GAME DAY REPORT: Vanderbilt vs. Auburn

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• Records: Vanderbilt (10-4), Auburn (10-5)
• Tip-off: 5:30 CDT
• Series Info: 126th meeting; Vanderbilt leads the overall series 75-50; Vanderbilt leads 30-28 in Auburn and 44-16 in Nashville; Auburn leads 6-1 at neutral sites. Vanderbilt won both meetings: 74-50 at Memorial Gymnasium in Nashville on Jan. 7 and 76-71 in the first round of the SEC Tournament at the Gaylord Entertainment Center in Nashville on March 9.
• Coaches: Kevin Stallings is in his eighth year at Vanderbilt (132-100) and his 14th year overall (255-163); Jeff Lebo is in his third year at Auburn (36-38) and his ninth year overall (290-186).
• Broadcast/Radio:Vanderbilt-ISP Radio Network (WGFX 104.5 FM); Joe Fisher (ninth year) provides play-by-play alongside color analyst Tim Thompson (sixth year). Bob Horner (25th year) produces.
• Broadcast/Television:FSN/Sun Sports. Rich Waltz provides play-by-play alongside color analyst Eddie Fogler. Andy Pollack produces. Mike Miller directs.
3 - Alex Gordon, G, 5-11, 164, Jr. (8.0 ppg, 3.7 apg).
32 - Shan Foster, G/F, 6-6, 200, Jr. (15.4 ppg, 4.7 rpg).
4 - Derrick Byars, G/F, 6-7, 230, Sr.-Tr. (14.3 ppg, 4.6 rpg, 3.4 apg).
20 - Dan Cage, G, 6-5, 215, Sr. (10.3 ppg, 3.0 rpg).
41 - Ross Neltner, F, 6-9, 247, Jr.-Tr. (11.7 ppg, 5.8 rpg)
23 - Quantez Robertson, G, 6-3, 190, So. (8.0 ppg, 5.3 apg, 4.6 rpg).
1 - Frank Tolbert, G, 6-4, 210, Jr. (12.0 ppg, 5.7 rpg).
2 - Archie Miaway, G, 6-4, 202, Jr. (5.4 ppg, 1.1 rpg)
32 - Korvotney Barber, F, 6-7, 220, So. (13.5 ppg, 7.1 rpg)
24 - Quan Prowell, F, 6-8, 215, Jr. (12.5 ppg, 6.5 rpg)
The SEC season begins this weekend for both Vanderbilt and Auburn, as the Commodores travel to the Plains to face Jeff Lebo's still-rebuilding Tigers.
Since Lebo came to town, Auburn (10-5) has faced a long and winding road back to respectability. Clearly, Lebo still has a good piece of that road to travel.
While Auburn has 10 wins to brag about, seven have come against teams whose RPIs rank below 200. Most glaring is the fact that on November 28 Nicholls State (271 RPI) took Auburn to overtime before falling 92-87. Vandy decimated Nicholls 76-40 just two weeks ago in a game that could politely be called a quantum talent mismatch.
Most recently, the Tigers lost to C-USA border rival Southern Mississippi (6-2) this past Tuesday, 56-54.
AU, in Lebo's third season, ranks last in the SEC in the latest RPI (163). The Tigers also rank in the bottom third of the league in every key statistical category, including 11th in both field goal percentage defense and scoring margin.
They are, however, tied with Florida for first in the league in assists, thanks to the stellar play of Lebo's two best players. Sophomore point guard Quantez Robertson's 5.27 assists per game, and power forward Korvotney Barber's 65% field goal percentage, rank No. 1 in the SEC in both categories.
Barber, who stands just 6-foot-7, is also second in the SEC in offensive rebounding, barely behind LSU man-child Glen Davis. But, this is largely due to the fact that the Tigers rank near the bottom of the league in field goal percentage. AU is also dead last in the league in free throw percentage. Clearly, Lebo -- a sharp shooter in college as a player -- has another bad shooting Auburn team this year.
