After derailing at two tough road environments, the ‘Dores return home in hopes of finding their strokes and getting the season back on track.
As ugly as the past two games were for the Commodores, LSU enters Saturday's game on a somewhat longer losing streak. The Tigers (7-10, 0-3 SEC) have dropped six straight dating back to December, including three games against SEC Western division foes. Coach John Brady knew that the loss of standout forward Glen Davis would set his team back, but he couldn't have foreseen the ankle injury that ended junior Tasmin Mitchell's season after three games. To make things worse, junior center Chris Johnson won't play on Saturday due to a broken hand, and senior swingman Dameon Mason has been ruled academically ineligible, ending his career. With all those losses, the Tigers have relied on a pair of newcomers, freshman Anthony Randolph and junior college transfer Marcus Thornton.
Thornton, a 6-4 junior sharpshooter, leads the team and ranks fifth in the SEC in scoring, averaging 18.2 points per game in his first season in Baton Rouge. His 43 three-pointers are also good for fifth in the conference. While Thornton, a junior college All-American, is a talented scorer, he hasn't been the most efficient in getting his points. He's shooting a pedestrian 40.7 percent from the floor, including 33.6 percent from three-point range. Despite ranking third in the SEC in three-point attempts, Thornton is a balanced scorer. Almost half of his points come from inside the arc, where a smooth mid-range jumper and a knack for getting to the basket off the dribble can make him a defender's nightmare. Thornton's talent in the lane allows him to get to the free throw line fairly often; his 68 attempts from the charity stripe are good for second on the team, and he shoots 82.4 percent when he gets there. The athleticism that makes him a dangerous two-point scorer also makes him an effective rebounder – he ranks second on the team with 6.0 boards per game.
Anthony Randolph, a 6-10 combo forward, was the most heralded recruit of the Brady era at LSU. Brady landed the five-star prospect despite battling Kansas and Georgetown for his services. The freshman's 13.8 points per game are good for second on the team, and with center Chris Johnson on the sideline with a broken hand, Randolph is one of just two active Tigers averaging double figures in scoring. His combination of size, athleticism, scoring ability, and ball skills make him a sort of poor man's Kevin Durant. While Randolph won't attain that kind of success as a freshman – he doesn't shoot nearly as well from the outside – he has a similar skill set that could make him one of the SEC's premiere players before he makes the leap to the NBA. The Dallas native can be a game-changer on both ends, leading the Tigers with 7.9 rebounds and 2.5 blocks per game. Randolph has the size and athleticism to make life difficult for Ogilvy; if LSU's freshman can draw Vanderbilt's out to the perimeter on a consistent basis, the Tigers may be able to get an offensive advantage.
Junior Garrett Temple is the one common thread from last year's starting lineup. He moved over to the point guard spot and has given the Tigers a big, athletic presence at the head of its offense. His 3.3 assists per game lead the team, and he's snatching 5.7 rebounds per game, certainly a perk of having a 6-5 point guard. Temple's defense is another benefit. He is long, athletic, and often draws the opponent's top perimeter scorer. The junior will likely draw Shan Foster on Saturday, so the SEC's leading scorer will have his work cut out for him yet again.
Quinton Thornton, a 6-8 junior college transfer, is the true low-post guy to complement the rangy, multi-dimensional Randolph. He sat out the team's first 14 games due to injury, but he has stepped into a starting role since his return. The junior has started slowly, logging eight points and 10 rebounds in 60 minutes this season. However, his size and strength on the inside will prove to be an important asset for a team that lacks real muscle. Against Ole Miss, Thornton scored seven points and grabbed eight boards, giving a glimpse of what he can do when he knocks the rust off a bit.
