Preview: LSU at Vanderbilt

Remember the curse of the look-ahead loss? That's exactly what coach Kevin Stallings needs to guard against when LSU comes to town. High hopes have the good ship Vanderbilt at full sail and in search of hardwood hosannahs, but one Saturday slip-up against Georgia can't be followed by another weekend wipeout at the hands of LSU.

Vanderbilt fans are riding high after completing the season sweep of archrival Tennessee Tuesday night. While Commodore Nation certainly has the right to exult in its 2010 domination of the team from Knoxville, it's worth looking at the big picture after the Tennessee win: Exactly where does the VU crew stand as the Dores set their sights on a possible run to the SEC championship?

The win over the Vols puts the Commodores in a great position, one game behind John Calipari's Wildcats. Naturally a pessimist (a creature known to inhabit VandyLand during football season) might point out that Vanderbilt would be in a first-place tie had it not lost the Georgia game, but for all intents and purposes, that loss can wind up being meaningless should Vanderbilt take proper care of the rest of its schedule.

What is the best-case scenario for the Dores? Winning the SEC regular season title is within their grasp. Kentucky, the team they trail in the standings, has to come to Nashville on February 20. Except for the Kentucky game, Vandy figures to be favored in all of its remaining games, with the possible exception of the road game at Florida. This scenario has Vanderbilt winning the remainder of its games, finishing the regular season 25-5, winning the SEC, and being seeded as high as a No. 3 seed. If this plays out, the Georgia loss just becomes a distant memory, and more evidence of how one loss does not ruin a season as it does in college football.

The worst-case scenario? The Dores lose to Kentucky and drop games at Ole Miss and Florida, as well as one of the two home games against Georgia or South Carolina. Now, every Commodore fan reading this realizes that 20 wins would still be achieved, but unless Vandy goes on a run in the SEC Tournament, the Dores would drop down to a No. 5 seed or worse when Selection Sunday rolls around. (Moreover, they'd go into the tournament anywhere from third to fifth place in the SEC.) That is obviously not where you want to be seeded if you want to play into the second week or beyond at the Big Dance.

Vanderbilt could find itself immersed in that worst-case scenario should it look past the visiting LSU Tigers this Saturday. While Commodore fans are putting the "Scout" in Scout.com and using this message board to talk about a possibly tricky road game at Ole Miss next Thursday, plus the visit by John Calipari and crew next Saturday, fans of the Black and Gold had better hope that the Beal, Ogilvy, and Associates law firm will be prepared to dispatch the ballclub from Baton Rouge.

The Commodores must avoid a repeat of the nearly disastrous Mississippi State game, where Vandy had the game essentially in hand, only to allow the Bulldogs to get within one 3-pointer of tying the game.

LSU AT-A-GLANCE

Trent Johnson looked like a genius last season, leaving Stanford to take over an LSU team that had struggled one year removed from a Final Four appearance. Last season the Tigers won the SEC regular season title, finished with a 27-8 record, and ended their season by losing – bravely and boldly, it should be noted – to eventual champion North Carolina in the second round of the NCAA Tournament in the hostile environment of Greensboro, N.C.

2009-2010 has not been kind to Johnson and his staff. There is not a game on the schedule that would qualify as a significant win. At least the Tigers can say they won the Louisiana State championship, having defeated Louisiana-Monroe, Louisiana-Lafayette, Northwestern St., and Southeastern Louisiana.

This year's version of the Tigers is characterized by its youth. The only senior on the squad is leading scorer Tasmin Mitchell, the lone holdover from the 2006 Final Four team by virtue of a season-ending foot injury that turned his third year in Baton Rouge into a redshirt year. Point guard Bo Spencer is the only other returning starter. Three sophomores round out the starting lineup, and not a one averaged more than ten minutes a game in 2009.

The Tigers are, based on their last two games, simply playing out the rest of the schedule, looking longingly to next season. While they were close in many early SEC conference contests, close simply does not count (no matter how much they'd like it to mean something). LSU nearly took down Tennessee, but after that five-point home loss, it has been blown out in its last two games, a 26-point home loss to Kentucky and a 35-point road loss at Arkansas.

LSU's performance so far this season has resulted in a 9-15 overall record. A more meaningful stat about Saturday's matchup is the fact that Johnson's team is 0-10 in SEC play. Coach Stallings' goal is to make sure his team ignores the Tigers' record and does not focus on objects beyond their reach, such as next week's headline-grabbing games.

Starting Lineup

Guard– Chris Bass – Sophomore, 6'0", 190; 2009-10: 2.7 ppg, 3.0 apg

The sophomore from Baton Rouge, and younger brother of 2005 SEC Player of the Year Brandon Bass, recently regained his starting spot. After playing a total of 13 minutes in the Mississippi St. and Tennessee games, he has started the last two. He has struggled in the two games he has started and Johnson needs to get more scoring from him. Bass is averaging five points a game since returning to the lineup. While he certainly does not need to be the main scorer on the floor, since other players fill that role, he needs to be better than his current .231 3-point percentage in order to stretch defenses away from Tasmin Mitchell and Storm Warren.