Auburn has benefitted from the addition of freshman shooting guard DeWayne Reed, who is getting 22 minutes a game. Reed is averaging a sky-high 4.2 assists in Lebo's fast-paced running game that often relies on a full court press. He is also dropping 7.8 points per game.
Recently, Auburn regained the services of guard Josh Dollard, who was suspended the last five games of 2006 and the first six games of 2006 for a violation of team rules. Dillard has come back with a vengance, just missing a triple double in Auburn's game against Tennessee State on December 19.
Now for the bad news: Vandy may not be much better. The Commodores rank 11th in the SEC in RPI (158), with the second-worst strength of schedule (235), and have done little to bolster what was a questionable inside game heading into the season.
Vanderbilt has been out-rebounded in all but three of their games thus far, and that includes teams like Furman, Appalachian State and Toledo. VU did regain the services of Alan Metcalfe against Alabama A&M, but it was clear he was anything but full strength after coming off of a broken foot.
Compared to the rest of the SEC, as usual, Vandy ranks at or near the bottom in every rebounding category. VU also ranks 10th in field goal percentage defense, and 11th in scoring defense, and is the only SEC team without a player ranked in the top 15 in blocked shots.
If there is good news, it is that Vanderbilt's faster-paced offense has brought the higher-scoring game fans and players had hoped for. Vandy's 79.4 points per game is fourth in the league, and their +12.1 scoring margin ranks sixth.
Vandy also ranks No. 1 in free throw percentage at 72 percent, and No. 1 in assist-to-turnover ratio. Junior point guard Alex Gordon gets much of the credit for the latter stat, as he ranks fifth in the SEC in assist-to-turnover ratio (2.36), a notch ahead of Alabama's Ronald Steele.
However, only Auburn has attempted more 3-pointers than Vandy, and VU's 36 percent 3-point shooting ranks them just ninth in the league. For a team that relies so heavily on outside shooting accuracy, and so little on offensive rebounding, this is a clear and present danger for Coach Stallings.
Another interesting stat: Auburn and Vanderbilt are dead even in both field goal percentage (47 percent) and field goal defense (43 percent).
Fairly or not, the loser of today's game will inherit the tag of the SEC's worst team. If either expects to have much hope of making the post-season, a win today is paramount. If Auburn is to win, it will likely come via a stellar paint performance from Barber and Frank Tolbert.
For Vandy, it will almost certainly come from a standout shooting performance from Shan Foster, Derrick Byars and Dan Cage, and continued good ball handling from Gordon. Barber is one of the biggest and most physical players Vandy will face this year, and is capable of single-handedly burying the 'Dores on the glass if Vandy isn't hitting their open outside shots.
VU is coming off a road win at Rice, in which they raced out to an 18-0 lead. But after leading by as many as 24, VU squeaked out the win after failing to sink a basket in the game's final nine minutes.
Can Gordon keep his cool against Lebo's full court press? Can Neltner and Skuchas hold Barber in check without getting into foul trouble? The real season starts today, and the time for prognosticating is now officially over.
Mike Rapp
Franklin, Tenn. Publisher
My take: As is often the case, the first game of the conference schedule looms larger than perhaps it should -- and that is certainly the case for VU and Auburn. The loser of today's game suddenly finds itself at a serious disadvantage in league play, because of how strong the top half of the conference is this year.
One stat that really shocked me was how poorly Vandy is shooting the ball from three. Given the fact that, honestly, this is the strong point of their offense, I don't know what to think now that they start playing teams that are filled with multi-dimensional athletes. Vanderbilt simply has to shoot better than 40% from three tonight, or they will get dinked and dunked in the paint all night long by Barber and Tolbert.
Lebo has done very little to make Auburn competitive so far. But, with Dollard back, and two superior ball handlers in Robertson and Reed, they may have just enough of what VU doesn't to steal a win they really shouldn't get.
