Scouting Report: Illinois-Chicago

An undermanned Vanderbilt squad went south of the border this past weekend and came back champions of the inaugural Cancun Challenge after fending off a pair of tough mid-majors. At 5-1, the Commodores return home Wednesday to take on Illinois-Chicago and try to extend a four-game winning streak.

Vandy's Last Game

After a relatively easy win over Drake and an impressive first half against Virginia Commonwealth, it appeared as though Vanderbilt would roll to a tournament title. The Rams had other ideas, though, using frenzied backcourt pressure to force the Commodores into 15 second-half turnovers. VCU cut the lead, once as big as 16, to two points with 1:18 remaining, but the ‘Dores sank their free throws in the final 75 seconds to clinch the win.

A.J. Ogilvy dominated the Rams, scoring 25 points on 11-16 shooting. The sophomore center finished around the rim much better than in previous games this season, and he also showcased some range, stepping out behind the arc to knock down a pair of three-pointers. As a team, the short-handed Commodores found their shooting touch for the second straight game, converting 7-of-13 three-point attempts and 26-of-30 from the free throw line.

Defensively, Vanderbilt had no answer for Eric Maynor, who torched the Commodores for 31 points. Without the services of four players who stand 6-7 or taller, the ‘Dores lacked the size to keep Maynor and forward Larry Sanders out of the lane. The Rams shot 51.4 percent in the second half, the best shooting half Vanderbilt has allowed this season. The return of Festus Ezeli and Steve Tchiengang on Wednesday should shore up some of the defensive problems on the interior.

Illinois-Chicago At-A-Glance

The Flames (3-2) enter Wednesday's game having won two in a row after dropping two of their first three. Coach Jimmy Collins returns his top three scorers after finishing fourth in the Horizon League last season and has hopes that his squad can contend for a league title this year. Wednesday's game will be the Flames' second of three against major-conference opponents; they lost a close contest to DePaul and will play Georgia Tech immediately after the Commodores face the Jackets.

Most recently, UIC beat Central Michigan behind 20 points from its leading scorer, Josh Mayo. The Flames shot 51.1 percent from the floor and held the Chippewas to just 39.0 percent shooting. Armed with a sharpshooting guard and a legitimate big man, UIC will not be an easy victim for the ‘Dores.

Starting Lineup

Josh Mayo – Senior, 5-11, 175 lbs. – The offensive leader of the Flames, Mayo was the only player on his team to average double figures in scoring (17.1 ppg). Though he's gotten more help this year, he's still managed to increase his output to 19.0 points per contest. The senior is a prolific three-point shooter; after knocking down 94 three-pointers last season for an average of 2.8 per game, Mayo has made 14 triples this season to maintain that average. His natural position is on the wing, but he has some point guard skills as well, dishing out 3.2 assists per game both this season and last. Through the first five games, Mayo has been more efficient inside the arc than ever before, converting 15-of-25 two-point shots. And, as always, he's been deadly from the free throw line. A career 85.3 percent shooter from the stripe, Mayo has made 88.5 percent of his freebies this season.

Scott VanderMeer – Senior, 7-0, 255 lbs. – True 7-footers who are as good as VanderMeer are generally hard to come by in mid-major leagues. Always a menace on the defensive end, the senior has added some scoring punch to his repertoire this season. He's scoring 13.0 points per game this season, and though his 45.1 percent shooting is a bit low for a big man with limited range, it's the highest VanderMeer has posted in his four seasons. As for defense, his game needs no further refinement. VanderMeer blocked 3.5 shots per game his sophomore year and 2.6 per contest last season. Through five games this season, the big man has swatted 17 shots already. VanderMeer also averages a team-best 8.0 rebounds per game, nearly half of which have come on the offensive end.

