December 2, 2006

GAME DAY REPORT: Vanderbilt vs. Toledo

QUICK FACTS

• Game time: Saturday, December 2, 2006,7 P.M. CT tip-off

• Series Info: Vanderbilt leads the overall series 2-0; Vanderbilt leads 2-0 in Nashville and 1-0 at neutral sites.

• Last Meeting: Vanderbilt won 73-57 in Nashville on Nov. 19, 2004.

• Coaches: Kevin Stallings is in his eighth year at Vanderbilt (123-99) and his 14th year overall (246-162); Stan Joplin is in his 11th year at Toledo (175-126) and his 11th year overall (175-126).

• Rankings: Neither team is ranked.

• Radio: Vanderbilt-ISP Radio Network (WGFX 104.5 FM); Joe Fisher (ninth year) provides play-by-play alongside color analyst Tim Thompson (sixth year).

• Television: None.

• Tickets: 615-322-GOLD.

• Vanderbilt is 10-1 (.909) all-time against current teams of the Mid-American Conference. The Commodores' only loss came at the hands of Miami (Ohio), 34-23, during the 1935-36 season.

• Toledo is playing its first seven games of the season away from home -- the longest such stretch in school history.

• The Rockets have finished either first or second in their division in seven of the last eight seasons.


ROSTERS

Vanderbilt

Alex Gordon, G, 5-11, 164, Jr., Pensacola, Fla. (10.3 ppg, 3.0 apg). Team leader in assists with 3.0 per game.

Shan Foster, G/F, 6-6, 200, Jr., Kenner, La. (12.0 ppg, 4.5 rpg). Tied for first in the SEC with LSU's Darnell Lazare in FT shooting (.857).

Derrick Byars, G/F, 6-7, 230, Sr.-Tr., Memphis, Tenn. (12.3 ppg, 5.8 rpg, 2.5 apg). Ranks first on team in scoring (12.3 ppg), tied for first in rebounding (5.8 rpg).

Dan Cage, G, 6-5, 215, Sr., Indianapolis, Ind. (10.3 ppg, 2.5 rpg). Six steals vs. Furman were most by a Commodore since November 1999.

Ross Neltner, F, 6-9, 247, Jr.-Tr., Fort Thomas, Ky. (11.3 ppg, 5.8 rpg). Posted a team-high 12 pts on 6-of-6 shooting vs. Furman.


Toledo

Kashif Payne, G, 5-9, 155, Jr., Chester, Pa. (3.6 ppg, 4.8 apg). Team leader in assists with 4.8 per game.

Tyrone Kent, G, 6-5, 200, So., Chicago, Ill. (5.6 ppg, 3.6 rpg). Tallied 10 points and five steals vs. Drexel.

Justin Ingram, G, 6-3, 183, Sr., Lansing, Mich. (17.4 ppg, 4.6 rpg). Netted 31 points and six 3-pointers vs. Middle Tennessee.

Keonta Howell, F, 6-5, 225, Sr., Jackson, Mich. (17.4 ppg, 5.4 rpg). Posted 23 points and seven rebounds in season opener vs. Missouri State.

Florentino Valencia, F, 6-6, 234, Sr., Chicago, Ill. (13.0 ppg, 6.2 rpg). Registered double-double (13 points, 10 rebounds) vs. Drexel.


OVERVIEW

Toledo and Vanderbilt face off tonight at Memorial gym in the third of a six-game homestand for the Commodores. The Rockets (2-3), who compete in the Mid-American Conference, are making a return trip to Vanderbilt, after losing in Nashville last year.

Toledo is a height-challenged, junior-dominated team that relies on three talented scorers. Shooting guard Justin Ingram (17.4), wing Keonta Howell (17.4), and power forward Florentino Valencia (13.0) rank third, fourth and 11th in the MAC in scoring. Ingram and Howell have combined for more made 3-pointers than any other guard duo in the MAC, and Valencia ranks as one of the conference's top 10 rebounders. Valencia has made a misprint-looking 68.3 percent of his shots from the field. And if that weren't bad enough, the lightening quick sophomore Kashif Payne ranks fifth in the 12-team league in assists.

Toledo, which was picked to win the MAC West, still remains very much a work in progress. The Rockets opened their season with a lopsided road loss at Southwest Missouri State (79-66). Former TU star and current head coach Stan Joplin then took his team to San Juan, Puerto Rico to compete in the Paradise Jam Tournament. After falling to Big 10 foe Iowa in their opener, the Rockets responded with two wins over MTSU and VCU. But the Rockets, like the Commodores, have been unable to maintain consistency. Toledo lost to Drexel 57-52 on Tuesday, in a game that the Rockets shot just 2-17 from three, and both teams combined for 47 turnovers.

It's the Rockets' two wins in Puerto Rico that could fortell trouble for the Commodores. Toledo trailed MTSU by more than 20 points early the second half, after the Blue Raiders shot a team-record 72.7 percent from the field. But Toledo stormed back via red-hot shooting from scoring aces Ingram (career-high 32 points with four straight 3-pointers) and Howell, and defeated MTSU in overtime 75-69. Toledo then defeated Virginia Commonwealth in their tournament finale, after Valencia tallied 21 points and six rebounds, with Howell adding 18 points and five boards.

