It really is put-up-or-shut-up time for Vandy. A fine season needs to be accompanied by a first-round win in the Big Dance. One might recall how South Carolina, in 1997 and 1998, lost as a 2 seed and then as a 3 seed. The Gamecocks never recovered as a program from those two collapses. Vandy faces the possibility of a similar dynamic on Thursday.
VU – a 4 seed in the 2008 tournament – lost to a hungry, long-ball-bombing bunch from Siena. A lot of pundits think the Dores will get dumped by the side of The Road to the Final Four in this midday matinee against the revved-up Racers, who are regarded as one of the best teams produced by the Ohio Valley Conference in quite some time.
It will be hard – in what is likely to be a half-full HP Pavilion – for Vandy to draw energy from the crowd in the first half, so all the "oomph" and effort must come within the hearts of this Commodore roster. Ticketholders will fill the arena in the second half, as the Butler-UTEP game awaits 30 minutes following the conclusion of this 4-13 clash. However, in the first 20 minutes, VU must look inside and create enough juice to get the jump on the Racers.
It's really important that the Dores do the deed this time around. Another loss as a 4 seed would be psychologically devastating for this program. Perhaps an excellent Butler team or a powerful UTEP outfit will knock off Vandy in the round of 32 – no shame there – but if VU can't at least get through round one, you know what the national college basketball chorus is going to be: "Vandy's soft. Charmin could play tougher and fight better than VU can in the NCAA Tournament."
The Dores don't want to face that kind of music, unjustified though it would be. It's time for this team – after a timid showing against Mississippi State in the SEC semifinals – to come hard and strong from the opening tip, and outmuscle Murray with a flurry of force and physicality.
MURRAY STATE AT-A-GLANCE
The Racers (30-4) finally got over the hump in the Ohio Valley Conference after three straight years of second-place finishes. Coach Billy Kennedy's club earned its trip to San Jose by defeating Morehead State, 62-51, in the OVC Championship Game on Mar. 6.
While the NCAA attempts to keep No. 1-4 seeds close to home, that intention evidently did not extend to this matchup. While Vandy and Murray St. are situated just over 100 miles from each other, the two programs will need to travel to the West Coast to fight it out in the first round.
While the following factoids don't tell you everything, it's worth noting that VU and Murray St. have two common opponents this season. Vandy defeated Tennessee St., 84-71, in non-conference play while the Racers swept Tennessee St. in conference competition by scores of 80-59 and 76-54. Both squads fell to Western Kentucky: VU lost by a score of 76-69 on Dec. 11, while Murray St. lost to the Hilltoppers a week and a half later, 83-72.
Two numbers jump out when you look at the Racers' record and statistics. The most obvious figure is their 30 wins, bested by only Kentucky and Kansas (each with 32.) The other statistic that opens your eyes is Murray State's field-goal percentage, 50.3 %, also third-best in the NCAA (behind only Syracuse and IUPUI).
The Racers' high shooting percentage comes with offensive balance in a potent and pretty package. Five players average double figures in scoring, but the highest scorer is Ivan Aska at 10.6 points per game, while the lowest in double digits is Isaiah Canaan at 10.3. Even more, the Racers had a player reach 20 points in only seven games this season, with the highest single-game total coming from Danero Thomas and B.J. Jenkins, who scored 23 points on back-to-back nights in early February.
What does this indicate for VU fans? Murray St. is an unselfish club that doesn't care who ultimately scores. While that can make for a difficult early afternoon on Thursday and force Vandy to watch every Racer player on the floor, it also means no one on this Murray St. team is used to being the go-to player in crunch time.
While the field-goal percentage number is interesting, the Racers earned their success to an even greater degree at the defensive end of the floor. Opponents shot only 38.6 % against Murray St., which is ranked 11th nationally in that category. The Racers are also fifth in the nation in steals per game, swiping 10 on average.
What can Commodore fans expect to see when their team tips off late in the morning in California?
Expect to see Murray St. push the ball for easy opportunities, but if the fast break isn't there, the Racers will patiently look for a great shot, either inside or outside. When the Dores have the ball, look for the interior passing lanes to be taken away and for the motley Murray crew to tempt VU into taking long-range jump shots.
Forward – Danero Thomas – Senior, 6'4", 190; 2009-10: 10.4 ppg, 4.2 rpg, 2.5 apg.
One of two seniors in Kennedy's starting lineup, Thomas is slightly undersized to play on the front line but still is a physical presence. During the OVC Tournament, he did not let poor shooting affect his play in an early-round game against Eastern Illinois. Thomas grabbed 17 rebounds in the final two games of the tournament and made himself useful in multiple ways. While Thomas is not a primary ball handler, he is a very effective playmaker, averaging almost five assists per game in the conference tournament. Expect to see him matched up with Jeffery Taylor. While Taylor is three inches taller, it should be said that Thomas generally makes up for his size with his experience and savvy. Taylor, though, is the better athlete.
