Preview: Vanderbilt at Ole Miss

Now that the Commodores have taken care of their trap game, escaping Memorial Gym with a home win over LSU, it is now time to move to Identity Week. The next few days will have a lot to say about the true identity of the 2010 Vanderbilt basketball team.

VU fans are hoping that when Kevin Stallings's crew takes off its last mask and shows itself to the world, that identity will include SEC title contention, a possible top 10 ranking, and a No. 3 seed come Selection Sunday.  What seemed like a stretch after dropping two out of three games (to Kentucky and then Georgia) is now a very real possibility after back-to-back wins over Tennessee and LSU.

The math of the SEC title chase is quite simple. Two wins this week, over Ole Miss on Thursday night and Kentucky on Saturday evening, will put Vandy in a first-place tie with John Calipari's heralded Wildcats. The Commodores will then have four games remaining in which they should be the favorites, though one could argue that a trip to Florida is a dangerous game.

Fans of the Commodores are also excited about VU's new ranking in the AP at No. 17, though I'm sure many would quibble with the coaches putting the Dores at No. 19, one spot behind Tennessee. (What is so hard to understand about two head-to-head victories and a 19-5 record vs. an 18-6 record? But I digress.) Take care of business Thursday and particularly Saturday against Kentucky, and Vanderbilt is certain to move into the top 15 in the AP. More importantly, Vandy could possibly move into the top 10 in the RPI, which as many fans know is used by the NCAA to assist in seeding teams on its S-curve system.

Placement in the RPI Top 10 virtually guarantees no worse than a No. 3 seed, which is a very good place to be if the Dores want to play more than one weekend come Tournament time.

This is not to say all has been rosy for Vandy over the past week. LSU – winless in the SEC – was down only three in the late going this past Saturday at Memorial Gym, and had a chance to tie just as Mississippi State did two weeks ago. Moreover, no one wearing black and gold around Nashville has forgotten what happened in Athens, Ga., on Feb. 6.

Stallings has some injury issues to deal with as well. Andre Walker missed the LSU game with a left shoulder injury suffered in practice last Friday, but Stallings hopes to get Walker back on the practice court in the next couple of days. While Walker is not known for his scoring prowess, his defense, especially double-teaming from the off-ball side, has been outstanding. Ask Wayne Chism.

Another sticky subject is the illness of fourth-leading scorer John Jenkins (averaging 10.4 ppg), who has now missed two straight games. Hopefully for Jenkins' sake, the four-day layoff will be good for his recovery and give him fresh legs down the stretch run of his freshman season.

OLE MISS AT-A-GLANCE

Expectations in Oxford have not been met during the 2009-2010 season. Apart from an upset win over Kansas State in the Puerto Rico Tip Off Classic semifinals, the Rebels have been unable to secure a marquee win. Worse for Andy Kennedy's crew is the fact that UM has suffered two losses at the hands of in-state rival Mississippi State. (Vols fans can certainly relate to that kind of pain, wink-wink, nudge-nudge.)

The last couple of weeks have been particularly brutal for a team that received two first-place votes in the SEC Preseason Media Poll. (It should be pointed out, if by chance you have forgotten, the Commodores did not receive any.) The Rebels closed out January by losing at home to Arkansas and followed that up three days later with a 10-point loss at Kentucky. Ole Miss rebounded to beat Bama in Oxford, but then dropped its second game to Mississippi State with five days to prepare.

Not many would have figured back in October that Ole Miss would be behind Florida and Arkansas at this point in the SEC schedule, sitting with a 5-5 record as Vanderbilt comes into town. The importance of the Vanderbilt game from the perspective of those in Oxford cannot be diminished. The Rebels are perched on the bubble as squarely as any team can be: Their overall record is good at 17-7, but they are in seventh place in a conference still trying to earn better national recognition outside of Lexington, Ky.

Vanderbilt is Ole Miss'  last chance to secure one more win over a team with a number before its name in the box score. Commodore fans better believe the Rebels will be ready for Thursday night.

Starting Lineup

Forward – Terrance Henry – Sophomore, 6'9", 202; 2009-10: 5.8 ppg, 3.0 rpg, .517 3PT %, .632 FG %

While Ole Miss' backcourt had the name recognition throughout the SEC coming into the season, the effective shooting of Henry and fellow sophomore forward Murphy Holloway deserves some recognition. Henry is shooting just over 63 % from the field; his 52 % shooting from three is the only thing that has really pulled down that staggering rate of efficiency. Henry practically carried the Rebels in the Alabama win (the Rebels' only win in their past four outings), scoring 20 points on 6-of-10 shooting, while making 8 of 9 from the charity stripe. Henry's stellar shooting from beyond the arc has cooled off recently, however. In his past four games, Henry is only 1 of 8 from three. Henry is without a doubt the most improved Rebel this season.

Forward – Murphy Holloway – Sophomore 6'7", 230; 2009-10: 9.6 ppg, 6.8 rpg, .556 FG %

Holloway forms the other half of Mississippi's high-percentage frontcourt. Though two inches shorter than Henry, Holloway is a bigger body and does more of the low-post work. While Henry and the backup big men on Ole Miss will sometimes drift away from the low block, Holloway rarely shoots from the perimeter. He clearly understands how he fits in the Rebel offense and has not attempted a 3-pointer all season. An area of Holloway's game that has faded a bit recently is his penchant early in the season for getting offensive rebounds. Whereas earlier in the season it would not be uncommon for him to get between four and eight offensive boards, he has a total of only two in his last three games. Vandy cannot let him break out of that funk Thursday night.

