Allowing an opponent to shoot 59 percent from the field will lead to almost-certain defeat, so as the VU crew prepares for a Sommet Center showdown with Western Kentucky this Friday night in Nashville, the first and last priority for Vandy is to hogtie the Hilltoppers. This game will be challenging in one sense, but on another level, it's exactly what the Dores need before they enter the lightest and least demanding portion of their schedule.
WESTERN KENTUCKY AT-A-GLANCE
Coach Ken McDonald, in his first season at the helm in Bowling Green, Ky., led WKU to the second round of the 2009 NCAA Tournament. The supreme ruler of the Sun Belt Conference came close to making the Sweet 16 for the second straight year, but a last-second bucket by Gonzaga dashed the dreams of a dynamic team that is nothing if not pesky. Whereas Illinois was bothersome because of its length at all spots on the floor, Western Kentucky poses matchup problems because the Hilltoppers have "tweener players" who can play multiple positions and use their quickness to explode to the rim. McDonald's men don't offer imposing size or brawn, they're agile and slippery, and the Dores will have to stay with them.
NOTE: McDonald does not play a center in his starting five.
Forward – Jeremy Evans – Senior, 6'9", 196; 2009-10: 8.7 ppg, 6.3 rpg
The averages posted above are a little deceiving. Evans – a core member of WKU's previous two NCAA Tournament teams – started really slow this season, but has steadily improved as a rebounder. The rebounding totals for Evans in his first seven games are as follows: 0, 4, 5, 7, 8, 9, and 11 on Tuesday night in a 63-57 win over Evansville. That's progress. A.J. Ogilvy and Festus Ezeli can't underestimate the man they'll be facing on the low blocks. Evans is cleaning up the backboard, and must be blocked out at all times during Friday night's game.
Forward – Steffphon Pettigrew – Junior, 6'5", 231; 2009-10: 12.3 ppg, 7.1 rpg
A former Kentucky Mr. Basketball, Pettigrew is Western Kentucky's ultimate tweener. The native of Elizabethtown, Ky., was the main reason why the Hilltoppers overcame a 10-point second-half deficit to beat Evansville. A big 18-point, 13-rebound effort – from a 6-5 player, remember – showed why Pettigrew has been such a reliable weapon in the arsenal of the defending Sun Belt Tournament champions. Jeffery Taylor will influence the trajectory of many Vanderbilt games as a scorer, but in this clash, he'll need to save the balance of his energies for the defensive end, where he'll need to prevent Pettigrew from running wild, especially within 10 feet of the tin. Containing Pettigrew will be one of Stallings's top three X-and-O priorities at the Sommet Center.
Forward – Sergio Kerusch – Junior, 6'5", 221; 2009-10: 13.1 ppg, 6.3 rpg
On a roster graced with terrifically gifted and explosive athletes, Kerusch doesn't own quite the hops or the all-court versatility possessed by Pettigrew and A.J. Slaughter, but as his seasonal averages suggest, the Memphis native just might be McDonald's most consistent performer in the first month of the Hilltoppers' basketball journey. On last year's tournament-worthy team, Kerusch didn't have to worry all that much about scoring, since Pettigrew and Slaughter were accompanied by the remarkably gifted and frequently unconscious long-distance bomber, Orlando Mendez-Valdez. Kerusch's jobs, in the 2008-09 season, were to free up his explosive teammates for open looks and then clean up messes underneath. He performed those tasks with distinction, and that's a big reason why his production hasn't suffered this season.
While the loss of Mendez-Valdez has forced Slaughter to adjust on the perimeter, Kerusch is rolling along; he might not be a blindingly fast slasher who will destroy defenses with dribble penetration, but he has a nose for the ball and will make his presence felt on the floor. Andre Walker will have his hands full with Kerusch.
