This Tuesday, Vanderbilt will face its second substantial road test of the season—and one of its toughest tests, period—in the Fighting Illini of Illinois. Bruce Weber's club, at 6-2, is undefeated at home and full of good vibes after drinking deeply from a well of ever-growing confidence. The Illini added to their body of work last week with a stunning come-from-behind road win at Clemson in the Big Ten-ACC Challenge.
If ever there was a team that truly posed a balanced offensive attack, it is the Fighting Illini; all five starters average double figures in points and only one shoots under 70 percent at the free throw line (guard Brandon Paul, at 69.2). Vanderbilt's defensive task will be a difficult one, but if they can find their legs on the road in Champaign, Ill., the Commodores will create a valuable addition to their NCAA Tournament resume.
Center – Mike Tisdale – Junior, 7'1", 235; 2009-10: 10.9 ppg, 5.5 rpg
Here's a question: How many centers over seven feet tall, college or pro, have hit free throws at close to a 90 percent clip in one season? The list is probably very short, but, as of right now, Mike Tisdale would be on it. If things could not get scarier, Tisdale's frame obviously provides his team numerous opportunities for easy buckets on offense (he's shooting almost 65 percent from the field) and disruption on defense (he leads the team with 15 blocked shots). Luckily for Vanderbilt, A.J. Ogilvy is only two inches shorter and 15 pounds heavier than Tisdale; additionally, his season averages in both points and rebounds are better, so if Ogilvy can maintain those standards, he will likely offset any damage done by Tisdale, which would be a huge help to the Commodores considering the number of weapons they will have to deal with.
The big question concerning Tisdale – who owns an artful game and a silky shooting touch – is his ability to pound near the paint and become more of an animal on the boards. Ogilvy might not outscore him, but Vandy's center has a very good chance of outworking Tisdale and hounding him defensively, and that's where the Dores need to exploit this matchup on the blocks.
Forward – Mike Davis – Junior, 6'9", 220; 2009-10: 13.6 ppg, 10.1 rpg
Davis is the other (and slightly better) half of Illinois' "Mike and Mike Show" in the frontcourt. Any time you have a player that averages a double-double—and, subsequently, leads the team in both categories—it usually means that he is going to get his numbers regardless of what the opponent does. The key for Vanderbilt in regard to Davis will be to hold him to his averages and not allow him to completely dominate down low. Davis plays the most minutes of anyone on the Illini and has not been in foul trouble all season (only 10 total personal fouls to date), so getting him out of the game for any lengthy stretch of time is an unlikely scenario for the Commodores. Sometimes there are certain players who are just going to get theirs; Davis – another long, lanky presence who allows Illinois to play the game over the top on the interior – will score a reasonable share of points. Whoever draws the defensive assignment against this primo power forward will need to deny Davis on the glass, and prevent the Illini from feasting on putbacks and second-chance points.
Guard – D.J. Richardson – Freshman, 6'3", 185; 2009-10: 10.6 ppg, 3 apg, 2.1 rpg
Richardson was the biggest prize in Weber's shooting-guard-heavy 2009 recruiting class, and while he may hold the lowest scoring average of any Illini starter—no shame in that on this team—he makes up for it by being deadly behind the arc and finding the open man. Currently, Richardson is shooting more accurately beyond the arc (almost 54 percent) than inside it (only 36 percent). It will be up to the Commodores to step up their perimeter defense, but even then the threat of Richardson does not end; he is second on the Illinois roster with 24 assists. Therefore, Vanderbilt must be careful in not sacrificing too much of its defense to focus on Richardsonl; he is also clearly capable of unloading the ball to the right guy when the defense is drawn to him.
Guard – Brandon Paul – Freshman, 6'4", 195; 2009-10: 12.3 ppg, 2.9 rpg
When your only noticeable statistical deficiency, compared to your fellow starters, is being the only player not to start all eight games of the season, then it's clear you're surrounded by some rather considerable talent. Paul, at a lot of other schools, would be a star with his contributions, but the noticeably strong points of his game are all performed better by at least one other Illinois player. His 12.3 points per game and 39 percent average from three point range both rank third on the team; his 14 3-point field goals place him only one behind Richardson; and he has the second fewest personal fouls on the team with only 12. Paul isn't dominating in any one facet of basketball, but he is extremely solid in all aspects of the game. This is what enables him to belong on the floor and be enough of a distraction to keep other teams from focusing too hard on other Illinois players.
Guard – Demetri McCamey – Junior, 6'3", 200; 2009-10: 12.6 ppg, 5.6 apg, 3.4 rpg
If the two aforementioned freshman guards were not enough to worry about, here lies Illinois' best player at that position. McCamey led the way for Illinois in a Dec. 5 win over Boise State with 23 points on 8-of-11 shooting. That stat line and performance offer an accurate representation of what McCamey has brought to his team this season. The junior is Illinois's highest-scoring guard, its most accurate shooting guard (45.5 percent from the field, and an impressive 39 percent behind the arc), and the team's leader in both assists (45) and steals (15). Clearly, McCamey will be a handful for the Vanderbilt guard (likely Jermaine Beal) who is assigned to him. One weakness that the Commodores may be able to exploit, though, is McCamey's trouble with ballhandling: Though prolific as a passer, McCamey has 29 turnovers on the season, more than twice the amount of giveaways coughed up by any other Illini player.
With such a well-rounded starting lineup, it is clear that Bruce Weber does not have to rely heavily on his bench, but when he needs a slight boost on both offense and defense, he can turn to forward Dominique Keller, another one of Illinois's lean and angular athletes. Keller – who has an unorthodox shooting motion that needs to be picked up in film study – is shooting 52.3 percent from the field and had five steals in a win over Boise State this past Saturday. Beyond that, the scoring options pretty much disappear, but big men Bill Cole and Richard Semrau can block a shot every once in a while (they both have three blocked shots on the season).
Keys to the Game
- Defend to upend on the road. As in-depth and complicated as these keys can become, there's really no need to do so here. It's clear what Vanderbilt needs to do: defend. As stated above, Illinois has a high-powered offense, but Weber's roster can be soft at times; there are certain weaknesses that can be exploited against a team that isn't always strong with the ball. Whether it is forcing McCamey into turnovers, gaining the rebounding edge due to Tisdale's paltry rebounding average (5.5 seems low for a seven-footer), or pressuring the two freshmen Illini guards, the Commodores have plenty of options when it comes to causing trouble on defense.
The defensive key for the Dores – which this team should focus on in its final preparation - is to be aggressive in the right ways at the right times. Vanderbilt is facing a great free throw shooting team, so it will do itself no favors if it continually puts Illinois at the line and, thus, gets itself into foul trouble. The ‘Dores have the personnel to handle the Illini, but they can ill afford to go toe-to-toe with them in a shootout at Assembly Hall.
- Use the force. Illinois owns a lot of length. Not necessarily size (though Tisdale certainly brings that to the table), but certainly length. Vanderbilt won't be able to play this game over the top; not many Illini opponents will in the months to come. Therefore, VU has to be far more physical within six feet of the rim, on blockouts, post-ups, and positional defense. The Dores need to seal off the Illini when the Big Ten contender tries to crash the glass for putbacks, and Stallings needs to see his men push Tisdale and Davis off their preferred spots on the floor. With power in the paint, and a generally more physical style against a talented but not-too-muscular opponent, Vandy can win the battle of cheap buckets and do the dirty work needed to pull out a precious non-conference road win.