Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Preview: Auburn vs. Vanderbilt

This time a year ago, things looked at least somewhat promising for the Auburn basketball program. Finishing 7-9 in the SEC (the West division co-champs were 8-8) and returning all five starters, maybe things were looking up. Fast forward, and the Tigers have the appearance of a team who wants the season to be over. They’ve lost their last four conference games and five of the last six. Just 4-12 in the SEC, the message boards are beginning to question coach Jeff Lebo. Since Auburn is, quite frankly, a football school, Lebo seems safe, but it does show the tenuous state of Auburn basketball. How does all that play out tomorrow against Vanderbilt? Here’s a look at the keys for each team.


Get off to a good start: Arkansas jumped on Auburn early last Saturday, building a 22-point lead and cruising to a double-digit victory. If their heads aren’t in it early, a few Shan Foster threes could build a similar deficit for Auburn.

Rebound: Leading rebounder Kavourtney Barber broke his hand early in the season. Barber probably would have presented a match-up problem for Vanderbilt, as well as several other teams in the SEC had he been able to play. He was also leading the nation in field goal percentage at the time of his injury at 72 percent.

The rest of the team has struggled filling in his shoes, and Arkansas outrebounded them 39-25 on Saturday. They average just 32.7 rebounds a game, last in the SEC. And while Vanderbilt is not a great rebounding team, giving A.J. Ogilvy extra opportunities to score could cost Auburn.

Shoot better: This seems obvious enough. The Tigers have shot just 39.4 percent from the field in their current losing streak. Still, Vanderbilt has allowed teams who were previously struggling with their shooting to find their stroke…


Defend better: …which leads to this point. Previously struggling Patrick Beverly found his stroke against Vanderbilt three games ago. Alabama shot 50 percent in the first half of Saturday’s 78-73 loss and was lights out in overtime. There were several defensive lapses against Mississippi State, which led to Charles Rhodes and Jarvis Varnardo getting easy dunks. Shoring up the defense is key. Frank Tolbert also scored 32 points in Vanderbilt's previous 78-71 victory over Auburn in February, so he is someone to watch out for.

Guard play: Jermaine Beal is 4-23 in his last three games. Alex Gordon is 5-26 in the same three games. Nine of 49 from your two starting guards, even if you have Shan Foster, won’t cut it in March. Simple as that. Beal and Gordon spent more time than usual on the bench in the second half on Saturday, and the reasons were pretty clear as to why.

Attitude: In his radio interviews after Saturday’s loss to Alabama, Coach Kevin Stallings spoke of players pouting on the bench about playing time and having their own agendas. This isn’t a good tone heading into the postseason, but Stallings also said he was ready to turn things around in practice, which makes Thursday particularly interesting. For the past two seasons, Vanderbilt has had remarkable chemistry, and it would be a shame to see it unravel at the climax of the season. But anyone who knows this team and Stallings knows that it’s fully capable of regrouping.

Bottom line: A lot of what happens Thursday depends on whether Auburn shows up. Do they want to keep playing or do they want to pack it up for the year? If their listless performance against Arkansas is any indication, the Commodores should be fine. Eric already put a score up, and I’ll just say I have no reason to disagree with it.

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