Guard – Eniel Polynice – Junior, 6'5", 220; 2009-10: 10.8 ppg, 4.2 apg, 4.3 rpg

While Polynice's (rounded) average of 11 points a game should not be ignored, he makes his money on the defensive end. (Not literally – that would be a violation, of course.) He has a height of 6'5", but his reach is equal to that of someone three inches taller. His combined reach and quickness make his probable matchup with Jeffery Taylor the individual battle to watch. If anyone on the Rebels is capable of slowing the big Swedish sophomore who happens to be the reigning SEC Player of the Week, it would be Polynice, who – as a redshirt junior – is Kennedy's most experienced regular performer.

Guard– Chris Warren – Junior, 5'10", 168; 2009-10: 16.2 ppg, 3.3 rpg, .397 3PT %

Expectations coming into the season were high for Warren, whom the media named preseason 2nd Team All-SEC. That is quite a compliment considering the fact that he tore his ACL before last year's SEC season even began in a game against Louisville on Dec. 18, 2008. The junior point guard from Orlando, Fla., has returned this season to prove he can be just as effective as he was prior to the injury. One could argue the injury helped Warren improve his shooting. Though he has always been an excellent foul shooter, over 80 % for his career, his 3-point shooting percentage is nearly 10 % higher than in his sophomore year, and his overall shooting has inched over the 40 % barrier. Warren has put up double-digit scoring in all but three games this year. Unfortunately for him and the Rebels, one of those was a three-point performance in UM's most recent game against Mississippi State. Commodores beware: The last time Vanderbilt traveled to Oxford in 2008, Warren dropped 20 points in a 16-point Rebel victory over the Dores.

Guard – Terrico White – Sophomore, 6'5", 213; 2009-10: 14.8 ppg, 4.6 rpg, .344 3PT %

White is the reigning SEC Freshman of the Year. As would be expected for someone achieving such an honor, he was named to the preseason 1st Team All-SEC squad for 2009-10. That distinction has not kept him out of Andy Kennedy's doghouse, however.

In an attempt to break White out of his inconsistent play, Kennedy did not start the sophomore sensation at Starkville. While it did not help the overall cause (Ole Miss lost), White seemed to respond well. He scored 13 points and shot 50 % from the field. He was only 1 of 4, however, from three. While there has been a sense of frustration surrounding White, his numbers have improved this season in nearly every meaningful stat but assists, which can be explained by the fact that he played the point after Warren's injury last year. The key to guarding White is to make him dribble. He is often content to settle for open jump shots and when he does drive, the shot that follows is usually a floater as opposed to a bust toward the rim. If allowed to shoot outside, White may punish the VU defense so he must be pressured at all times.

Bench

Long, rangy 6'8" forward Reginald Buckner was the prize of Kennedy's recruiting class and entered Ole Miss with a reputation for shot blocking. As a high school senior, he broke the Memphis-area blocked shot record previously held by Mississippi State's Jarvis Varnado. Kennedy calls Buckner his "strongest and most athletic post player," but he has lacked the big man's presence inside due to an ankle injury suffered against Auburn. Kennedy hopes Buckner's five points, five rebounds, and 2.2 blocks per game will return against the Commodores.

Ole Miss has even more frontline depth in another Orlando native, 6'9" forward DeAundre Cranston. The senior fills his role nicely, usually playing just under 20 minutes while averaging 4.5 ppg and 4.2 rpg. The backcourt reserves are 6'6" junior Zach Graham and 6'2" sophomore Trevor Gaskins. Graham scores just under 10 points per game and uses his long frame to get shots off behind the arc, where he is shooting 41 %.  Gaskins averages 4.1 points and 1.7 assists per game while averaging 24 minutes a night. Gaskins is coming off one of his better games, a 10-point showing at Mississippi State. The performance marked only his second game in double figures all season.

Kennedy plays his subs a significant number of minutes. Of the top four reserves named above, not one plays less than 20 minutes per game (Buckner).

Keys to the Game

  1. Play field goal percentage defense. Out of Ole Miss' top nine players, only one, Gaskins, shoots below 40 %.  The Rebels as a team shoot .458 from the field and .357 from three. While this area of strength for Mississippi cannot be removed from the equation, there are a couple of simple tactics coach Stallings's squad can employ to lower the Rebels' shooting Thursday night. One is getting two Commodores back to limit Ole Miss' fast-break opportunities. Having a high shooting percentage is evidence of an excellent fast break team, so the Dores need to be in the proper position to take away those chances.

    Second, Vandy needs to limit its turnovers. This goes without saying of course, but it never hurts to mention it. If Ole Miss is picking off passes, expect to see some rim rattling. Don't forget that the Rebels are long, athletic, and able to get into passing lanes. 

  1. Shot selection. Or, to put it another way, offensive patience. If Vandy follows its M.O. from the past two games, its offense will feature inside play near the rim. The benefits of such an offensive style are twofold. First, this approach gets easy looks at the basket. Second, it will earn the Dores many trips to the foul line, where they have attempted 86 free throws in the past two games. Besides the "free" points that repeated trips to the charity stripe usually earn, a parade to the foul line also means that Warren will not be leading his UM troops up the court on fast breaks. Combined with an inside-first mentality, VU must also pick its spots and take wise shots from the perimeter. Besides being open, it is important that Vandy has players in position for offensive rebounds at the time 3-pointers are released; otherwise, it will be off to the races for the Rebels.

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