The slumping Commodores lost yet another road game on Wednesday night, this time falling to the Ole Miss Rebels. Vanderbilt has lost four of its last five games to fall to 2-4 in conference play, but the toughest stretch of the SEC schedule is now behind them. Now, the ‘Dores return home with a chance to regain some much-needed confidence and momentum, as the Auburn Tigers visit Memorial.
Unlike the blowouts in Knoxville and Gainesville, Wednesday's game saw Vanderbilt show some signs of life. The Commodores trailed by just three points at halftime after doing a better job on the boards and on the defensive end in the first half. As has become the norm in road games, though, the ‘Dores failed to find any sort of offensive rhythm. When the defense collapsed in a 45-point Ole Miss second half, Vanderbilt's poor shooting just compounded problems, allowing the Rebels to sprint out to a double-digit lead that they would not relinquish. The Commodores shot just 34.9 percent for the game, and despite making 10 three-pointers, they mustered just 58 points.
Once again, perimeter defense proved to be an issue for Vanderbilt, as the Rebel backcourt consistently found easy lay-ups and open shots. Point guard Chris Warren scored a game-high 20 points, and swingman Eneil Polynice added 18. While their defense has been a problem all season, at least the Commodores can count on much better shooting at home against Auburn.
After three years in rebuilding mode, the Tigers (12-7, 2-4) were poised for a big year in the SEC West. Jeff Lebo's talented bunch of athletes showed signs of maturation last season, and the Tigers returned everyone from that team. Injuries and off-the-court issues have plagued Auburn all season, though, putting a damper on all that preseason optimism. Forward Josh Dollard took a medical redshirt year and will not play this season, Korvotney Barber has missed the last nine games with a broken hand, and Quan Prowell and Archie Miaway have each missed time due to outside matters. Miaway, a senior, will not play this year because of academic problems. Auburn has the talent to compete for a division title, but these personnel issues have killed the Tigers' chances. Most recently, they lost at home to lowly LSU, which had yet to win a conference game.
If the Tigers hope to get back on track against Vanderbilt, they'll need another big game from their de facto big man, 6-8 senior Quan Prowell. With Dollard and Barber out, Prowell is the only remaining player able to hold down the post. The versatile forward leads active Tigers in field goal percentage, shooting 56.6 percent from the floor while averaging 14.1 points per game. Forced into a center's role in Auburn's four-guard starting lineup, Prowell uses his array of post and perimeter skills to give more traditional post players trouble. He has struggled with his jumper at times this season, shooting just 30.8 percent from three-point range. Prowell has knocked down four of his last seven triples, though, proving that he remains a perimeter threat. At 215 pounds, he has the strength to bang down low and the quickness to beat bulkier defenders off the dribble. Add Prowell's rebounding (6.4 rpg), ability to finish in countless ways around the basket and his 76.2 percent shooting from the free throw line, and you've got as complete a player as you'll find in the SEC. Since he's playing out of position, however, the senior sometimes finds himself on the wrong end of a mismatch against a bigger, offensive-minded center. A.J. Ogilvy certainly fits that mold.
Auburn's leading scorer by a hair is 6-5 swingman Rasheem Barrett. Like Prowell, Barrett has the ability to score both in the post and from the perimeter. The 220-pound junior leads the Tigers with 30 three-pointers, and he's improved from last season's 29.7 percent to 34.5 percent from long range this year. Though his shot abandons him at times, Barrett is capable of having huge games. Last season, he went 6-of-9 from three-point range en route to 22 points in a win over the Commodores. Over the last three games, the junior is averaging 19.7 points, so the ‘Dores could be on the receiving end of another Barrett explosion. If Darshawn McClellan gets another start, he'll be perfectly capable of defending the strong, athletic shooter, but Barrett may be too much for slower or smaller defenders.
Similar to Barrett in stature and ability, 6-4 senior Frank Tolbert spends less time scoring behind the arc and more time getting buckets in the mid-range and around the basket. Averaging 11.9 points and 5.3 rebounds per game, Tolbert, like most of the Tigers, plays bigger than his size would indicate. He leads the team with 67 attempts from the charity stripe, where he shoots 71.6 percent. The senior also hands out 2.6 assists per game, though his turnover problems tend to offset those assists. Against smaller defenders, Tolbert is capable of scoring in bunches – he hung 29 points on Ole Miss' smaller guards, shooting 9-of-11 from the floor. Fortunately for Vanderbilt, Shan Foster can match Tolbert's size and strength. However, being a very strong perimeter defender, Tolbert just may give Shan fits as well. Where he could most hurt the ‘Dores is on the glass; the senior leads Auburn with 39 offensive rebounds.
Sophomore Dewayne Reed and junior Quantez Robertson make up the Auburn backcourt. The combo guards share ball-handling duties, and due to the Tigers' lack of guard depth, they lead the team in minutes. Robertson, last season's point guard, averages 37.3 minutes per game, tops in the SEC. He and Reed share the team's assist lead, each averaging 4.1 per game, but Robertson has been the more effective distributor. More experienced as a point guard than Reed, the junior has posted an assist-to-turnover ratio of 2.41-to-1. On a relatively turnover-prone team, the Tiger point guard averages fewer turnovers than any other starter, a rarity in college basketball. A modest scorer, Robertson shoots just 39.1 percent and averages only 7.3 points per game, but he contributes in every phase of the game. He grabs 5.3 rebounds and 1.9 steals per contest, making him one of the most complete point guards in the league.