Player to watch: Barber. He's beefy and physical, and is one of the most unsung players in the league. The kid cleans up on the offensive glass, and given VU's non-existant rebounding presence so far this year, he could easily get 20 by just sticking to his traditional game plan.
X-factor: Officiating. Now that we're in SEC play, you have to start planning for home cooking. Quick fouls on VU's inside players spells almost certain doom for VU.
Key to a Vandy win: Shoot well from three early... very early. That may help avoid allowing Auburn grind Vandy down and push Neltner, Skuchas and Brown around on the blocks. With Auburn shooting a dismal 24 percent from three, there's no doubt VU will employ their zone. This one will go to the wire, and whichever team comes up with the big shots under five minutes left will come away with the win.
Tommy Crockett
Reno, Nevada Staff Writer
My take: Vandy is traveling to Auburn to take on a fairly decent Auburn squad. Throw their less than spectacular record out the window and remember that every Tiger is going to play defense as well as they are able and every game will be decided by scrappy play. Vandy has the gunners to knock the Tigers out early the question remains can they put together an entire game with limited personnel?
Player to watch: Foster. The shooting slump comes and goes with Foster, but when Shan is feeling it he's as deadly as anybody in the country. The Commodores have to have Foster knocking down at least his career average in both points and percentage to win in the SEC on the road.
X-factor: As always it's an X-factor by committee. But if Vandy is going to win this game Byars has to get back to his old self and put his woes in Houston behind him. If he doesn't score for average Vandy loses.
Key to a Vandy win: Everybody is on the same page defensively and the pressure is on. Auburn can and will burn Vanderbilt if they are zoned without regard of the probabilities of the three dribbling in. Vanderbilt must play for and gain a reputation for swarming to the ball.
Vandy's play without the ball is the key to a possible victory. They must scramble for every loose ball and go for the steal whenever possible. Vandy seems to run out of gas too quickly which is understandable given the lack of bodies to go around.
Jesse Johnson
Murfreesboro, Tenn. Recruiting Analyst
My Take: Vanderbilt comes into this game in search of their first SEC opener on the road since the 1989-90 season. And this game could be a question of what Vanderbilt team shows up. If the unit that beat Georgia Tech shows up or the one that dominated Rice in the first half, then the Dores might just end that road drought. But if the other one that we saw in the second half against Rice rears it's ugly head, then things could get very bad for the team from Music City.
Auburn is still a considerably young team, energetic team, but they have been struggling to score as of late. A squad that normally shots a ton of three's, the Tigers have dipped below 30 percent from three in the last couple of games and the team has seemed to become a case of how Quan Prowell goes, is how the Tigers go.
A big key will be the point guard play of both teams as Auburn's Quantez Robertson will likely be matched up against the Dores Alex Gordon. Last year, Robertson played well against the Commodores in two games, scoring a combined 29 points and he played over 79 minutes with only turning the ball over twice. Gordon on the other hand scored just 11 points in 46 total minutes played. Whoever has the better game and can direct his team both offensively and defensively will likely come out the victor.
Player to Watch: Auburn's Rasheem Barrett. To put it quite simple, Barrett is a fun player to watch and his best years are still in front of him. Currently, he is averaging 12.3 points and 4.8 rebounds in 31 minutes each game out. Against Southern Miss, he struggled, only hitting 2-of-8 from the field and playing his lowest amount of minutes for the entire season.
Barrett will likely be looking to rebound. In his young career, he is around a 43 percent shooter from the field. He has struggled shooting the three this season however.
X-Factor: Derrick Byars. In order for Vanderbilt to win any SEC games this year, Derrick Byars must be Derrick Byars. The real Derrick Byars does not score just three points and foul out of a game after just 19 minutes. While Byars is an important asset to the Commodores defense, he must put look to score more as well and almost has to score around 12-15 points along with Foster and Neltner's scoring to give Vanderbilt a shot.