Guard – A.J. Slaughter – Senior, 6'3", 180; 2009-10: 14.9 ppg, 3 assists per game, 2.9 rpg
Slaughter greatly misses his former teammate, the now-graduated Orlando Mendez-Valdez. With two highly skilled guards patrolling the backcourt and owning parking-lot-level range on their threes, the Hilltoppers were a matchup nightmare for opponents. WKU was able to spread the floor and get defenses to extend their coverage, which allowed Slaughter and Mendez-Valdez to play off each other and create an inside-outside game without need for an imposing center. Usually, when one thinks of an inside-outside game in basketball, such an identity is formed by a quick guard and a powerful big man who play a two-man game on one side of the lane, but with WKU in 2008-09, it was the combo of Slaughter and Mendez-Valdez which created many kinds of offense all by itself.
Now that Mendez-Valdez is gone, Slaughter has struggled. Western Kentucky has committed 98 turnovers through its first seven games, while dishing out only 64 assists. Slaughter – following a 74-56 loss at South Carolina on Dec. 2 – was told by McDonald that if he kept playing poorly, he might not play that many minutes. Slaughter has had a positive assist-to-turnover ratio in the two games following that heart-to-heart with his coach, but he struggled from the field against Evansville on Dec. 8, going just 2-of-9 from the field. This is a struggling ballplayer, and Vandy needs to make sure A.J. doesn't Slaughter the Commodores' defense.
Guard – Anthony Sally – Senior, 6'2", 185; 2009-10: 3.1 ppg, 3 apg, 3.6 rpg
If Slaughter's had it rough as a scorer, Sally – his new backcourt mate – hasn't fared that well as a distributor of the ball. The 98-64 turnover-assist numbers that have saddled WKU through seven games fall even more on the shoulders of this senior guard. Slaughter is a scorer, but Sally is supposed to make the Hilltoppers' offense function smoothly. Yet, he's clearly not been able to achieve that modest goal for a team that was expected by many to be in the running for an at-large NCAA Tournament berth. In seven games, Sally has committed 24 turnovers while dropping just 21 dimes, and that kind of shaky ballhandling will prevent WKU from fulfilling its promise as this season continues. Relentless defensive pressure will turn the ball over against Western Kentucky, and Sally needs to be swarmed before his confidence has a chance to grow.
Guard Caden Dickerson, forward-center Cliff Dixon and center Nemanja Milosevic have all seen double-digit minutes in at least four of Western Kentucky's first seven games, while guard Jameson Tipping has averaged 17 minutes in the team's last two contests. McDonald – upset with the performance of his front-line starters – has given his bench players some brief minutes as surprise starters, shaking up his roster and serving notice that playing time isn't guaranteed for anyone. Vandy might not have tough defensive assignments against WKU's reserves, but the Dores will certainly have to match the energy level of a hungry second wave of performers.
Keys to the Game
- Take WKU very seriously. Vandy might have its own goals and hopes for the season, but as the Dores take to a Nashville court not called Memorial Gym, they need to realize that this is a game the Hilltoppers desperately need in order to bolster their own NCAA Tournament at-large resume. WKU plays at Louisville on Dec. 19, but other than that encounter, this duel with the Dores is Western Kentucky's only other non-conference statement game. Stallings needs to make it known that the team in the other Sommet Center locker room is a club hell-bent on burnishing its credentials at Vandy's expense. Being mentally ready to match WKU's expected outpouring of energy is the foremost key on Friday.
- Do the monster mash. It's really rather simple for VU: Contain Pettigrew and Slaughter, win the game. WKU's two-headed monster – Pettigrew on the inside, and Slaughter, the preseason Sun Belt player of the year, on the perimeter – poses potential difficulties for the Dores, but if the students of Stallings can stop these two scorers, WKU lacks the proven depth to threaten Vandy. The Hilltoppers have a few very talented performers, but at this stage in their evolution, they're not balanced or blended enough to overwhelm VU. As long as Stallings can coax a vigorous defensive effort from his roster, the offensive end of the floor – where Ogilvy will be able to re-establish his low-post game after being limited by Illinois's length – should take care of itself. Holding down Pettigrew and Slaughter offers Vandy its best chance of fending off the upset-minded Hilltoppers.