Forward – Ivan Aska – Sophomore, 6'7", 230; 2009-10: 10.6 ppg, 4.9 rpg
The 2009 OVC Freshman of the Year, Aska has been called the best post player on the team by Kennedy, his coach. Something that always seems to emerge every March is a post player from a so-called mid-major who is fundamentally sound in the post, even if he is undersized. The sophomore from Fort Lauderdale, Fla., is one of those guys – Aska is able to score with both hands. Logic dictates Andre Walker will be matched up with Aska due to their similar size and build. If Aska is finding success, however, it will be interesting to see how Kevin Stallings counters. Will he switch Ogilvy onto him, and risk foul trouble while doing so? Or will he bring someone off the bench, maybe Festus Ezeli or Steve Tchiengang, to guard him? Either of the last two will be targets for Billy Kennedy due to their propensity for foul trouble. Aska will also see time at center when Tony Easley is out of the ballgame.
Center – Tony Easley – Senior, 6'9", 200; 2009-10: 10.4 ppg, 5.8 rpg, 2.7 bpg
Think of Tony Easley as "Jarvis Varnado Light." Commodore fans should certainly hope Easley doesn't have a Varnado-like impact on this Thursday throwdown… not after seeing what the Mississippi St. senior did to VU in the SEC Tournament semifinals. Easley has blocked 93 shots this season with his thin, long, and athletic body. Twice this year he has had games of seven blocks, and he's also had six-block games twice. Easley does not take a bunch of shots, but he makes the ones he takes, shooting 66.8 % from the field. It doesn't pay to foul this big man either, as he's knocking down almost 71 % of his shots from the charity stripe. What's intriguing about Easley is that for a player who blocks a lot of shots, he's fouled out of only one game, the first game of the season at California last November.
Guard – Isaac Miles – Junior, 6'2", 205; 2009-10: 9.5 ppg, 3.8 apg .359 3P%
What makes Murray so hard to guard is that in addition to two post players who are effective with the basketball, Kennedy has two starting guards at his disposal who can consistently drain 3-pointers. Miles, a transfer from Creighton and a returning starter from last year's Racer team, is the floor general. While his shooting declined toward the end of the season - for example, he went 1 of 7 in a late-season win over Morgan St. – he has routinely chalked up assists while keeping his turnovers down. In the OVC Tournament opener, Miles unbelievably dished out 11 assists compared to only two turnovers. He will have his hands full with Jermaine Beal, though. Miles has not had to guard a point guard of Beal's ability all year with the exception of maybe Jerome Randle of Cal. While that game was ages ago in terms of this season's schedule, Randle torched the Racers for 18 points, earning 11 free throw attempts. If that night is indicative of Miles' performance against a high-level, experienced point guard, Beal should be one of the featured players in the Vanderbilt attack.
Guard – B.J. Jenkins – Junior, 6'0" 205; 2009-10: 10.5 ppg, 3.2 apg, .377 3PT %
This is Jenkins' first season with the Racers after playing the 2007 and 2008 seasons at Liberty. Whether John Jenkins guards him, or Brad Tinsley returns to the starting lineup, both need to be aware of Jenkins' location on the court as he takes an average of five 3-pointers a game. The best method for defending him may be to force him to dribble: Jenkins usually turns the ball over a couple of times a game.
Isaiah Canaan, a freshman from Biloxi, Miss., is the first guard off the bench and the backup point guard for Murray. He was at his finest in the OVC Championship. He scored 16 points, making 3 of 5 3-pointers, while contributing five assists and coughing up only one turnover. When he plays well at the point, it allows Kennedy to move Miles over to the shooting guard position. Donte Poole is a backup wing who averages five points a game, but he has not hit that mark scoring since a win over SIU Edwardsville on Jan. 27. Jeffery McClain provides the Racers their only source of real frontcourt relief and is an effective rebounder with just over four a game.
Keys to the Game
1) A.J. Ogilvy needs to reestablish himself in the post. While the Sydney, Australia native has a reputation for excellent offensive skills in the post and demonstrates that by making over half of his shots, he is also developing a reputation for not scoring in important games. In VU's five biggest games of the season, the four against Kentucky and Tennessee as well as the SEC semi against Mississippi St., Ogilvy failed to reach both his scoring and rebounding averages. Early Thursday, Ogilvy needs to take the ball and attack the Racer post players. Murray St. does not have much depth inside, and aggressiveness by Ogilvy means the same will follow from the rest of the Commodores. Most importantly, he needs to ignore the officials and concentrate on his game. If he has another two-point and four-rebound game as he did last week against Mississippi St., the Commodores may be back in Nashville before the weekend starts.
2) Control the defensive glass. Murray St. can wear out an opponent while waiting to get the best shot. Nothing can be more demoralizing for a defense than to defend for 25-30 seconds, force a missed shot, but have the opponent grab the offensive rebound and restart the process. Rebounds become even more valuable when you consider the Racers' excellent shooting ability. Giving up offensive rebounds to a team that shoots better than 50 % not only can, but WILL, lead to a frustrating afternoon in San Jose.