Men's Hoops: East Tennessee State game preview

Emeka Okafor may be wondering if he shouldn't have pursued his basketball career at Vanderbilt and in Memorial Gym after all. Connecticut's shot-blocking center scored 25 points in the Huskies' 76-70 victory over the Commodores last Sunday. The Commodores (3-1) try to bounce back against East Tennessee State (1-2) Wedenesday evening at 7 p.m. at Memorial Gym.

Matt Freije led Vanderbilt with 18 points and also grabbed nine rebounds. Corey Smith had 14 points and Brian Thornton 13. Although Connecticut was usually in the driver's seat during the game, Vanderbilt was able to wipe out Connecticut's 38-31 halftime margin, and actually took the lead temporarily at one point in the second half. Without All-American Caron Butler and Johnnie Selvie, their starting forwards of last year, the Huskies appear to be less dynamic than they were a year ago. 

The East Tennessee State Bucs come into their game with Vanderbilt with a 1-2 record. After defeating Guilford (a non-division I team) 104-37 at home, they went on the road and lost to South Carolina 71-66 and UNC-Wilmington 78-57. In 2002-03, East Tennessee State had a record of 18-10, 11-5 in conference play, and this year they are the favorite to win the North Division of the Southern Conference. 

Vanderbilt has won all six of the previous meetings with East Tennessee State. Since Kevin Stallings became head basketball coach, the Commodores have played the Bucs each year in Nashville, winning by scores of 70-55, 87-76, and 86-77. In last year's game, Vanderbilt's players hit more than 50% of their shots from the field, including 23-11 from three-point territory, but the team was outrebounded and had to battle hard for victory. 

Coach Ed DeChellis has four returning starters, having lost only high-scoring guard Dimeco Childress. He has moved Ryan Lawson, 6-2 senior, from point to shooting guard, to fill Childress's role. After scoring 13 points in each of the first two games, Lawson was held scoreless by UNC-Wilmington. He is a good long-range bomber, having put up 117 three-pointers last season while averaging 9.2 ppg. 

Sam Oatman, 6-1 redshirt sophomore from Neenah WI, has been sharing the point guard duties with 5-9 freshman Tim Smith of Newport News VA. Oatman is not proving to be a scoring threat, having made only five points in the first three games. Smith broke out with 14 points in the UNC-Wilmington game, but has only three assists to date. Unless the point guard situation is resolved satisfactorily, ETSU will not fulfill its preseason promise. 

East Tennessee State's starting frontline lacks height, but 6-7 junior Jerald Fields, 6-5 junior Zakee Wadood, and 6-6 sophomore Tiras Wade, provide most of the team's firepower. 

The slender Wade (11.8 ppg last season) is averaging over 16 points per game. Last year his first-half scoring (including four three-pointers) kept the Bucs in the Vanderbilt game. 

Fields is a 270-pounder who can also go outside and shoot (4-3 from three-point range against South Carolina). He is averaging 10.7 points to date and leads the team in rebounding. Last year he averaged 13.5 ppg and grabbed 7.2 rebounds per game. 

Wadood is a strong 220-pounder, the team's best athlete, top returning scorer (14.5 ppg) and rebounder (9.2 rpg), and was a second-team all-conference player last season. However, he missed the Guilford game and has scored a total of only 16 points in the two games he has played this season. 

Brad Nuckles, 6-9 freshman from Council VA, started the Guilford game, scoring 12 points and pulling down 13 rebounds. In time he is likely to become the team's top player because of his wide range of skills (shooting, passing, rebounding). He is one of the most highly recruited players to have come into the East Tennessee State program. 

Other players who could see action for East Tennessee State are 6-2 sophomore James Anthony, 6-6 senior Isaac Potter, 6-3 Michael Tolliver, and 6-7 senior Shannon Huffstettler. Huffstettler has scored 19 points and pulled down 12 rebounds in two games, but didn't play against South Carolina. 

Two freshman recruits, 6-4 Ben Rhoda and 6-6 Howard Bridgers, have evidently been redshirted. 

East Tennessee State is obviously outmanned by Vanderbilt. However the Buccaneers extended South Carolina in the opening game of the new 18,000-seat Carolina Center. Their disappointing play at tough UNC-Wilmington, in which neither of the starting guards scored a point, was probably not typical. 

This game should be a Vanderbilt victory, most likely in the 8- to 20-point range. Top Stories