Excelling at an elite level in any sport demands the ability to back up one good result with another. For team sports, this quality is manifested in road games against inferior teams. Following a home conquest with a win in an enemy lair speaks to a tournament-tough maturity and a wide-eyed wisdom that VU is still in search of.
One win against Florida was a must for this team's premium postseason prospects, but the national perception of the Dores won't change until the men from Nashville string together a series of SEC successes. That mission – a crusade for consistency – begins in earnest Wednesday night in Tuscaloosa, as Vanderbilt takes on Alabama at Coleman Coliseum.
Coach Anthony Grant is trying to change the culture that Mark Gottfried left behind. The Gottfried era – considering Bama's place in the SEC basketball pecking order – proved to be rather successful, especially in light of the Crimson Tide's unexpected march to the 2004 Elite Eight as a No. 8 seed in the Phoenix Region. Bama reached five consecutive NCAAs, an impressive feat reminiscent of the colorful yet controversial tenure of plaid-jacket-wearing (but ultimately disgraced) coach Wimp Sanderson, but when Gottfried seemed to lose his team midway through the 2008-09 campaign – a year when the Tide were expected to do big things – the UA hoops program was filled with a pervasive sense that the fresh air of a new boss was needed. In the form of Grant – who stood at Billy Donovan's side during Florida's rise to national championship prominence and then guided an NBA point guard named Eric Maynor at Virginia Commonwealth – the Tide and athletic director Mal Moore plucked themselves a plum.
Alabama doesn't appear ready to reach the NCAA Tournament – the Tide could well be one year behind the Dores, who took their lumps in the 2008-09 season and gained experience that will hopefully pay off this time. With that having been said, however, Alabama is in a position where a sustained run of excellence could put the toughs from Tuscaloosa in the Selection Sunday conversation.
Bama's best win came against Baylor on Nov. 26; had Michigan fulfilled its early-season promise, the Tide's Nov. 29 triumph over the slumping Wolverines would have possessed more value in the eyes of the NCAA Division I Men's Basketball Committee. Nevertheless, UA's portfolio – which also includes a win over Providence – is a lot better than the locals had a right to expect in Capstone Country. At 11-4 and in ownership of a four-game winning streak, the Bama boys – with an 11-5 SEC mark and at least one win in the league tournament – could very well crash the field of 65. The Tide aren't loaded, but they're certainly buying what Anthony Grant is selling.
Yes, Vandy should win this game. Yes, Vandy needs this game as well. However, VU's opponent on Wednesday night will fight tooth and nail for 40 minutes.
Note: Bama uses a two-forward, three-guard lineup.
Forward – JaMychal Green – Sophomore, 6'9", 220; 2009-10: 15.6 ppg, 6.8 rpg, 2.2 blocks per game
Green is clearly Alabama's best player for all the obvious reasons, plus a number of subtle reasons, too. As the leading scorer, rebounder and shot blocker for the Crimson Tide, Green creates a maximum of impact with a body that's not big, but certainly long. A combination of length and first-rate instincts allow Green to affect the feel and flow of a game on a number of levels. Green's wingspan and reach don't just create swatted shots; they represent a deterrent to opposing big men. Like any distinguished shot blocker, Green's biggest contribution to Bama's defense – which averages just under 64 points conceded per contest – is the number of shots he alters, not the shots he sends into the front row of seats along the baseline. It's because of Green that LSU scored only 49 points against the Tide in the SEC opener for both teams this past weekend in Baton Rouge. It's because of Green that Michigan's star big man, DeShawn Sims, was held to a modest 16 points in Bama's 68-66 triumph over the Wolverines in November's Old Spice Classic in Orlando, Fla.
Defense aside, the other aspect of Green's profile which escapes the casual fan is the sophomore's shot selection. Whereas some scorers (think Allen Iverson) need lots of shots to ring up big numbers, Grant makes basketball connoisseurs sing. The Montgomery, Ala., native might not explode for 30 or 35 points on a regular basis, but he leads his team in scoring without being a black hole for the basketball, a ball hog who stops the movement and flow of a halfcourt set. Green needed only 11 shots to score a team-high 14 points in the Saturday win at LSU. He required just 15 shots to score 20 in the win over Michigan. To complete a terrific trifecta, the fabulous forward needed only 13 field goal attempts to ring up 22 in the big 79-76 triumph against Baylor.
Forward – Justin Knox – Junior, 6'9", 240; 2009-10: 6.9 ppg, 3.7 rpg
While Green – his frontcourt mate – has a hand in just about every aspect of Alabama's on-court machinations, Knox is comfortably ensconced in his role as a bruiser. Put in the game to defend and rebound, the Tuscaloosa product uses his width and muscle to carve out a presence in the paint. The way Vandy's post players handle Knox – particularly on the glass – will have much to do with the outcome of this encounter.
