Danger In Paradise: Maui Invitational Preview

Vanderbilt's hoopster have eased into their season, playing only two games since most of the nation hit the hardwood in the second week of November. But now Kevin Stallings's students will play three games in as many days at the Maui Invitational, the November tournament with more staying power and prestige than the Preseason NIT and the Big Ten-ACC Challenge.

Vanderbilt's opening game, on Monday afternoon against Cincinnati (5:30 p.m. Eastern, ESPN2), is particularly significant for the simple reason that a victory would enable the Dores to face (in all likelihood) Maryland in the winners' bracket on Tuesday. No offense to Chaminade, Maryland's Monday opponent, but Vandy needs to be tested in Hawaii in order for the tournament to be a success.

NCAA Tournament positioning won't be affected by VU's placing in this eight-team event. The significance of that fact is that if Vandy finishes in third place, but does so on the basis of wins over Cincinnati and (on Wednesday) Wisconsin or Gonzaga, a Tuesday loss to Maryland won't matter that much. The Dores need to play three good teams, and win at least two games. Such a showing - with a Chaminade-free slate – will improve VU's RPI rating come March.

NOTE: Since Cincinnati is a guaranteed opponent and Maryland a likely one, we'll examine those two squads, the Bearcats in particular. With four possible opponents on Wednesday, we'll make a brief mention of Colorado, Arizona, Wisconsin, and Gonzaga, the four teams that comprise the other half of the Maui bracket.

CINCINNATI AT-A-GLANCE

The 2009-10 Bearcats haven't tested themselves in the first weeks of the season. When coach Mick Cronin brings his ballclub to the Lahaina Civic Center, the middle-tier Big East program will begin to both develop and discover an identity. One fundamental key for Vanderbilt is to avoid the temptation to think that Cincinnati's early-season games are an accurate reflection of this team.

Starting Lineup

Center – Steve Toyloy -- Senior, 6-8, 255 pounds; 2008-09 season averages: 3.9 points per game, 3.8 rebounds per game

If centers are dominant, they ring up big numbers; if they're Steve Toyloy, they rebound and play defense, adding value to a team with intangible contributions. That's the short story on Cincy's center, who averaged just 16 minutes a game last season, and has been relatively quiet this season. In UC's first two contests, against Prairie View and Toledo, Toyloy has averaged 23 minutes and has managed only three points. The big plus, though, for Cronin and Co. is that the native of West Palm Beach, Fla., has pulled down an average of seven rebounds for Cincy. A low-point, high-rebound game from Toyloy will suit the Bearcats, provided that Toyloy can defend with distinction against Festus Ezeli and A.J. Ogilvy.

Forward – Yancy Gates – Sophomore, 6-9, 260; 2008-09: 10.6 PPG, 6.1 RPG

If Toyloy is an intangible asset to Cincinnati, Gates is this team's manly meal ticket near the rim. There once was a man named Gates who took college basketball by storm in the state of Ohio – Antonio Gates, the very same Kent State star on the Golden Flashes' 2003 Elite Eight outfit, who now plays tight end for the San Diego Chargers. No, this Gates doesn't play football, but he's built a lot like Philip Rivers's good buddy and plays the power forward position. Yancy Gates will be a tough man to defend for the Dores, given his combination of raw power and abundant athleticism. Anyone who could average 11 and 6 in his freshman season should do better in a sophomore campaign, and that law of averages makes Cincinnati an even tougher opponent in this game.

Forward – Lance Stephenson – Freshman, 6-5, 210; 2008-09: N/A; 2009-10 to date: 11.5 PPG, 3.5 RPG (two games)

This is the true powder keg which sits in front of Vandy, waiting to go off if the Dores aren't careful. Stephenson was extremely nervous in UC's opening contests, but now that he's gotten at least some feel for the college game, he could explode. Just how much potential resides in Stephenson? Check out what ESPN analyst Fran Fraschilla (a former college coach at Manhattan, St. John's, and New Mexico) had to say about this freshman on Nov. 13:

Stephenson, Fraschilla said, "will be the Big East's highest-drafted player after this season. Georgetown's Greg Monroe might have something to say about this, but reports out of the Queen City have been extremely positive about Stephenson. There's no denying his NBA potential as a swing man. He has had the body of a pro since he was 16, and he gets to the lane at will, scores like he breathes and is a deceptively good passer. The usual maturity issues will hang over Stephenson's head for a while, but if he can keep his emotions in check and develop into a good teammate, he could be the catalyst for a Bearcats resurgence this year -- and Mick Cronin's gamble will have paid off for everyone involved."

Feel better, Vandy fans? Yeah, me neither.