Guard – Bo Spencer - Junior 6'1", 185; 2009-10: 15.0 ppg, 2.8 rpg, 2.1 rpg

When Bass is in the starting lineup, Johnson essentially employs a dual point guard system with Bass and Spencer. While Spencer's scoring is above average – he currently averages 15 points a game – his 86 turnovers, compared to only 64 assists, are not helping the Tigers. The Kentucky game was a microcosm of Spencer's season. In that game he scored 25 points, but had only two assists to go with seven turnovers. Spencer, like Bass, is a Baton Rouge native. Vanderbilt should be particularly aware of Spencer should the game be close late – he shoots 83 % from the foul line.

Guard – Zach Kinsley – Sophomore, 6'5", 200; 2009-10: 3.8 ppg, .441 3PT %

Kinsley is the latest attempt by Trent Johnson to infuse some energy and scoring into his struggling lineup. Kinsley is a walk-on sophomore, and like the previously mentioned starters, he hails from Baton Rouge. Kinsley, a basketball sharpshooter by trade, made the most of his appearance in the starting lineup. He scored 13 points on Feb. 10 against Arkansas, hitting three out of four 3-point attempts. Kinsley does nearly all of his scoring from beyond the arc. Vandy's plan to defend him should involve tremendous pressure causing him to have to put the ball on the floor, when he is not nearly as effective.

Forward – Storm Warren – Sophomore, 6'7", 200; 2009-10: 12.0 ppg, 7.4 rpg

If there is a bright spot on the LSU team it is the play of its frontline. Warren, a sophomore from Monroe, La., has increased his scoring this season by 10 points per game. More importantly for Trent Johnson, he has been a pressure release when Tasmin Mitchell faces double-teams, something that is usually a nightly occurrence for the Bayou Bengals. Warren shoots better than 50 %, mainly due to his constant presence near the basket in the Tiger offense. Warren clearly knows his role on the floor and maximizes his effectiveness within it. He has not attempted a 3-pointer all season. While LSU fans may want to see more rebounds from the 6'7" Warren, they should keep in mind he is playing undersized at this position. Only in his second season, the future is bright for Warren if he continues to develop and expand his game.

Forward – Tasmin Mitchell – Senior, 6'7", 235; 2009-10: 17.2 ppg, 9.8 rpg, .299 3P%

When SEC fans think of LSU basketball, the name they think of this year is Tasmin Mitchell, who – as mentioned earlier – is the only remaining Tiger from the 2006 Final Four team. After playing in only three games his junior year due to a foot injury, he returned last year for his redshirt junior season, during which he averaged 16.3 points a game for the SEC West champs. After the season, he entered the NBA Draft but did not hire an agent. He decided to return after evaluating his draft stock and receiving Trent Johnson's promise to help him expand his game in order to play the "3" in the NBA.

Mitchell has had mixed results in his attempt to become more of a perimeter player. While his scoring has improved this year, his shooting percentage has dropped, mainly due to an increase in the number of perimeter shots he takes. A year ago Mitchell attempted a total of 19 3-pointers. That number has already gone up to 67 this year, and he is shooting below 30 % on those attempts. Mitchell has also been a workhorse for Johnson, playing 38 minutes a game. It will be interesting to see what defensive strategy Vanderbilt uses against Mitchell. Will the Dores double-team Mitchell, as LSU has seen for most of conference season, or will Vandy stay with single-coverage and not let any other Tiger get a rhythm going offensively?

Bench

Trent Johnson plays a surprisingly high number of players for a team without a conference victory. Four reserves play over 10 minutes a game. The only scholarship reserve in the backcourt is Aaron Dotson. He plays over 20 minutes, but shoots only 28.6 % and averages only 3.3 points per game. Three reserves play meaningful minutes in the frontcourt - Dennis Harris, Eddie Ludwig, and Garret Green – but they combine to score only eight points a game. Worse, the three average a combined total of just 7.6 rebounds per game. Johnson will also use two other walk-ons, Daron Populist and Chris Beattie, who did not even make the team last year in a walk-on tryout, to provide some outside shooting.

Keys to the Game

  1. Do not get so focused on Tasmin Mitchell you forget about the others. Tennessee nearly lost to LSU because it was so consumed with double-teaming Mitchell; the Vols allowed Bo Spencer to score 25 points. Vanderbilt would be well served to play Mitchell straight up in spurts and be sure to lock down the other Tigers, especially by not allowing Spencer any open looks. Certainly there will be spots to double Mitchell, especially late if the game is close; however, the Commodores cannot get so locked onto Taz that they shirk their other important responsibilities.
 
  1. Offensive patience – Vanderbilt was so successful against Tennessee offensively because it repeatedly attacked the rim with both the dribble and the pass. Since LSU is sure to use a zone defense due to its lack of experience and a corresponding lack of scholarship players, the Dores need to avoid the tendency teams have to shoot long jumpers off only one or two passes when facing a zone. If Vanderbilt is taking most of its early shots within 15 feet of the basket, the Commodores will be on the road to an easy victory.

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