'Dores Meet Tide in Tourney Opener

After a 1-5 start to conference play, the Vanderbilt men won seven out of their last ten games to reach .500 in the SEC and bring some serious momentum into this weekend's SEC Tournament. The Commodores likely need to leave Tampa with a championship to reach the Big Dance, a mission that begins Thursday evening as the ‘Dores take on 4th-seeded Alabama in first-round action.

Alabama At-A-Glance

Like Vanderbilt, the Crimson Tide (17-13, 7-9) enters tournament action on a bit of a roll, having won four of their last five games.  Interim coach Philip Pearson appears to have righted the ship in Tuscaloosa after losing six of the previous seven games to fall to 3-8 in conference.  Since then, Alabama has beaten West rivals Mississippi State and Ole Miss, and the Tide stunned Tennessee on an Anthony Brock half-court buzzer beater in the regular-season finale.

The Tide has turned up its offensive play in conference games, ranking in the league's top half in scoring (73.9 ppg) and field goal percentage (44.4 percent).  Though they don't have a player in the top 15 in SEC three-pointers and rank last in the league in trifectas, Alabama has been very efficient from beyond the arc.  The team shoots 37.2 percent from long distance, good for second in the conference.  Such efficiency adds another element to an athletic squad that can get points in the post, off the dribble, and on the offensive glass.  Alabama's 13.5 offensive boards per game rank second in the SEC.

In the sole meeting between Vanderbilt and Alabama this season, the Commodores beat the Tide 79-74 in Memorial behind 20 points each from A.J. Ogilvy and Jermaine Beal.

Starting Lineup

Alonzo Gee – Senior, 6-6, 219 lbs. – Strong, athletic wingman leads Alabama with 15.0 points per game in conference play.  Playmaker with the ability to score from anywhere on the court, off the jumper or off the dribble.  Key stat: Gee averages 7.2 rebounds per game in SEC games, including 3.0 offensive boards.  Keeping him off the glass is a must for Vanderbilt, especially after his own misses around the basket.

JaMychal Green – Freshman, 6-9, 225 lbs. – Precocious forward averaged 11.6 points and 7.9 rebounds in SEC play to earn a spot on the All-Freshman squad.  Can score with either hand around the basket and is relentless on the glass, leading the Tide in offensive rebounds.  Key stat: Averaging 3.0 turnovers per game over the past five games.  Forcing Green to put the ball on the floor and collapsing on the big man could fluster him into rushed shots or ill-advised skip pass attempts.

Senario Hillman – Sophomore, 6-1, 188 lbs. – Jumping jack off-guard has blossomed into solid second scoring option (13.1 ppg).  Quick off the dribble and a strong finisher around the rim.  Athleticism translates well to defense; Hillman averages 1.4 steals per game as well.  Key stat: 12-for-26 (46.1 percent) on three-pointers in his last six games.

Mikhail Torrance – Junior, 6-5, 210 lbs. – Forced into point guard role with departure of Ronald Steele, now leads Tide with 3.3 assists per game.  Decent three-point shooter (33.3 percent), more effective off the dribble and in the lane, where he can find open shooters or get to the free throw line.  Key stat: 89.3 percent free throw shooter in SEC play.

Justin Knox – Sophomore, 6-9, 240 lbs. – Wide-bodied forward is a good rebounder (4.9 rpg) with a decent touch around the basket.  A bit too slow a defender for A.J. Ogilvy, as Ogilvy scored 20 points against the Tide with Knox manning the center spot.  Key stat: Scored just five points and grabbed four rebounds against the ‘Dores in Nashville.

Bench

Anthony Brock, a 5-9 guard, averages 5.4 points and around a steal per game, and his half-court heroics downed Tennessee on Sunday.  He and Ronald's brother Andrew Steele (3.4 ppg) spell Hillman and Torrance in the backcourt.

Up front, 6-9 Yamene Coleman (3.7 ppg, 3.8 rpg) and 6-7 Demetrius Jemison (3.3 ppg, 3.2 rpg) offer some size and decent defensive ability.

Keys to the Game

Crash Course – According to Ken Pomeroy, Alabama grabs 37.6 percent of the offensive rebounds available to snatch, placing them in the top 40 nationally.  The Tide boasts two players (Green and Gee) in the top seven in the SEC in offensive rebounding.  The ‘Dores held Alabama below its average in Nashville, allowing them ten offensive boards and only 13 second-chance points.  Given Vanderbilt's recent offensive surge, a similar effort should be enough to keep ‘Bama at bay.

Limit Penetration – Though Senario Hillman and Mikhail Torrance had sub-par shooting performances in Memorial, they combined to go 10-for-10 from the free throw line and created perimeter opportunities by getting into the lane off the dribble.  The Tide as a whole are much more comfortable penetrating and kicking out or feeding the post than creating offense from the perimeter; if the ‘Dores can plug some of their defensive holes and maintain the excellent interior defense they displayed in their win over ‘Bama, they should be able to score a date with Tennessee.

Prediction:  Alabama is riding a hot streak of its own, but Vanderbilt is playing its best basketball of the season and some of the best in the conference.  A.J. Ogilvy has been unstoppable, Jermaine Beal and Jeff Taylor have increased their aggressiveness off the dribble, and the ‘Dores are shooting 45.2 percent from beyond the arc during their current three-game winning streak.  Alabama is a solid defensive squad, but if the Commodores continue to display the offensive balance they've shown lately, the Tide doesn't have enough firepower to hang with them.  Final Score: Vanderbilt 74, Alabama 67.

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