Its cliché in sports to tell your team to take opponents "one game at a time." Yet year in and year out, regardless of the team or sport, fans see their teams looking forward to games against ranked opponents while losing games to inferior opponents.
With still over a month to go in the regular season, it's imperative for the Commodores to protect their home court in the SEC, win this game, and add one more conference win to their resume. While the Dores' three losses this season have come against quality opponents (though Western Kentucky is beginning to struggle), the SEC, like last year, is not known for its strength.
Finishing the conference season with a slip to 5th place overall (or worse) and having Auburn listed next to you as a bad loss on Selection Sunday would not bode well for NCAA hopes.
Jeff Lebo's team enters this game treading water just above .500 at 10-9. However, the Tigers have a measly 1-3 SEC record. The Tigers' best win this season was a one-point home win over Virginia (68-67) back on December 7. Auburn enters the Vandy game coming off an 84-80 road win at LSU in what was essentially a battle to avoid last place in the SEC West.
The Tigers enjoyed the relative reprieve that was LSU, since the week prior involved the SEC gauntlet of Tennessee and Kentucky. Auburn had an early six-point lead on the road at Tennessee, but that may have had more to do with the hangover effect of the Volunteers' 76-68 upset of then-No. 1 Kansas. UT recovered to force Auburn into poor shot selection, a continuing trend for the Tigers, as the Vols outshot Auburn 60% to 30% in what became a 26-point blowout (81-55).
Auburn then appeared ready for another blowout against No. 2 Kentucky, as the Wildcats built a 19-point lead in the first half and led by 13 at the break. The Tigers took advantage of Kentucky's second half carelessness, including freshman phenom John Wall's six-second half turnovers, to actually tie the game with about eight minutes to play. DeWayne Reed scored 19 for the Tigers and had a chance to tie the game with a 3-pointer with 10 seconds to go, but he missed and Kentucky eluded an upset with a 72-67 victory.
A look at the schedule shows Auburn is facing a tough road ahead. After starting the conference season with three losses (South Carolina, UT, and Kentucky) to go along with their win at LSU, there are no breaks in the coming weeks. After Saturday's road game against Vandy, the Tigers face No. 24 Mississippi, and then in-state rival Alabama. It is not unlikely that Auburn could come through this stretch with a 1-6 conference record, one more reason the Commodores might overlook them.
Auburn's biggest problem, as always, is building a talented roster. The state of Alabama is not known as a hotbed of basketball talent and what Auburn can find is usually shared with not only the University of Alabama, but also Alabama-Birmingham, which is clearly the best team in the state. It is quite revealing that UAB does not appear on the non-conference schedule of either of its in-state SEC cousins.
The Tigers do have a big-name player; he just won't be on the roster until next season. That would be Shawn Kemp Jr., the son of the former NBA star, who is the highest rated member of Lebo's recruiting class for next year. Kemp cannot get there fast enough as Auburn only rotates three inside players and all three are seniors.
So how do this year's Auburn Tigers look?
Note: Auburn uses a two-forward, three-guard lineup.
Forward – Lucas Hargrove – Senior, 6'6", 218; 2009-10: 12.9 ppg, 7.1 rpg, 2.5 apg
Hargrove is one of four senior starters in the Tiger lineup and has clearly improved from his junior season when he averaged 8.1 ppg and was a part-time starter. While slightly undersized to play on the block, Hargrove is very solid fundamentally, shooting 50 % from the field. Hargrove is also a very good free throw shooter, currently hitting 70 % from the charity stripe. Hargrove's weakness, as is the weakness of many of the Tigers, is forcing the 3-point shot. He has fired 59 3-point attempts this season, connecting on only 25 % of those shots. Vandy would be wise to contain him inside and let him take jumpers on the perimeter.
Forward – Johnnie Lett - Senior 6'8", 210; 2009-10: 2.3 ppg, 3.2 rpg
If Hargrove is slightly undersized inside, Lett is easily outmuscled with his thin frame. Despite his lack of bulk, Lett is inserted into the lineup by Lebo for his defensive leadership. He will probably be called on to defend A.J. Ogilvy. Advantage Ogilvy, then: The Australian big man outweighs Lett by 40 pounds. Look for Auburn to double-team Ogilvy when Lett is guarding him on the block. Seeing a tall and thin post player, one would assume him to be a shot blocker, but that would not describe Lett. He comes into Saturday's game with only three blocked shots on the season.
