Both teams come in with identical 4-1 records, but the Commodores have some confidence after back-to-back wins over Chaminade and Arizona, while the Tigers are coming off their first loss of the season against Richmond. Vanderbilt could be catching Missouri at the right time, and will thusly have the chance to keep recent momentum going; on the other hand, the Tigers – intent on making a statement of their own – will try to shake off their recent defeat and get back to business.
The Tigers haven't exactly opened eyes with their non-conference schedule so far—their four wins are over Tennessee-Martin, Texas-Pan American, Chattanooga, and Old Dominion—so the Commodores should provide Mizzou one of its first real tests of the season. Whoever wins this game will take a step towards legitimizing their talent and, more importantly, enhancing their NCAA Tournament resume. The fact that Mizzou lacks heft in its early-season slate makes this a dangerous opponent for VU. The Dores don't want the Tigers to make this game their coming-out party.
Forward – Keith Ramsey – Senior, 6-9, 217; 2009-10: 6.0 points per game, 5.6 rebounds per game
Ramsey's size, experience and presence down low are major factors in the development and maintenance of Missouri's poise and chemistry. The fact that he got in foul trouble in the Tigers' loss to Richmond obviously had a dramatic effect on his team's ability to sustain consistency and momentum. The primary concern for the Commodores in regards to Ramsey will be his shooting accuracy; so far, the forward is hitting field goals at a 70 percent clip; thus, his efficiency will have to be dealt with.
Forward – Justin Safford – Junior, 6-8, 230; 2009-10: 7.0 PPG, 3.4 RPG
Safford is almost a carbon copy of Ramsey, only he's a year younger and a little heavier. Moreover, he shoots free throws pretty well for a big man (6-of-7 so far this season, not a huge statistical sample, but still noticeable); like Ramsey, Safford's foul trouble caused problems for coach Mike Anderson's club against the Spiders. For all he lacks in rebounds—compared to Ramsey—he makes up for in scoring, making the Tigers' two forwards perfect compliments to each other…when they can both stay on the floor.
Guard – J.T. Tiller – Senior, 6-3, 200; 2009-10: 9.7 PPG, 3.3 assists per game
After a foot injury in Missouri's season opener slowed him down, Tiller has made a quick comeback into the Tigers' starting rotation. He is an 82 percent free throw shooter, so the Commodores will have to walk a fine line when it comes to containing him—harassing him into tough shots without becoming overaggressive and fouling him will be essential to slowing him down. Tiller was a core member of the club that made a bold run to the Elite Eight in last year's NCAA Tournament before losing the West Regional Final to Connecticut. Any blueprint for a successful evening has to involve the reduction of Tiller's effectiveness as a playmaker.
Guard – Zaire Taylor – Senior, 6-4, 189; 2009-10: 8.2 PPG, 3.2 APG
Taylor is another experienced role player who owns the highest 3-point field goal percentage on the team in this young season; he doesn't shoot threes often, but if and when he does, Vanderbilt would be better served to put a hand in his face while he is doing so. Taylor also leads the Tigers with 12 steals, as part of the "40 Minutes of Hell" defense Mike Anderson learned from his mentor, national-title-winning coach Nolan Richardson. In light of this reality, the Commodores' backcourt, especially Jermaine Beal, needs to protect the basketball whenever Taylor is around.
Guard – Marcus Denmon – Sophomore, 6-3, 185; 2009-10: 9.6 PPG, 3.8 RPG
Denmon remains a mystery; he was forced to step in for the aforementioned Tiller earlier in the season and apparently played well enough to break into the starting lineup. So far, he comes off as a young role player who can do a little bit of everything and chew up minutes. Like most of Missouri's players, Denmon is highly skilled and agile with quick hands and considerable stamina. When placed in a more punishing game with a slowdown tempo, Denmon won't have as much of a place on the floor.
In a unique twist, Missouri's top two scorers come off the bench for the Tigers and they both contribute on the defensive end as well. Guard Kim English (16.4 PPG) is—in addition to a reliable outside shooter—a defensive specialist who already has 10 steals this season. Forward Laurence Bowers (11.0 PPG) is a shot-blocking presence with 10 rejections already into this young '09-10 campaign.
Keys to the Game
1) Shut Down Kim English. Despite a slow start to the season, English came back with 25 points in Missouri's win over Texas-Pan American. If he is allowed to get hot from outside, it could very well open the floodgates for the Tigers and force the Commodores to rely on their offense to keep them in the game.
2) Cause Forward Foul Trouble. As mentioned earlier, Missouri's loss to Richmond had a lot to do with both of their starting forwards getting in foul trouble early; the Spiders utilized a match-up zone defense, so the Tigers' lack of experienced, reliable post performers really hurt them. A similar result in the realm of foul problems could very well lead to a similar result on the scoreboard on Wednesday.
As an addendum to this particular game key, VU will have a chance to foul out Missouri's post players if the Dores can dictate tempo and emphasize their interior power game. The Tigers want a helter-skelter pace and a 94-foot style of play. Naturally, then, Vandy will desire a more halfcourt game in which offensive possessions involve common-sense passing, minimal turnovers, and ample touches for A.J. Ogilvy on the low blocks. That's how Mizzou's men in the middle can be sent to the pine.