Guard – Senario Hillman – Junior, 6'1", 192; 2009-10: 8.8 ppg, 3.4 rpg, 1.7 steals per game
Hillman didn't make all that much of an impact for Bama in two games last season against the Commodores. This limited offensive performer totaled 16 points, four rebounds and three assists in 57 minutes against VU. What stood out about the Irwinton, Ga., native in his two outings against Vandy was the same thing that jumps off the page this year: Hillman is a thief.
The junior guard might not light up the scoreboard against elite opponents, but he provides first-rate defense in his own right. Hillman registered five steals in Bama's two tilts against the Dores, and he's the Tide's second-leading ballhawk, just behind reserve guard Tony Mitchell. If Hillman is making an impact at the defensive end of the floor, Grant and the rest of UA's assistant coaches will be very happy.
Guard – Mikhail Torrance – Senior, 6'5", 210; 2009-10: 15.5 ppg, 3.5 rpg, 5.1 assists per game
If JaMychal Green is Anthony Grant's number one go-to guy, Torrance is the Tide's definite plan B. The veteran performer has scored in double figures in every game but one this season, and in four of Bama's high-profile showdowns – against Providence, Baylor, Purdue and Kansas State – the upperclassman shot the ball at least 10 times. As a "stat within a stat," Torrance fired at least 15 shots in three of those four contests.
Yet, for all his shot attempts, Torrance – as the leading dime-dropper on the UA roster – knows how to get his teammates involved. Precisely because he and Green have a feel for a blended brand of team-oriented basketball, Bama doesn't waste possessions. The Tide committed just nine turnovers in their 17-point smackdown of LSU, and only 10 turnovers in their breakthrough against Baylor. As is the case with other basketball teams, what you don't see is even more important than what you do see with Alabama. Efficient, low-turnover offense combined with rugged defense has enabled the Crimson Tide to win 11 of their first 15 games. Green does a lot at both ends; Knox and Hillman emphasize defense; and Mr. Torrance offers a 1-2 offensive combo of consistent scoring and productive passing.
Guard – Anthony Brock – Senior, 5'9", 165; 2009-10: 6.3 ppg, 2 rpg
When Brad Tinsley or Jermaine Beal lock horns with Anthony Brock at the defensive end of the floor for Vanderbilt, the Dores' guards will have one fundamental task: Don't let this senior sharpshooter get open looks behind the 3-point arc. In one of the more amazing stats that Vandy basketball junkies will ever encounter this season, Brock – through 15 games – has scored at least 50 percent of his points from 3-pointers in every game but one, a Dec. 12 loss to Purdue in which the Little Rock, Ark., product was held to two points.
Vandy fans will also recall that when Bama came to Nashville last season, Brock let loose a torrent of triples late in the game to bring the Tide back from a double-digit deficit. VU held on for a 79-74 win, but it was Brock – with a sizzing 5-of-6 clip from 3-point range – who nearly enabled the visitors to steal a victory at Memorial Gym. A 42 percent 3-point shooter in 2009-10, Brock must command attention the same way Kenny Boynton of Florida did on Saturday, when the Gator guard developed parking-lot range with his shot.
Two men provide Anthony Grant with an appreciable amount of production off the pine. Tony Mitchell, a 6-6 freshman forward, averages nine points, 4.2 boards, and 1.9 steals per contest. Mitchell's stat line merges the best elements of Green and Hillman, and the young lad from Swainsboro, Ga., displays the kind of balance which gives ballast to Bama at both ends of the floor.
Mitchell is joined on the bench by guard Charvez Davis, who averages 6.3 points and 1.5 boards per game. Davis, a 6-3 junior, produced 12 points in his team's win over Michigan, but he's cooled off in recent times: He's failed to score in double figures in Bama's last seven games.
Keys to the Game
- An Ogilvy Onslaught, a Festus Ezeli festival. The Dores – with their size and power near the rim – need to display a physical style of ball and pick up where they left off in the second-half smackdown of Florida this past Saturday. When Vandy isn't settling for threes and works the ball near the basket, good things happen. Ogilvy's combination of size, strength and agility should enable him to neutralize the kinds of advantages that allow JaMychal Green and Justin Knox to flourish against less powerful big men. Winning road games in basketball is typically the source of pronounced superiority within six feet of the basket; Vandy owns that very edge in this game, so the Ogilvy-Ezeli axis must be able to outplay Bama's bigs. There's no bigger key to this contest.
- Ball security in the backcourt. Precisely because Alabama is a defense-first team (in many ways the antithesis of Florida), the keys to Wednesday's game deal more with Vandy's offense than its defense. The Tide's low-turnover totals mean that the VU crew must not give away possessions. The fact that this is a road game will only put more pressure on Brad Tinsley and Jermaine Beal to show composure at Coleman Coliseum. If Kevin Stallings' guards display poise and precision at the offensive end, and give A.J. Ogilvy the touches he needs at the right spots on the floor, Vandy will be able to route the ball through its prime players and keep Alabama's defense scrambling. Clean possessions will be productive possessions for the Dores, and if the visitors get enough productive possessions on Wednesday, they'll leave Tuscaloosa with a very meaningful scalp in tow.