GAME DAY REPORT: Vanderbilt vs. ETSU

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• Game time: Dec. 5, 2006, Memorial Gymnasium,
Nashville, Tenn.
• Tip-off: 9 p.m. (EST)
• Radio: 104.5 The Zone
• Television: CSS (Comcast or Charter Sports Southeast)
Vanderbilt (2-3) looks for its second win in a row against Atlantic Sun foe East Tennessee State (5-4) visits Memorial Gymnasium at 8 p.m. on Tuesday night. The game will be televised by CSS.
The Commodores, coming off an embarrassing home loss to Furman, rebounded with a thrilling 98-93 overtime win against Toledo on Saturday night. Vandy's Derrick Byars (28) and Ross Neltner (21) posted career highs in points, and Shan Foster busted out of a season-long slump with 21 more.
But the big play for Vandy came from from point guard Jermaine Beal, who had a breakout evening in scoring 13 points. Beal's drive and lay-in with 4.4 seconds left while being fouled, along with the ensuing free throw, gave Vandy a three-point lead.
Coach Murray Bartow's club, who has never beaten Vandy in seven tries, have won three in a row—all on the road. ETSU defeated Stetson 75-61 behind a career-high 20 points from Eryk Thomas on eight-of-11 shooting. Courtney Pigram added 18 points, while Brad Nuckles had 16 points and 11 rebounds.
This will be ETSU's second game against a Southeastern Conference foe this season. On November 19, the Bucs lost 64-58 at Auburn after shooting just 36 percent from the field.
The 6-foot-8 Nuckles has collected eleven career double-doubles, and the senior seems to be ETSU's emotional leader. He ranks in the top five in the Atlantic Sun in rebounds, blocks and field goal percentage.
He'll be joined on the front line by 6-foot-8 Andrew Reed and the 6-foot-6 Thomas, who is regarded as the team's best defender.
Pigram, the team's leading scorer at 16.8 per game, will start at shooting guard aside point man Tayloe Taylor. Taylor is filing in for freshman Dequan Twilley, a Shelbyville native who has missed the last five games for what the university termed "personal/family" reasons.
Twilley was thought to be available for ETSU's last two games, but did not log a minute in either game. The ETSU media relations staff lists Taylor as the starter for the Vandy game, and has not announced whether Twilley is expected to play on Tuesday.
The Bucs will likely show the Commodores a 1-3-1 look defensively, which they play quite often.
That should allow the Commodores Byars, Foster and Dan Cage some looks from three-point range. The Bucs give up over eight three-pointers per game, though opponents shoot just 33.5% from behind the arc against them.
Vanderbilt has had trouble on the backboards this season, being out-rebounded over five boards a game.
But rebounding is not an area of strength for ETSU, either. Despite Nuckles' presence, the Bucs have been out-rebounded by nearly two boards a game this season.
The teams also play different tempos; the Commodores like to run while ETSU likes to keep the scores in the 60's and force a lot of turnovers.
The Bucs force an average of 17.6 miscues a game, though they turn it over 18.2 times themselves. Meanwhile, the Commodores have done a good job of taking care of the ball, turning it over 13.4 times while forcing 16.3 per contest.
Jesse Johnson
Murfreesboro, Tenn. Publisher
My take: Vanderbilt's thrilling overtime win over Toledo Saturday might have been exactly what the Commodores needed. While it wasn't pretty and the defensive shortcomings were in full effect, Vanderbilt's top players came to play at the same time and other players such as Ross Neltner and freshmen point guard Jermaine Beal made their first big time contributions as Commodores in a very important game.
Those positives make this game against ETSU an even more important game. While the Buccaneers might not have the type of scorers Toledo had, they are a team coming into the game with three wins and confidence.
Vanderbilt has to take out that confidence early and Memorial Gym needs to have a few more butts in the seats.
Keys to a Vandy win: Continue the momentum. Derrick Byars and Shan Foster scored close to 50 points. For Vanderbilt, they need this to be a consistent in order to have a good season. If they are going to be called the best wing combo in the SEC, then they have to be a consistent scoring force.
Vanderbilt's defense was probably the worst it had been since the Wake Forest game, but Vanderbilt did battle at key times in the game and they will have to battle each and every game, even against East Tennessee State.
Player to watch: Ross Neltner. Neltner has shown recently why he was a former Kentucky Mr.Basketball with his solid shooting away from the basket and traditional post up skills.
Neltner can be a strong asset to Vanderbilt's success if he continues his strong play. The Neltner that played against Toledo, can make Vanderbilt's offense 10 times better.
X-factor: ETSU's Brad Nuckles. The 6-foot-9 Nuckles is a banger at 250 pounds who will be tough for Vanderbilt's interior defense to stop.