Reed, a 6-1 combo guard, plays shooting guard to Robertson's point much of the time. The sophomore averages 9.1 points per game, and his 29 three-pointers rank second on the team. A career 33.3 percent three-point shooter, Reed has caught fire over the past five games. He's knocked down 15-of-28 from beyond the arc over that span, good for over half of his season total and a clip of 53.5 percent from distance. Reed is averaging 15.0 points per game in that span as well. More than a three-point shooter, he has the ability to break down defenders off the dribble and has a knack for getting to the free throw line, where he has struggled this season (51.5 percent). Perhaps Auburn's best defender, Reed logs 2.2 steals per game, second in the SEC to South Carolina's Devan Downey.
While Auburn has a very talented starting five, the Tigers' injuries have left them with a very short bench. Four of the five starters average over 31 minutes a game, and Frank Tolbert plays 29.1 per contest.
Sophomore Lucas Hargrove has seen his minutes spike since Korvotney Barber went down nine games ago. He's logged over 20 minutes in six straight games and scored in double figures in six out of the last eight. Hargrove is averaging 9.9 points per game over that span, and he's given the Tigers another reliable three-point threat. Of players with at least 10 three-pointers, the sophomore leads the team with 44.8 percent shooting from beyond the arc. The 6-6 swingman has been a boon on the boards, too, averaging 5.7 rebounds per game over the past seven contests.
Matt Heramb, a 6-9 sophomore, is the only other Tiger receiving any significant playing time at the moment. When given minutes, Heramb can produce – he's scored in double figures in three of five games in which he's played 20 minutes or more. However, he hasn't seen much action in SEC games, leaving Auburn essentially with a six-man rotation in conference play. Heramb has range out to the three-point line on his jumper, and he's 12-for-12 from the free throw line on the season.
Though the Tigers have five superior athletes in their starting lineup, their short bench doesn't afford them the opportunity to run a fast-paced offense that might better take advantage of their personnel. They average about 67 possessions per game, putting them in the bottom half of teams in Division I. Because of the lack of depth, Auburn finds success when they slow the game down and exploit mismatches that may occur because of discrepancies in athleticism in the post.
The Tigers are second in the SEC in field goal percentage, shooting 48.5 percent per game. They aren't a particularly good three-point shooting team (34.5 percent), but their collection of strong, tough "tweeners" makes them very efficient in the mid-range and around the basket. Auburn converts on a blistering 56.7 percent of their two-point field goals, tops in the conference. In particular, Barrett and Tolbert create problems for opponents with a combination of quickness and pure strength around the rim that opposing guards and swingmen have trouble with. Although he's undersized, Prowell is more athletic than most SEC centers and can draw them away from the basket with his jump shot.
On the defensive end is where the Tigers face mismatches of their own. Specifically, Prowell and Barrett are too small to defend many of the centers and power forwards the SEC has to offer. They allow opponents to shoot 51.5 percent inside the three-point line, and while Reed and Robertson are good on-ball defenders, they aren't particularly disciplined off the ball. The Tigers have allowed 38.3 percent three-point shooting in SEC play, a good sign for the three-loving Commodores.
The ‘Dores desperately need a confidence boost. They have been embarrassed in three of the last four games, but they played great in the one home game in that span. Against LSU, Shan Foster and company found their stroke, scoring 92 points against the Tigers of the Bayou. Auburn's Tigers are more well-rounded than LSU's, but their defense is porous enough to allow the struggling Commodores to regain their offensive momentum. For Vanderbilt to pick up a much needed third SEC win, here are the keys to the game:
· Breakout Game: Since scoring 25 points against South Carolina, A.J. Ogilvy has had five straight lackluster games. He's been outsized at times and simply outplayed at others, but Saturday gives him the chance to put it all behind him. Quan Prowell is great as a power forward, but the 6-8 Tiger doesn't have the size to contain the Vanderbilt freshman, and he's not the man-child that Kentucky's Patrick Patterson is. Against Florida, Ogilvy's frustration was visible; he needs to take it out on Auburn. If he catches the ball deep in the post, the Tigers will have no defense against his sweet baby hook. All the Commodore guards have to do is make sure he gets it deep.
· Make it Rain: Two games ago, Alabama absolutely torched the Tigers from three-point range, connecting on 12-of-25 from beyond the arc en route to a 20-point rout. The Crimson Tide is a respectable fourth in the SEC in three-point percentage – Vanderbilt is first. As previously mentioned, the Tigers are not very good at defending against the trey, so the Commodores cannot afford to get bashful from long range now. If Shan Foster and Alex Gordon can knock down a few in the first ten minutes, they could open the floodgates for a cathartic afternoon for the home team.
· Keep the Faith: This one goes both for the team and its faithful. Every Commodore has worn a look of disappointment or frustration at some point during this five game stretch, but ten SEC games still remain – plenty of time to turn the conference season around and grab a good seed in the NCAA Tournament. The ‘Dores, Foster and Gordon in particular, feed off of the crowd. They'll need a loud and rowdy Memorial behind them against a feisty Tiger team. If the Commodores can recapture some of the early season energy, look for them to get a convincing win on Saturday.
Prediction: On a good day, the Commodores are just too much offensively for the Tigers to handle. Trouble is, the ‘Dores haven't seen enough good days lately. Being back in Memorial for the first time in two weeks should help the cause, but the home team really needs to get off to a good start to build some confidence. The first ten minutes of this game will be crucial; if Vanderbilt lets Auburn get an early lead, the Tigers will be in it for the long haul, but if the ‘Dores hit some shots and put together an early run, they could win in a blowout. Wishful thinking says the latter will happen, but I tend to think it'll be somewhere in between. Baby steps for the ‘Dores. Final score: Vanderbilt 86, Auburn 77.