The Bisons, led by coach Scott Sanderson, rebounded from an 8-13 start to win nine consecutive games and finish with a 17-14 record in 2009. Lipscomb didn't win the Atlantic Sun's conference tournament, but its late-season push earned the respect of those who follow the one-bid conference.
The Bisons have been picked as a preseason co-favorite (alongside Jacksonville) in the Atlantic Sun. The main reason for Lipscomb's lofty standing is the fact that Sanderson will have four returning starters on hand, the only departure being point guard Michael Lusk. George Washington transfer Johnny Lee, a senior, is the likely opening night starter against Vandy, but freshman Zach Brown will compete with Lee at the point in the early stages of the new season. Jacob Arnett is also considered to be part of the backcourt mix for Lipscomb, but he's viewed by Sanderson as a wing more than a point guard.
Center (5) Adnan Hodzic -- Junior, 6-9, 255 pounds; 2008-09 season averages: 17.1 points per game, 7.1 rebounds per game
If Lipscomb has a meal-ticket performer, it's Hodzic, who more than doubled his 2007-08 scoring average last year. Born overseas in Sarajevo, Hodzic has taken his game from the Bosnian capital to Music City U.S.A. in fine fashion. On a team of shooters, Hodzic's low-post scoring ability will make Lipscomb hard to defend. One thing to watch for in this game will be Hodzic's passing out of the low post to his three-point-loving teammates. The Bisons averaged 76.5 points a game last season, and reached an 82.4-per-game clip during their nine-game winning streak. Hodzic was the man who made it all happen, so he'll be the first point of concern for Vandy's coaching staff.
Power Forward (4) Brandon Brown – Junior, 6-7, 215; 2008-09: 9.1 PPG, 5.8 RPG
Brown is referred to by Sanderson as a "slasher," which tells you something about Lipscomb's approach to breaking down opponents at the offensive end of the floor. If Brown is this team's primary rebounding forward (and he is), it shows that Sanderson will employ a version of small ball against the Commodores. The Bisons appear to be "Butler Lite," a less athletic but still very dangerous collection of players who shoot, spread the court, and force opposing defenses to make certain choices. Brown might not have the beef of a typical rebounding forward, but his lack of width near the basket should not lead Vandy defenders to underestimate his level of effectiveness.
Small Forward (3) Michael Teller – Junior, 6-5, 190; 2008-09: 8.3 PPG, 5 RPG
Teller fits into the larger Lipscomb mold. Sanderson said "he does not turn the ball over much," and that the third-year player "is not a great one-on-one defender, but… a very good team defender. If he is not guarding the ball he knows where to be defensively." In other words, Teller is one of those supremely valuable glue guys, the kind of performer whose impact on a game will not be revealed primarily by the stat sheet. What you don't see in a Michael Teller stat line truly tells the tale. If Hodzic's low-post passing is the primary engine for Lipscomb's ball movement, Teller often serves as a conduit who gets the ball to other shooters on the club.
Shooting Guard (2) Josh Slater – Junior, 6-3, 200; 2008-09: 11 PPG, 4.7 RPG, 3.2 assists per game
Slater would obviously rank as one of CBS analyst Clark Kellogg's favorites. This "stat sheet stuffer supreme" was extremely productive last season as a scorer, rebounder and passer from the two-guard slot, and he should only be better this year. Of particular importance to Sanderson and the rest of the coaching staff will be Slater's ability to create shots for himself, since the Bisons are likely to have at least some growing pains at the point guard position. Slater's use of the dribble will be a point of focus for the Commodore backcourt.
Point Guard (1) Johnny Lee – Senior, 5-9, 165; 2008-09 at George Washington: 1.9 PPG, 1.7 APG
This is where the mystery begins and ends for Lipscomb in the season to come. Lee is a senior who knows his way around a gym, but the transfer hasn't played with his brother Bisons before. The extent to which Lee blends in with his teammates and grasps Sanderson's system will play a large role in shaping the contours of Lipscomb's season, especially in the first few weeks of competition. Lee's performance – which will also help to determine how much playing time Zach Brown receives – is the biggest question mark in this contest, and it's also likely to be the most important key to this collision at Memorial Gym.
Flowing from an overview of Lipscomb's starting lineup, it follows that Zach Brown and Jacob Arnett, two backcourt performers, could loom large before the evening's over. If Lee can't cut the mustard at the point, Brown and Arnett will gain extended minutes.
Elsewhere on the bench, Sanderson has a number of good options to turn to. Staying on the perimeter, shooting guard Jordan Burgason is Lipscomb's foremost sniper, the long-range specialist who is asked to come into a game and bomb away. Burgason, who isn't a starter because of his suspect defense, hit 11 3-pointers in his final four games last season. Whenever he steps onto the floor, Vandy will need to guard him… even if it's 25 feet from the basket.
Another player the Dores will have to keep an eye on is forward Brian Wright, a reserve who scored 12 points in Lipscomb's final game last season, an 88-72 loss to Jacksonville in the second round of the Atlantic Sun Conference Tournament. Wright, at 6-6, is something of a hybrid player who can mix it up near the rim but also step beyond the arc and drain threes. Nine of his 12 points in that season-ending loss to Jacksonville came from triples, so in addition to Burgason, Wright is another mad bomber whom Vanderbilt simply can't ignore. When Sanderson goes to his bench in this contest, chances are he'll be bringing a very competent shooter into the game. That's the personality the Bisons bring to this 2009-10 season.
Keys to the Game
- Ezeli can't make things easy for Hodzic. Vanderbilt's star center, A.J. Ogilvy, will not be starting in this game but should see action, but in this game, the limited presence of the Australian's scoring punch doesn't have to put the Dores at a disadvantage. Backup center Festus Ezeli, who will start in place of Ogilvy, doesn't need to put the ball in the basket to make a really big impact on the proceedings. Ezeli has teammates who can fill it up from any spot on the court; VU's other man in the middle has to spend his time and energy denying Hodzic in the low post. Precisely because Lipscomb has a team (and a bench) full of perimeter shooters, Ezeli will have to contain Hodzic in a lot of one-on-one battles near the low blocks. By using his size to bother Hodzic – the Bisons' best player – Ezeli will allow Vandy's other four defenders to lock down on the perimeter and choke off the good ball movement the Atlantic Sun upstarts depend upon for offensive production. Any points thrown down by Festus will represent a bonus for Kevin Stallings; as long as Mr. Ezeli delivers a big defensive night, Vandy can follow a sure and safe path to victory.
- The point is the pressure point. Other than the Ezeli-Hodzic mano-a-mano matchup near the rim, the game's other key confrontation occurs at the point. Indeed, the other big pressure point in this game will emerge in full relief when Lee, or any other point guard for Lipscomb, tries to operate against Jermaine Beal and Brad Tinsley. If the Commodore backcourt can smother the Bisons at the top of the key and disrupt Lipscomb's halfcourt offense, the visitors will not be able to waltz into Memorial Gym and pull off an opening-night upset. Lipscomb owns the ingredients (quality shooting, depth, veteran experience, good offensive spacing) needed to create mayhem in an early-season contest, but as long as Vandy puts its best foot forward on defense, the home team should pass a truly tricky test.