Nuckles has averaged near a double-double all season, scoring 12.8 points per game and 8.2 rebounds a game. ETSU doesn't look to feed Nuckles often though, as he is more of a "put back" type scorer and that is something that Vanderbilt has had trouble with in the past.
And the winner is: Though the Vanderbilt performance against Toledo wasn't that great and the Rockets are a MAC team with a losing record.
But the way the Commodores came together and won that game Saturday could be a stepping stone for the program as they head into this tough week of games. Vanderbilt still made some mistakes and the defense still looked mediocre at best, but Vanderbilt should beat the Buccs if they continue their momentum.
Vanderbilt 85 ETSU 69
Tommy Crockett
Reno, Nev. basketball board moderator
My Take: Sandwiched between Stetson and Milligan on the Atlantic Sun Conference power ETSU's plate stands Vanderbilt. For Vandy this game starts a tough three games in five days home series.
Can Vandy find a way to stop the penetration off the dribble? Well it hasn't happened yet, but Vandy can shoot and Neltner has shown the hands and shooting eye that made him a top prep recruit.
Key to Vandy win: Assignment one is to stop the pass to both Thomas and Nuckles and see if they can do anything to keep these two from gobbling up offensive rebounds. This is, after all, a mid-major, but mid-majors haven't proven themselves to be cannon fodder for the SEC bulwark that occupies Memorial Gym.
Oh yes, I shan't forget to mention that along with protecting the interior Vandy must continue to score as they did in the second half against Toledo.
Player to watch: Pigram comes into the game as the A-Sun's 4th leading scorer. Thomas has been off on a tear of late, but doesn't generally score 20 points a game.
Pigram can pass and score. If Vanderbilt can finally shut down an opposing guard the Dores will pull this game out of their hat.
X-Factor: Do the Commodore kids get enough minutes to satisfactorily contribute to the growth of this team?
And the winner is: Vanderbilt, it's not going to be an easy victory but Vandy wins.
Vanderbilt 85 ETSU 80
Chris Lee
Nashville, Tenn. Publisher
My take: Normally, an overtime victory over a MAC team isn't a cause for celebration, but this year, you take what you can get. The team needs to find some positive, and they should find some in a clutch win over a decent mid-major program.
That should give the Commodores a little more confidence heading into this one, though after three consecutive road wins, ETSU should come in thinking they can win in Nashville.
Key to a Vandy win: After seeing this team perform miserably on the defensive end night after night, any hope of a stellar defensive effort leading the Commodores to a win seems to be a pipe dream.
That means outside shooting will likely make or break Vandy, and Foster and Byars finally got that going on Saturday. The Bucs will have to cover the perimeter shooters and I wonder how long Bartow will stick in the zone if the 'Dores exploit it early. Vandy's ability to shoot the three probably determines whether they'll win or lose.
Player to watch: Byars. He has a ton of offensive ability, but has never consistently become a big scorer. I'm anxious to see how he follows up with the career high, as Vandy's going to need a lot of points from him this winter.
X-factor: The point guards for each team. Vandy has to have Beal follow up on Saturday's success just to break even this year, and it's a mystery as to whether Twilley will play or not on Tuesday.
And the winner is: Nothing is going to come easy for Vandy this year, and that includes this game. But I'm betting that Saturday's win, coupled with the breakout performances of Byars, Foster and Beal give the 'Dores enough momentum to keep the record perfect against ETSU.
Vanderbilt 80, ETSU 75
Mike Rapp
Franklin, Tenn. Publisher
My take: Vanderbilt found a way to beat Toledo, which is a much better team and program than most Vandy fans would know. And a win right now is reason to celebrate.
A lot has deservedly been made of Vandy's loss to Furman, but the reality is, VU had one of its worst shooting performances in modern histroy against the Paladins. Yes, VU will have a tough time on defense regardless of who they play -- we've seen that in every game thus far -- but if they shoot well, they will be competitive against teams with limited overall talent and size in the paint.
ETSU is one of those teams.
Key to a Vandy win: Shoot well from three, as they did on Tuesday.
Player to watch: Keonta Howell lit VU up for 32 Tuesday, so you have to look at Thomas tonight. The 6-6 senior from California scored a career-high 20 points against Stetson on Tuesday on
8-of-11 shooting from the floor.
X-factor: It was talked about by some members this week, but it bears repeating that Stallings' most successful lineup against UT was Beal, Byars, Foster, Neltner and Brown. It will be interesting to see if Stallings goes with this lineup from tonight's opening tip-off.
I also think we'll learn early whether Vandy will be able to bust the Bucs' 1-3-1 match-up zone.
And the winner is: Vanderbilt is 7-0 against ETSU all-time, and they'll extend that streak tonight.
Vanderbilt 86, ETSU 76