Guard – DeWayne Reed –Senior, 6'1", 175; 2009-10: 16.5 ppg, 4.5 assists per game
Reed is the unquestioned leader of this Tiger squad. While the rest of the Auburn team entered the Kentucky game playing with an obvious nervousness, Reed stepped up to hit early back-to-back three pointers that inspired the rest of the team to start playing. Despite missing a three-point attempt that would have tied the Kentucky game late, Reed has stepped up his game against SEC competition, averaging 19.6 ppg over his last five games.
Reed is another example of Auburn's infatuation with the 3-point shot. He has already shot 91 treys this season but would be third on the team in attempts if Tay Waller had not been injured. Reed is only hitting on 34 % of his threes, however. While that's not a terrible shooting percentage, the Tigers would like to see their senior point guard be a bit more of a distributor; while Reed gets a fair amount of assists, he also averages 3.2 turnovers per game. The key for Vanderbilt in guarding Reed will be to prevent him from getting into a rhythm early, but also making sure he does not create easy shots for Waller and Frankie Sullivan. He got into a rhythm against the Wildcats and they almost paid for it.
Guard – Tay Waller – Senior, 6'2", 193; 2009-10: 11.7 ppg, 38.4 % 3-pointers
Every team seemingly has a long distance assassin and Waller is the guy for Auburn. Waller missed the first six games of the season with a quad injury and the Tigers missed him dearly, going only 3-3 over that span. When Waller returned, he immediately averaged double figures in scoring, but has tailed off as SEC play has started. In the four conference games Auburn has played, Waller only hit double digits in the last game at LSU with 14, with his 3-point field goal accuracy dropping to 33 percent in SEC games. Despite his recent struggles, when Auburn had a chance to tie Kentucky in the final 10 seconds with a three, Lebo designed his play for Waller to shoot at the top of the key. The Wildcats had it well defended, however, and Reed ended up taking the final shot on a handoff. Should Auburn be close and need a big shot, do not be surprised if Lebo turns to his senior gunner one more time.
Guard – Frankie Sullivan – Sophomore, 6'1", 195; 2009-10: 13.8 ppg, 3.8 rpg, 2.4 apg
Sullivan gives Tiger fans hope for the future. The sophomore is yet another 3-point shooter on a team that loves to shoot them, but he has connected on almost 42 % of his 106 attempted threes. In fact, over half of his field goal attempts have come from outside the arc. The native Alabaman figures to only get better (not that Tiger fans will complain about his play now), since he has been in double-figures in his last seven games and eleven of his last twelve. Sullivan also does an outstanding job of protecting the basketball. Despite the up-and-down nature of playing Tennessee and Kentucky, Sullivan only turned it over once. As a matter of fact, he has only two turnovers in SEC play (four games). Part of this can be attributed to playing off the ball, but that just makes him all the more a sleeper that Vanderbilt must be aware of.
Injuries have decimated the Auburn bench. Kenny Gabriel, a 6'8" freshman, was supposed to be a key contributor off the bench but injuries have caused him to miss games this season. The latest setback was an ankle injury suffered against Kentucky that kept him out of the LSU game. It remains to be seen if he plays against Vandy. 6'10" center Brendon Knox is Auburn's only source of inside depth, and while he is not flashy he is efficient, scoring 8.8 ppg and shooting just under 70 % from the field. Look for him to get more minutes to counter the Commodores' advantage inside. Two freshmen are the perimeter backups, 6'5" Earnest Ross (3.5 ppg/3.1 rpg) and 6'5" Andre Malone (3.7 ppg/2.6 rpg). Lebo was impressed with Malone's play against Kentucky when he had six points and led the Tigers with nine rebounds.
Keys to the Game
- Be aware of Tigers behind the arc. Auburn likes to shoot the three, having attempted 473 so far this season, almost 200 more than Vanderbilt has attempted. The Tigers are going to look to push the tempo. (Who doesn't against Vandy?) While Vanderbilt usually can control transition offenses with good shot selection and planned defensive transitions, it is very important for Vandy guards to pick up Reed early and be aware of Waller and Sullivan spotting up for quick shots in transition. Take away the easy threes and Auburn does not play well in a halfcourt game.
- Make Auburn pay for its lack of depth inside. Vanderbilt features the most fundamentally sound post player in the conference in A.J. Ogilvy, and Auburn has no one with the height or build to match up with him. This will force the Tigers into double-team situations where Vandy can make them pay with kick out passes to spot up shooters. As is usually the case in basketball, this should be an inside-out game from the tip and playing at home should give the Commodores a distinct advantage.