Guard – Cashmere Wright – Freshman, 6-0, 175; 2008-09: N/A; 2009-10 to date: 9.5 PPG, 2.5 RPG (two games)

Wright's place in Cincinnati's starting lineup is a mixed blessing. On one hand, the freshman – as seen in his statistical profile – is on the verge of becoming a double-digit scorer without the need to round up from the nearest decimal point. Yet, Wright's presence in Cronin's starting five also shows that sophomore Dion Dixon and junior Larry Davis lack the chops needed to be starters. We don't yet know if Wright is an answer to pre-existing problems for Cincinnati, or if the newcomer is a freshman who is merely the best of a set of not-too-appealing alternatives for the Bearcats' coaching staff.

Guard – Deonta Vaughn – Senior, 6-1, 190; 2008-09: 15.3 PPG, 4.7 assists per game, 4.0 RPG

Vaughn carried Cincinnati to the NIT last season, and is certainly Cronin's most proven performer. The Indianapolis native distributes the ball the way a guard should, but not at the expense of his scoring. Moreover, Vaughn crashes the glass in support of his big men and impacts a game in multiple ways. At least, that was the book on the senior coming into this season.

So far in November of 2009, this veteran has vexed his coaching staff. Vaughn was benched for the start of the second half in UC's ugly win over Prairie View on Nov. 16, and according to Rob Dauster of the blogsite Ballin' Is A Habit, "Vaughn seems to lack the leadership qualities that Cronin is looking for." We'll see which version of Vaughn – the good one or the bad one – shows up in Maui.

Bench

In the above section on Cashmere Wright, we mentioned two of UC's primary reserves, Dion Dixon and Larry Davis. Dixon is mostly a slasher, while Davis is a shooter. Stallings and his staff will surely mention these scouting points to their players, but Vandy's roster must actually go out and defend in accordance with the Bearcats' tendencies. Cincinnati's most reliable bench player at the moment is forward Rashad Bishop. After playing in 30 games for the Bearcats last season, the 6-6 junior forward has started the new season in style by averaging 14 points and 5.5 boards in two outings. Even though he's not starting, Bishop will need to have VU's full attention whenever he steps onto the floor.

Keys to the Game

  1. Lockdown at Lahaina. The Bearcats are struggling at point guard, they lack scoring punch at the center spot, and their McDonalds All-American – Lance Stephenson – has yet to hit his stride. Offenses generally take more time to gel than defenses do, so if the Dores can throw their very best defense at the Bearcats, there's a good chance that Cincinnati will unravel. Vandy is a more cohesive team right now, due to the fact that Vaughn, Cincy's senior point guard, has encountered such pronounced turbulence with Cronin. It's a very alarming sign when senior point guard and head coach don't get along; perhaps UC will address its problems as the season continues, but right now, the Dores are more unified. If VU can apply relentless defensive pressure, the smart money says that the Bearcats won't be able to make the necessary adjustments.
 
  1. Stop Stephenson. If team defense is VU's top priority, stopping Stephenson is the even more specific need for Kevin Stallings. Stephenson might be erratic as the campaign continues, but all it takes is one big night for Cincy to play Maryland, and for Vandy to face Chaminade in the consolation bracket. Jeffery Taylor or anyone else who draws Stephenson must be committed to defense first; the offensive end of the floor will take care of itself as long as VU is preventing UC from scoring.
 

MARYLAND AT-A-GLANCE

The Terrapins are 3-0, but coach Gary Williams's team has played three tomato cans – Charleston Southern, Fairfield and New Hampshire – in order to avoid an early-season defeat. Moreover, a first-round Monday matchup with Chaminade should have the Terps at 4-0 if they meet Vandy in a likely winners' bracket battle on Tuesday.

Starting Lineup

NOTE: There are no true centers in Maryland's starting lineup (a lineup projected based on the starting five used in UM's most recent game, a Nov. 20 win over New Hampshire)

Forward – Landon Milbourne -- Senior, 6-7, 207 pounds; 2008-09 season averages: 11.4 points per game, 5.2 rebounds per game

Milbourne was a starter last season, averaging 29 minutes a game and representing a solid complementary performer for a team that reached the second round of the NCAA Tournament. More will be asked of Milbourne this year, but the young man from Roswell, Ga., will have to rely on his agility and experience, because he's certainly undersized.

Guard-Forward – Cliff Tucker – Junior, 6-6, 190; 2008-09: 4.5 PPG, 1.6 RPG

Tucker is the least experienced Maryland starter, having logged only 12 minutes a game in 2008-09. Tucker's  tweener status obviously shows that he can be a versatile and multi-dimensional presence on a small Terrapin team, but the jury's still out on his ability to produce with the consistency his coaching staff requires. 

