Vanderbilt-Connecticut Game Preview

The Vanderbilt Commodores used an old-fashioned weapon, one not thought to be in their arsenal this year, to destroy the Georgia Southern Eagles. Most of the first half was closely played, but a barrage of three-point shots in the last six or seven minutes sent the Commodores flashing out to a 57-36 halftime lead.

The Eagles were demoralized and never made any sort of challenge after that, and the lead gradually lengthened to a final score of 96-60.  By way of possible explanation for Southern's unexpectedly weak showing, it was the team's fifth day on the road.

The 56-point effort was the highest first half scoring effort since the Commodores led Western Kentucky 60-35 at half, December 18, 1999.  It was three points more than last year's 53-35 first half performance against Hampton in the Hawaii Thanksgiving Classic.  Most of the ten three-pointers came from an expected source (Matt Freije (5-4) and an unexpected one (Russell Lakey, 7-4).  Freije scored 22 points, Brian Thornton 18, and Lakey 15 with eight assists.

The Connecticut Huskies have been picked 18th in the country this year by BLUE RIBBON COLLEGE BASKETBALL FORECAST.  Two other annuals rated them 16th and 20th.  In their first two games they defeated Quinnipiac 91-72 and George Washington 67-55 in home games.  Coach Jim Calhoun has a career head coaching record of 624-286, and 376-149 in 16 years at Connecticut, and his 1998-99 team won the NCAA championship.  Last year, in the first meeting between Connecticut and Vanderbilt in men's basketball, in Storrs CT, Connecticut won 86-71 after racing out to a 47-24 halftime lead.

Connecticut suffered two significant losses from their 27-7 team of last year.  All-American forward Caron Butler took with him a 20.3 points average, and 7.5 rebounds, when he decided to leave early for the NBA.  The other starting forward, hardworking Johnny Selvie, averaged 11.4 ppg and 6 rebounds, in his senior year.

For the first time this year, the Commodores will encounter a highly regarded big man, 6-9, 250 lbs, Emeka Okafor.  After averaging over four blocks per game last year, he turned aside eleven shots in the first two games this year, including a remarkable eight blocks in the George Washington game.  He also had 29 points and 24 rebounds in those two games.  He may be expected to play 35 minutes against Vanderbilt.

Connecticut has two players taller than Okafor.  7-0 senior Justin Brown won't play many minutes unless Okafor gets into serious foul trouble, but he is a decent backup center.  6-10 freshman Hilton Armstrong, from Peekskill NY, should also see limited action.

Calhoun has two 6-8 players available, namely sophomore Scott Hazleton and senior Mike Hayes, both of whom may play significant minutes.  Neither of them put up big numbers last year, or started either of the first two games this year, but they are capable players.  Hazleton was a McDonald's All-American, but hasn't yet become the star that he was expected to be, and didn't play against George Washington.

Three guards will play most of the game and they are good ones.  6-2 sophomore Ben Gordon averaged 12.6 points per game last year and fired in 39 points in the first two games this year.  He is an excellent outside shooter, and can do it all.  6-1 junior Taliek Brown is the point guard and top defender and scored 9.2 points and averaged over five assists last season and has twenty points and 14 assists so far this season.  6-2 senior Tony Robertson (11.3 points per game last season) had 21 points and hit four of five three pointers against George Washington.

A pair of 6-5 players, junior Shannon Tooles and freshman Denham Brown, both may start and certainly will see significant action.  Brown, possibly the best high school player ever developed in Canada, is almost certain to develop into a star.

Filling out the ranks are 6-4 sophomore Rashad Anderson and 6-5 sophomore Chad Wise.  Anderson was player-of-the-year in Florida in his senior year and Wise, from Arkansas, is a good shooter.

Connecticut will get terrific play from Okafor, Robertson, Gordon, and Taliek Brown.  The question to be answered is which of the others will step up?  Strictly on the basis of talent, Denham Brown and Anderson are likeliest to do so.  But the Huskies need some effective size to go along with Okafor, and it must come from Justin Brown, the underachieving Hazleton, and Hayes.

If this game was at Connecticut, the Huskies would be solid favorites.  But this is their first road game and Vanderbilt's size is likely to bother them.  Okafor will get his blocks and rebounds, and Taliek Brown his assists, so the key may be in keeping Robertson and Gordon under reasonable control and not letting someone else (like Denham Brown) break loose.  Connecticut was only 30-10 in three-point shooting in the Quinnipiac and George Washington games, but the Huskies are VU-quite capable of having the same type of shooting night as Vanderbilt had against Georgia Southern.  The prediction here is for a close game and quite possibly a Vanderbilt victory.

The game takes place at 8:00 PM, Sunday, December 1 in Memorial Gymnasium. Top Stories