Robo Kreps – Sophomore, 6-0, 185 lbs. – After a successful freshman campaign, Kreps has earned a starting role and increased minutes this season and hasn't disappointed. He's become more aggressive on the offensive end, bringing his shooting percentages down a bit but increasing his output to 12.2 points per game. Kreps doesn't have the range of Mayo, but he did shoot 46.2 percent from three-point land last season and made five of his nine attempts from distance in a loss at Bradley. The primary focus of the Vanderbilt backcourt should be Mayo, but the ‘Dores can't afford to sleep on Kreps.

Spencer Stewart – Junior, 6-4, 185 lbs. – Stewart serves as facilitator of the UIC offense. Limited in his scoring abilities (4.6 ppg), the junior concentrates on setting up his more offensive-inclined teammates. He sets them up well, averaging a team-high 5.0 assists per game. His turnovers should come down from their current 3.2 per game, as he posted an assist-to-turnover ratio of 1.61 last season. Stewart's height and defensive-mindedness allows Coach Collins to play the undersized Mayo and Kreps together. He shares the team lead with 1.8 steals per contest.

Rob Eppinger – Junior, 6-8, 240 lbs. – Eppinger is in his first year at UIC after transferring from junior college, and he's provided the Flames with some much-needed bulk. Averaging 5.8 points per game, Eppinger has rightfully taken a back seat in the scoring department, but his contributions have been felt both on the glass and on the defensive end. The junior's 4.0 rebounds per game are good for second on the team, and at 240 pounds, he'll be able to hold his own against the big Commodore forwards.

Bench

Sophomore Tori Boyd has responded to an increase in minutes by becoming an important part of the Flames' offense. The 6-5 swingman is averaging 11.0 points per game, and he's filled the role of athletic slasher that complements the perimeter games of Mayo and Kreps. Boyd is capable of draining the three-pointer, as evidenced by his 4-for-5 effort against Northern Iowa. Since then, though, his outside shot has deserted him, as he's gone 0-for-7 from deep in his last three games.

Texas Tech transfer Jeremy Buttell rounds out the Flames' regular rotation. The 6-7 junior is primarily a rebounder and defensive presence. He averaged just 3.7 points per game a year ago and has scored two points through five games this season.

Keys to the Game

Hold the Mayo – Despite Eric Maynor's big day, Vanderbilt actually played solid perimeter defense against VCU. The Rams shot just 27.3 percent from beyond the arc, and while Maynor got into the lane at will for much of the game, the Commodores won't face a player with his quickness until they see South Carolina's Devan Downey. Josh Mayo can score in the lane, but he's more containable than a guy like Maynor. Where he'll hurt the ‘Dores is from 23 feet away from the basket; the Vanderbilt guards must keep pressure on Mayo no matter where he is on the floor. If they can contest his outside shots like they did against VCU, the Commodores will have stopped a big part of the UIC offense. Through five games, when Mayo has shot less than 50.0 percent from the floor, the Flames have lost.

Size Matters – The only team Vanderbilt has faced with as much size as the Flames is their neighbors, the Fighting Illini of Illinois. Though Ogilvy led the ‘Dores with 13 points against the Illini, he was never really able to establish himself on the offensive end. The Flames boast a 7-foot defensive stud in VanderMeer and another burly big man in Eppinger. Ogilvy showed off some impressive versatility against a great shot blocker in VCU's Larry Sanders. If he can demonstrate the same patience against VanderMeer, he should be able to get his points. If not, Jermaine Beal and Brad Tinsley will have to keep up their efficiency from the perimeter for the ‘Dores to fend off UIC. Keep an eye on VanderMeer's foul situation, as the Flames' center averages four fouls per game.

Prediction: Where the ‘Dores can really exploit the Flames is on the wing. Even without Lance Goulbourne and Andre Walker, Vanderbilt has the size on the perimeter to cause problems for the undersized UIC guards. Ogilvy will again be the key to the offense, but watch for a big game from Jeff Taylor, and expect the ‘Dores to pull away in the second half as the Flames' starters play too many minutes to keep up with the athletic hosts. Final score: Vanderbilt 74, Illinois-Chicago 63.


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