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March 15, 2007

GAME DAY REPORT: Vanderbilt vs. George Washington

QUICK FACTS
Vanderbilt (20-11, 10-5 SEC) vs. George Washington (23-8, 11-5 A-10). Tip-off is 3:55 CT.

Rankings: Neither team is ranked. Vanderbilt is a six seed; GW is an 11 seed.

RPI: Vanderbilt-47 (SOS-23) ; GW-71 (SOS-156)

Line: Vanderbilt is favored by 3.5

Coaches: Kevin Stallings is in his eighth year at Vanderbilt (142-107) and his 14th year overall (265-170); Karl Hobbs is in his sixth year at George Washington (114-64) and his sixth year overall (114-64).

Series: This is the second meeting between the two schools. Vanderbilt won their only previous contest 76-74 on Dec. 1, 1990 in the championship game of the Apple Invitational hosted by Stanford University.

Radio: WGFX 104.5 FM. Television: CBS Sports.


STARTING LINEUPS

Vanderbilt
3 - Alex Gordon, G, 5-11, 164, Jr., Pensacola, Fla. (7.7 ppg, 3.4 apg)

32 - Shan Foster, G/F, 6-6, 200, Jr., Kenner, La. (15.4 ppg, 4.8 rpg)

4 - Derrick Byars, G/F, 6-7, 230, Sr.-Tr., Memphis, Tenn. Tenn. (16.8 ppg, 4.9 rpg, 3.4 apg)

20 - Dan Cage, G, 6-5, 215, Sr., Indianapolis, Ind. (11.2 ppg, 3.0 rpg)

41 - Ross Neltner, F, 6-9, 247, Jr.-Tr., Fort Thomas, Ky. Ky. (9.7 ppg, 5.8 rpg, 2.2 apg)


George Washington

25 - Carl Elliott, G, 6-4, 220, Sr., Brooklyn, N.Y. (13.1 ppg, 5.1 rpg, 4.9 apg)

21 - Maureece Rice, G, 6-1, 215, Jr., Philadelphia, PA. (16.3 ppg, 3.6 rpg, 2.1 apg)

13 - Rob Diggs, F, 6-8, 180, So., Brandywine, MD. (10.7 ppg, 5.1 rpg)

3 - Regis Koundjia, F, 6-8, 215, Jr., Bangui, Senegal. (7.4 ppg, 5.0 rpg, 0.4 bpg)

51 - Dokun Akingbade, F, 6-6, 200, Sr., Riverdale, MD. (7.3 ppg, 5.5 rpg, 0.7 bpg)


SCOUTING GEORGE WASHINGTON

This was thought to be a rebuilding year for the Colonials. And until a month ago, that's exactly what it was. On February 14, GW had dropped four games in a row: by 15 at Dayton (75), by 10 at St. Louis, by 29 at home to Xavier, and by six at St. Joseph's. Needless to say, no one in the nation's capital was even thinking NIT at that point, let alone the NCAAs.

But GW has not lost a game since. Stringing together five regular season ending wins and sweeping the A-10, George Washington -- now 20-8, grabbed the conference's automatic bid to the Big Dance.

But what isn't included in these impressive stats is "the rest of the story." Those five wins at the end of the regular season came against what many would consider the worst teams in the A-10 conference: Temple (182), Richmond (272), LaSalle (268), Charlotte (146) and Duquense (222). To put that in perspective, Auburn's 114 RPI is the worst in the SEC.

In addition, GW didn't have to beat the best team in the league in the conference tournament. Xavier, which received a controversial at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament, was upset in the semifinals of the A-10 tournament by a bad Rhode Island team. GW was blown off the court by Xavier by 29 during the regular season.

As a result, GW got the league's automatic bid by defeating St. Joseph's (95), St. Louis and URI (109). Not exactly the murderer's row that is the SEC Tournament.

That said, GW does boast one good win. They defeated an impressive Virginia Tech team back in December (63-62). Tech, with a 34 RPI, received a five seed in the Big Dance -- the equivalent of Tennessee of the SEC, a team VU split with during the regular season.

Strength of schedule can sometimes be misleading. But in GW's case, you have to look long and hard to find many teams they've faced that are of the caliber VU faced both in pre-conference and during the SEC schedule. Fully 12 of GW's wins came against teams with RPI's worse than 200. It didn't help that the usually competitive A-10 ranked 10th as a conference in the RPI. Six of the league's 14 teams finished with RPIs of 146 or worse.

The Colonials faced three NCAA Tournament teams, finishing 1-2. In addition to the one point VaTech win, GW fell 74-65 to Southern Cal (40), and the aforementioned 87-58 loss to Xavier. Of note, they also lost 66-52 to bubble team Air Force on a neutral court, and 91-84 to a UMass team that beat Alabama by one in overtime in the NIT last night.

Coach Hobbs' defense is their best offense. Employing a combination of frantic zone traps, the Colonials try to play to their strength to cover their interior weakness. Rice and Elliott are the best guard tandem in the A-10, and play a prototypical push-and-grab eastern style of ball that has consistently intimidated and overwhelmed less athletic and poised guards.

Rice leads the team with 16.3 points per game and is the only Colonial that is a legit 3-point threat. Elliott adds 13.1 points and 4.9 assists per game, and is Hobbs' glue man. The two have enough talent, moxy and physical strength to beat you with little help from the frontcourt. Both will play virtually every minute of the game today.

That's GW's good news. Now for the bad. GW is a physically thin team on the front line. In fact, Elliott and Rice are heavier and more athletic than anyone they have inside. And, if their defense can't cause turnovers and easy fast break baskets, the Colonials' forwards get easily picked apart in a set offense. Diggs has emerged as a star of the future, but simply doesn't yet have the beef to battle in the paint.