Guard – Eric Hayes – Senior, 6-4, 184; 2008-09: 12 PPG, 4 assists per game

Hayes is the sniper, the long-range shooting specialist, on the Terps. Hayes doesn't cut an imposing figure on the floor, but his deadeye release and an ability to work around screens make him a primary point of focus for the Dores. Hayes isn't a great ballhandler or a dynamic defender, but his work ethic and perseverance more than make up for any athletic deficits he possesses. This is a player who can lurk in the shadows for a long time, only to reel off three 3-pointers in a 90-second span. If Vandy has a tenuous four-point lead with three minutes left, Hayes could rise up and send Kevin Stallings into the third-place game on Wednesday (provided the Terps and Dores meet on Tuesday).

Guard – Adrian Bowie – Junior, 6-2, 190; 2008-09: 9 PPG, 3 RPG, 2.5 APG

Bowie played 24 minutes a game last year, so this agile athlete – with a decent shot and an ability to penetrate – is a multi-skilled force who can work in concert with his backcourt mates. Bowie isn't a devastating solo flyer, but he represents a good fit on a team that gets the vast majority of its offensive production from its guards. Bowie doesn't need to be shut down in a one-on-one context; he needs to be dealt with in Kevin Stallings's overall defensive scheme.

Guard – Greivis Vasquez – Senior, 6-6, 190; 2008-09: 17.5 PPG, 5.4 RPG, 5 assists per game

Plainly put, Vasquez is one of the foremost stars in the ACC, and one of the great players in Maryland history. The wiry guard from Venezuela did everything for the Terps last year, statistically producing while also stepping into a primary leadership role and injecting a fresh dose of swagger into his teammates. Vasquez willed his club into the NCAA Tournament, carrying the Turtles to a huge regular-season win over eventual national champion North Carolina and then a massive ACC Tournament triumph over Wake Forest. The big problem Vasquez poses to Vanderbilt is that this big guard can find teammates when he draws a disproportionate share of defensive attention. Vandy needs to contain Vasquez, but not to the extent that Eric Hayes and Adrian Bowie get easy 3-point looks.

Bench

Sean Mosley averaged 19 minutes a game last season for Gary Williams, and he produced a 13-point, 10-assist game on Friday against New Hampshire. If the 6-4 sophomore provides production anywhere close to 13 and 10 in Maui, Vanderbilt will be in trouble. Elsewhere on the Terps' pine line is freshman Jordan Williams, a beefy 6-9 power forward who has seen substantial playing time this season. If Williams – currently averaging 8.7 points and 7 rebounds a contest in November – remains relentless on the glass, Maryland will stand a good chance of remaining competitive against a taller Vandy front line. The third main reserve for the Turtles is 6-8 forward James Padgett, a freshman who has made a meaningful contribution so far. The Brooklyn, N.Y., product has chipped in per-game averages of 7.3 points and 6 rebounds. Williams (Jordan, not Gary) and Padgett are the faces of Maryland's future; if they can grow up quickly, the boys from the ACC could upend the Commodores if the two teams meet on Tuesday.

Keys to the Game

  1. Vanquish Vasquez. This is a clear-cut case – far more than VU's game against Cincinnati – of one team being unusually reliant on one player. If the Dores can defend Vasquez, they will cut off the head of the Terps and defeat Maryland at its strongest point. Smothering the Venezuelan star would be great, but at the very least, VU has to ensure that Vasquez doesn't get his teammates involved. If Vasquez makes solo forays to the hoop and hits tough shots, that's one thing; if he's kicking out to wide-open 3-point shooters, this contest could spiral out of control for Stallings and Co.
 
  1. Dominate inside. If the Saint Mary's game demanded that Vandy merely play even underneath the basket, this is a different animal for VU. The Dores' post players, Festus Ezeli and A.J. Ogilvy, will be going against younger and smaller counterparts. Vandy can play volleyball on the glass and shoot over the top of the Terps' defenders on the blocks. If Vasquez does dismantle the Dores on the perimeter, Vandy can still win if it destroys Maryland near the rim.
 WEDNESDAY OPPONENTS IN BRIEF 

    Arizona is a much-depleted team now that Jordan Hill and Chase Budinger have departed for the NBA. Point guard Nic Wise is the Wildcats' only bona-fide star, and that will leave coach Sean Miller shorthanded early in this season. Gonzaga also lost a number of valuable core performers (guard Jeremy Pargo, forward Austin Daye, wing Micah Downs, and center Josh Heytvelt), but the Zags played extremely well in a narrow road loss at No. 2 Michigan State on Nov. 17. Coach Mark Few has the Bulldogs in position to be an at-large NCAA Tournament team once again. Wisconsin, among the eight teams in Maui, has the most established identity, the kind of personality that just doesn't change from year to year. Coach Bo Ryan gets the Badgers to defend and rebound as doggedly as any team in the country; playing against them is as pleasant as having a root canal. Colorado has languished near the bottom of the Big 12 for a long time, and hasn't made the NCAA Tournament since a fellow named Chauncey Billups laced up the sneakers in Boulder. Nothing suggests that this season will bring about a transformation of the Buffaloes' fortunes. 
     

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