Keys to a Vandy win: Confidence. The unit came out with tremendous confidence to start the game against Rice. Everything was clicking and the 'Dores came ready to play. However, in the second half, it seemed as though Vanderbilt began to lose confidence as Rice brought their comeback.
This is going to happen a bunch in the SEC and good teams not only get up on others but they stomp them into the ground soon after. The key will be Vanderbilt to come out, shoot well, not give up loose rebounds, and mount some confidence. After that, and after they establish a lead, they must put Auburn behind them for good.
Chris Lee
Nashville, Tenn. Publisher
My take: It seems strange to say it, but this should be one of the key games of the year for Vanderbilt. The SEC is going to be brutal this season, and the Commodores can't look down the schedule at any team and circle them as an automatic win.
However, even though the game is on the road, Auburn isn't exactly an intimidating enviromnent, and Saturday's matchup should be one of the more winnable games for Vanderbilt from here on.
This is a night where the Commodores need to begin to find some consistentcy. Defense is likely going to be a problem all season, but the offensive field goal drought the last half of the second half of the Rice game was concerning. Vandy needs to start playing well from beginning to end against quality opponents, and this would be a good time to begin.
Player to watch: Barber. Too many teams have had their way with the Commodores on the offensive glass, and he presents a problem where the Commodores are weakest.
X-factor: Foster. Is he going to be the player who lit up Rice the first half, or the one who practically disappeared the second half?
Key to a Vandy win: The Commodores need to keep Barber off the glass, keep Neltner and Skuchas out of foul trouble, and Foster and Byars need to shoot well from outside.
Robbie Smoot
Nashville, Tenn. Writer
My take: This should be an interesting game, as even though Auburn is not considered one of the better teams in the conference, athletically they are right at the top.
Vandy will have to keep a short but very athletic front line of Barber (6'7), Prowell (6'8), and Dollard (6'7) off the boards. But Prowell, a Furman transfer who has played just four games with Auburn this year, has led the team in rebounding two of the last three games.
In terms of experience, Vanderbilt has the edge, starting two seniors and three juniors; Auburn will start some combination of five between two juniors, three sophomores and one freshman.
With the youth, you never know what to expect from the athleticly gifted, but very young Tigers. Auburn is the same team that got an overtime win versus Nichols State -- probably one of the worst teams in the country -- and also took one of the absolute best teams in the nation, Pittsburgh, down to the wire before losing by six.
Players to watch: Foster for VU: How he goes, seems to be how VU goes. Vanderbilt needs another big game from their presesaon first teamer. Also, Quan Prowell for Auburn: He may be such an unknown for VU that they don't know exactly how to play him.
X-Factor: This is a road game for VU, but don't expect a typical road atmosphere. The fans have not been supporting this Auburn team so far this season. With the sparse crowd, VU may feel like its more of a neutral court game, and you would think the veteran team could take advantage of it.
Key to Vandy win: Play solid, experienced basketball, and keep the Tigers from dominating the boards. Barber is very similiar to the big men of Georgia Tech and Appalachian State, both of whom Vandy struggled to keep off the offensive glass. Add Prowell, and Auburn can get after you on the boards.
Neltner, Metcalfe, Brown and Skooch absolutely have to block out, because Auburn will have some bad offense possesions. Lebo's bunch are not the most disciplined offensive team you will see, so it will be imperative for the Dores to pull the boards.
Quite frankly, this Vandy team has played much better since the Furman debacle. But, VU still seems to rely too much on how well they shoot the ball, as they just don't get easy baskets. Auburn is a team that is one of the weakest teams in the league, but I don't think people realize how athletic they really are. I recently heard Eddie Fogler say they were the most athletic team in the SEC.
If Vandy can get them to play poor, like they did vs Georgia Tech, they can win even though they are out matched greatly in terms of athleticism in the front line. But, unfortunately, they won't have the Memorial crowd to help rattle the Tigers. That being the case, I see VU having too much trouble pulling defensive rebounds vs that front line of Auburn, and the 'Dores start the season in the SEC 0-1.