There's not much help on the bench. None of the back-up guards are anywhere near the ability of Rice and Elliott, and the inside players are young and not very skilled offensively.

GW is holding opponents to 32.7 percent from three, and VU shoots 38.6 percent from three as a team. But, clearly GW's schedule hasn't featured any team that can come close to the kind of outside marksmanship that the Commodores boast.

GW has been willing to gamble on defense, hoping to frustrate you into turnovers before you can get the ball to your shooters. But, in Vandy's case, the shooters are everywhere you look, and Stallings has been phenomenal at running set plays to get easy baskets against teams that overplay the perimeter.

Can GW's stellar guards do to VU what no SEC team has done this year? That will be the decisive answer that will determine the winner today.


OUR TAKES

Mike Rapp
Franklin, Tenn.
VandySports.com Publisher


Admittedly, I knew nothing about George Washington before the brackets were announced. And, being the mid-major partisan that I am, I always believe there is a lot more talent and coaching ability in the no-name conferences than most people care to believe.

But, the more I have studied this match-up, the more convinced I am that this is a match made in heaven for Stallings...and a match made in hell for Hobbs.

I never buy into the idea that just because you haven't played good teams doesn't mean you can't beat good teams. But look at the way GW made this tournament: The meat of their schedule looks like what would be Vandy's easiest pre-conference schedule in decades.

The fact of the matter is, had the Colonials lost in the A-10 tournament, they never would have made this field. Frankly, this team may be over-seeded at a 11.

But the reason they are a 11 is obvious. Rice and Elliott are absolutely fabulous guards who could play for any SEC team short of Florida. They are physical, strong, smart and very skilled. And, of particular note, Rice can drive the lane and bully you back onto your heels. If officials let them play, Rice can cause big, big problems for Beal and Gordon off the dribble. We've certainly seen that happen many times this year with guards who are not the equal of these two.

But try as I might to give GW a fighting chance in this one, I just can't. No matter how good Rice and Elliott are, Vandy has seen better players across the board in the SEC -- and a lot more of them. Plus, GW has not played a team whose guards are 6-7 and 6-6, and can shoot the 3 with dead-eye accuracy.

Put simply, Vanderbilt is the best team GW has faced this year.

The key for the Commodores is to burn GW when they trap. Rice and Elliott will give token pressure until the moment you cross halfcourt, and then try to attack you with a double team right at the halfcourt line. If Beal, Gordon and Byars get sloppy with the ball, they will play right into the Colonials' short hand.

That said, Stallings and the team already know this. And no SEC coach has proven better at game planning these sorts of situations than Stallings. I expect Stallings to push the tempo and try to get GW on their heels early, to eliminate their defensive strategy.

While Byars and Foster have to be special today, I think the key player will be Cage. With overplaying guards and an average frontline, Cage will be free to run the baseline. If Hobbs does indeed run a 1-3-1, Foster and Cage should get wide open looks all day long. And in a shooter's gym like Arco Arena, that bodes very, very well for the Commodores.

Watch VU run some of the set plays that have worked so well all season long. In particular, I expect to see the play where Neltner scored near the end of the Arkansas game; It's worked brilliantly every time Stallings has called it. Also, watch for the flat out of bounds play that has give Cage an absurdly easy 3-point shot time and again.

The only way VU loses this game is if Byars and Foster come up empty, and neither Gordon nor Beal take care of the ball. I see neither happening today. It's on to the round of 32 for the 'Dores.

Vanderbilt 84, George Washington 69


Chris Lee
VandySports.com Publisher
Nashville, Tenn.


At first glance, this matchup spells trouble for Vandy because GW has big, athletic guards who can get out and guard. On second glance, I am not so sure that this will be as problematic as it appears.

The first reason is because I can't remember teams effectively trap the Commodores all year.

The second is that the Colonials like to use a 1-3-1, which Vandy has played EXTREMELY well against.

The third is that players like Byars, Cage and Foster may be taller than the defenders they're matched against, which should make it easier to throw against the traps.

Fourth, I think that Neltner's presence gives Vandy even one more player who can pass well, and I doubt that GW has seen a lineup of five players who can do what these five will do.

Finally, the Commodores generally just don't turn the ball over a lot. In fact, they average fewer than 13 miscues a game. A lot of the Colonials' success is predicated on taking teams out of their games, and while I think GW will have some success in forcing turnovers, let's remember that even a Florida defense that likes to trap forced just 24 turnovers in two games against Vandy.

With all due respect to the Colonials, who in my mind are firmly entrenched among the nation's top 40 programs, I don't think they'll be successful employing something that even the defending national champions couldn't pull off.

If I'm correct in my thinking, GW's Karl Hobbs will have to find something other than what was his team's winning formula all season long, and a first-round NCAA game isn't the time to break in a new strategy.

And while I admit it is fully possible that things won't happen as clear-cut as I've outlined, I just think that the combination of Foster, Byars and Cage getting open looks against the traps stack the deck in Vandy's favor. Plus, the Commodores seem to have a higher ceiling if you look at the teams each program beat this season.

I think that either this game will prove to be an awful matchup for a good GW team -- and the Commodores win going away -- or Vandy will win down the stretch through superior execution and free-throw shooting (check out Vandy's track record in close games over the last two months).

Vanderbilt 80, George Washington 69

Note: Tommy Crockett, one of our regulars in the Game Day Report feature, will not be filing a report today. Tom will be your staff writer in Sacramento this weekend.


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