Sophomore guard Alex Farrer became LSU's fifth starter in their last game, a loss to Auburn. He replaces Terry Martin in the starting lineup after seeing his minutes spike in early January. After rarely playing more than ten minutes in non-conference games, Farrer has averaged almost 22 minutes per game in the Tigers' last four. A solid perimeter shooter, the sophomore has not yet found his stroke, but with more experience will come more consistency. For now, Brady prizes the 6-5 Farrer for his controlled offensive play and steady defense.
Terry Martin, a 6-6 senior, is the Tigers' third leading active scorer, chipping in 9.0 points per game. However, his playing time has dropped significantly over the past four games due to poor shot selection and inefficiency on offense. Martin is shooting just 34.7 percent from the floor, including 30.3 percent from beyond the arc. He averaged 13.8 points per game in December, but bad shots hurt the Tigers more often than his scoring helped, as indicated by his dismal average of .90 points per shot.
Freshman point guard Bo Spencer adds some depth to the backcourt. He's averaging 5.1 points and 2.0 assists per game playing a supporting role in which he's seen inconsistent minutes. Early in the season, Spencer scored in double figures in four straight games; with all the injuries and attrition the Tigers have suffered, they'll need the freshman to do that on a regular basis.
LSU's losses have left the Tigers with a lackluster offense. Thornton and Randolph are the only two consistent scorers on the team, and they are both newcomers to Division I basketball, not to mention SEC play. Though Temple is a perfectly competent ball handler, he's not a natural distributor, and without Tasmin Mitchell on the wing, the Tigers stall on offense far too often. They average about 68 possessions per 40 minutes, which puts them among the middle of the pack nationally, and much slower than Vanderbilt.
Defensively, the Tigers' bounty of athletes has kept them competitive. They allow opponents to shoot just 31 percent from three-point range, primarily due to their length on the perimeter with Temple and Thornton. That length also allows them to cut off passing lanes. LSU allows assists on 46 percent of opponents' field goals – good for 12th nationally – indicating that they force a lot of one-on-one action by eliminating skip passes and denying post entries.
Protecting home court is always crucial to success in the SEC, but this home game is particularly important for Vanderbilt. Next week's games will be as challenging as the two the Commodores just dropped; a convincing win on Saturday would do wonders for the home team's confidence as they prepare to travel to Oxford and Gainesville. To pick up their second conference win, here are the keys to the game for the ‘Dores:
- No More Laziness: Late entry passes, cross-court lobs, and telegraphed perimeter passes have hurt the Commodores for most of the season. Tennessee snatched more than a few of those lazy passes and turned them into points more often than not. As good as the Volunteer perimeter defenders are, LSU's are longer and equally athletic. If the ‘Dores continue to make lazy passes, the Tiger defense will keep them in the game until the very end.
- Crash Course: Despite their length on the perimeter, Vanderbilt has more size than the Tigers overall. LSU is one of the few teams over which the ‘Dores should have a rebounding advantage. The Tigers are among the worst in the nation at keeping opponents off of the offensive glass, and they are just as bad at grabbing offensive rebounds themselves. To exploit that weakness, the Commodore wings need to crash the boards as hard as the forwards on both ends – LSU's poor transition game diminishes the risk of three and four offensive players crashing. If Vanderbilt can win the rebound battle by a significant margin, look for a blowout.
- Home Court Advantage: The home crowd is always important to the Commodores, but the advantage referred to here is the familiar shooting background provided by Memorial. The ‘Dores struggled to find any kind of consistency from the perimeter against Kentucky and Tennessee; a game on the ol' raised floor could be the cure for what ails them. Look for Shan Foster, in particular, to come out firing, as his frustration was clearly visible in Knoxville.
Prediction: Sandwiched between the four toughest games of the season is what should be a comfortable victory for the Commodores. Mississippi State held LSU to just 39 points, and the Tigers have scored more than 70 points just once in the past eight games. Provided that the ‘Dores find their usual touch from three-point range and that they keep their turnovers under 18 or 20, they should roll against an undermanned and inexperienced Tiger team. Final score: Vanderbilt 79, LSU 68.