Vandy's Last Game
The Commodores unleashed all their offensive frustrations on Alabama A&M, shooting 71.4 percent in the first half en route to their highest scoring total in the past five games. Jeffery Taylor led the home team with 18 points on 8-of-9 shooting and captured SEC Freshman of the Week honors with his performance.
On the defensive end, the Commodores' size proved too much for the Bulldogs to handle. The visitors shot just 32.3 percent from the floor and failed to establish any kind of scoring threat in the post. On Tuesday, Vanderbilt will see a similar, though superior, perimeter-oriented attack from South Florida.
South Florida At-A-Glance
Led by former Arkansas coach Stan Heath, the Bulls hope that the addition of star transfer Mike Mercer can help to offset the loss of double-double machine Kentrell Gransberry to graduation. Excluding Gransberry, South Florida returns all its starters from last year's squad, which finished just 3-15 in Big East play. The experienced returnees have already been pushed by a large group of newcomers, most notably Mercer.
The Bulls (3-4) have lost three straight heading into the SEC/Big East Invitational, most recently dropping a 70-55 home contest to Niagara on Sunday. The game was Mercer's first in a South Florida uniform. Prior to Sunday, Stan Heath's team lost on the road to UAB and Central Florida. Their last win was a 55-37 victory over Northeastern.
Despite boasting two players averaging better than 17.0 points per game, South Florida's offense has been relatively nonexistent. Though their best players are guards, the Bulls play at a slow pace, averaging just 63.4 points per game on 42.2 percent shooting. Their three-point shooting has been just slightly worse than Vanderbilt's (31.9% vs. 32.5%), but the Bulls have really shot themselves in the foot at the free throw line, where they shoot an abysmal 56.9 percent. For a team that depends on penetration and points in the paint, such poor efficiency from the stripe spells trouble.
Dominique Jones – Sophomore, 6-4, 205 lbs. – Last season, Jones made his freshman campaign a memorable one, bursting onto the Big East scene to lead his team in scoring with 17.1 points per game. The physical guard hasn't missed a beat this year even without Gransberry to draw double teams, averaging 17.0 points through the teams' first seven games. He's had to take more shots to get his points this season, shooting just 41.3 percent from the floor compared to last year's 46.0 percent. Because he doesn't rely on the perimeter jumper, however, his shooting percentage is bound to rise. Jones uses a quick first step to get into the lane and has the strength to finish among big men. The sophomore also makes frequent trips to the free throw line; he attempted an eye-popping 162 foul shots last season. His size gives him an advantage over other guards on the glass, where he averages 4.9 rebounds per game, and his quickness makes him the Bulls' defensive catalyst.
Mike Mercer – Junior, 6-4, 190 lbs. – A former Georgia Bulldog, Mercer hasn't played in a game since tearing his ACL in Columbia in February of 2007. After being suspended for the first 15 games of last season, the Atlanta native decided to take his game south. The combo guard is an explosive athlete who, like Jones, prefers to get into the lane rather than take the outside jumper. After averaging 13.6 points per game as a sophomore in Athens, Mercer scored 12 points in his South Florida debut on Sunday. As he gets comfortable in game action, he should become one of the focal points of Stan Heath's offense. Defensively, Mercer gives his team another game-changing presence in the backcourt; he averaged nearly two steals a game in his career as a Bulldog.
Jesus Verdejo – Senior, 6-4, 205 lbs. – Verdejo has come on strong in his senior season to give the Bulls a true outside threat that complements slashers Jones and Mercer. He leads the team with 24 three-pointers on 45.3 percent shooting from beyond the arc, and his ability to can the open triple is something South Florida sorely needs. The rest of the team has made just 12 three-pointers combined. Currently leading the squad with 17.6 points per game, Verdejo has scored over half his points from three-point land. Though the senior can't match the athleticism of Jones or Mercer, he is perhaps the most dangerous Bull against a Vanderbilt team that has been susceptible to streaky outside shooters.
Chris Howard – Junior, 6-3, 200 lbs. – The fourth of four guards in the South Florida starting lineup is point guard Chris Howard. The junior's 3.9 assists per game are second only to Jones' 4.6. Though he isn't much of an offensive threat, averaging 8.0 points per game on 34.1 percent shooting, Howard is a savvy lead guard who has several weapons at his disposal. The junior has become a formidable defender as well, giving the Bulls a third guard averaging better than a steal per game.
Augustus Gilchrist – Freshman, 6-10, 235 – The lone forward in the Bulls' starting lineup is an imposing one. Gilchrist made his college debut in Sunday's loss to Niagara, scoring eight points and grabbing six boards in 26 minutes. As long as the Bulls employ their four-guard look, Gilchrist will be counted on to provide a physical post presence on the defensive end. The Bulls may be forced to play the freshman as the centerpiece of a zone against a sizable Vanderbilt frontcourt.
South Florida's bench is the inverse of its starting lineup; four big men and one guard round out the Bulls' regular rotation. Of the big men, 6-9 senior Aris Williams has received the most playing time. An efficient albeit limited scorer, Williams averages 6.3 points on 57.6 percent shooting. His value mostly stems from his rebounding, as he's snatching 5.6 boards per game, best among Bulls who have played at least two games this season.
Three more wide-bodies come off the bench along with Williams to fortify the paint. Eladio Espinosa, a 6-7 freshman, joins 6-9 senior Mobolaji Ajayi and 6-10 junior transfer Alex Rivas-Sanchez in providing some defensive muscle and a boost in rebounding. All three score between two and four points and grab between four and five rebounds per game.
Justin Leemow gives the Bulls a true point guard to plug in for Howard. The 6-1 freshman has scored in just two games this season but nailed three trifectas in a one-point loss to UAB.
Keys to the Game
Pick up the Pace – Unlike most teams that use a four-guard starting lineup, the Bulls do not like to push the tempo. They have lost every game in which their opponent has scored 70 or more points. Despite the fact that their top four minute-earners are guards, the Bulls are not a particularly good passing team, committing 14.4 turnovers per game and assisting just over half of their made field goals (Vanderbilt, by comparison, has assisted 61.3 percent of made field goals). The Commodores have already lost two low-scoring slugfests and have shown that they can succeed on the fast break and in the secondary break. With more weapons than the Bulls, Vanderbilt has a better chance of winning the higher the score gets.
Do Not Enter – True to tradition, the Commodores are susceptible to penetrating guards. South Florida has two quick, physical wings that thrive on beating defenders off the dribble and finishing in the lane. The ‘Dores who defend Jones and Mercer have two options. They can sag off of the pair a bit to avoid getting beat off the dribble, as Jones and Mercer are shooting a combined 14.8 percent from three-point range. If the Bulls' wings start to heat up from beyond the arc, though, the Commodore guards will be forced to pressure them out to 25 feet. Then, help defense becomes paramount. The ‘Dores have the size to hinder Jones and Mercer on their drives, but they must always be aware of kick-outs to the deadly Verdejo. However they choose to do it, the Commodores must limit the penetration of Jones and Mercer.
Prediction: If South Florida had an extra three-point shooter or played at a tempo that would nullify the Commodore forwards' ability to help in the paint, the Bulls would be the type of team that could give Vanderbilt fits. As it stands, though, they don't have much beyond the penetrating ability of Jones and Mercer with which to outscore the ‘Dores, especially considering their best lineup's lack of size. If the Commodores can convert on even a third of their perimeter shots, they should be able to open up the floor enough to push past the Bulls. Final score: Vanderbilt 73, South Florida 63.