But the relevant stat is that then 3-2 VCU turned around and humiliated Elon 91-49 on Elon's home court. The athletically-challenged Phoenix, who have only played D1 basketball for four years, scored 49 points in the second half against the Commodores at Memorial Gym.

There's little to say about Vanderbilt that message board posters haven't already said. The Commodores have managed to follow up last year's disappointment with what is quickly becoming this year's disaster. Vandy, at 1-3, is coming off one of the most embarrassing losses in school history: a 70-62 defeat to Furman. The loss -- to former assistant Jeff Jackson at Memorial Gym, no less -- was the first time a Vanderbilt team had fallen to a Southern Conference team in nearly four decades.

Everywhere you look, Vanderbilt is hemmoraging. Despite moving to a fast-pace offense, Vanderbilt still ranks just ninth in the SEC in scoring. That is largely due to the fact that VU also ranks last in the league in 3-point field goal percentage (28%), field goal percentage defense (48%), offensive rebounding, rebounding margin (-4.8), and blocked shots (2.25 per game). Vandy also ranks dead last in the SEC in scoring defense, allowing a whopping 78.5 ppg. To put that number in perspective, SEC East brother Florida allows just 51.1 ppg; So if the two played each other today on a neutral court, the defending national champion would be favored by as many as 30 points. Tennessee, which is just above VU at 11th, allows almost 10 points per game less than VU.

Vandy's front line was supposed to be their biggest weakness, but it's the unexpected bricks from key returnees Foster and Byars that have consistently done VU in. The duo are shooting a combined 8-of-42 (19 percent) from 3-point range, after shooting 44 percent from beyond the arc last season. If that continues, rock bottom could be a long way off for VU.

With recent lopsided losses by Wake Forest and Georgetown -- which both soundly defeated VU earlier this month -- Vanderbilt's RPI is now 280. Ever heard of the New Jersey Institute of Technology? Well, they rank 256.

Where do you look for good news? After the Furman debacle, what was left of the remaining paltry crowd booed the Commodores off the court. This week, Rivals.com's national college basketball columnist Andrew Skwara suggested Stallings might be the early favorite as the next college basketball coach to be fired.

A win over Toledo would hardly salvage the season thus far, but a loss -- days after falling to Furman -- would be catastrophic to fan and team morale.


Tommy Crockett
Reno, Nevada
VandySports.com Basketball Board Moderator


My take: Vanderbilt is not playing well and may not have enough horses to play well at all this season. The Commodores have been exploited by mid-majors and mediocre high-majors alike in this young season. Does Vandy have any chance of putting up a defensive fight?

If Toledo wins, as many think they should, look for Stan Joplin to find his name mentioned in the mix with these coaching change rumors flying about.

Key to Vandy win: Brown has to become DeMarre' and that'll take minutes. Will Coach invest in the future by making a leap of faith against Toledo? With a quick and agile Rocket team bringing their version of a three guard offense (at times) to the mix, Vanderbilt had better figure out how to stop the penetration drive or it is curtains.

Hey, but on the other side of the coin is if Vandy can throw something into the ocean they have a great shot at upsetting the Rockets.

Player to watch: Ross Neltner is my target in this category. Does his gash injury limit minutes? Will he show us why he was once a Kentucky Mr. Basketball?

X-Factor: The record shows two losing programs getting together at Memorial. Better post play is the only way Vandy can dominate this team.

And the winner is: Toledo it shouldn't be so, but that's the way it looks. Neither one of these teams will be cracking the top forty this season.

Toledo 73, Vanderbilt 72


Chris Lee
Nashville, Tenn
VandySports.com Publisher


My take:Since I have seen nothing on the court this season that gives me much hope, let's flash back to happier times for a moment. Shan Foster, Derrick Byars, Alex Gordon, and Dan Cage still all have the ability to shoot, and any one--or all four--could erupt at any moment.

Despite the horrid start, the pieces are still here for a decent team--that is, IF Stallings hasn't lost them, and if he can figure out a way to do what Bruce Pearl did at UT last year--take a team with little post presence, build around your shooting strenghts, get your kids to have fun, and win in spite of your weaknesses.

Unfortunately, Stallings has proven to be no Pearl so far. The rest of the season will rest on his abilility, or inability as it may be, to make those things happen.

Key to a Vandy win: Foster, Byars, and everyone else needs to shoot like they're capable of shooting, and the team needs key defensive stops down the stretch... the kind they've consistently been unable to get the past two years.

Player to watch: Foster. He can't be this bad for long.

X-factor: JeJuan Brown. If you're looking for a bright spot so far, he's it. He's going to be a very, very good player, and if he keeps playing as he has, he's going to see more minutes.

My take: Both teams have had their stuggles, but Toledo has shown more signs of getting its act together than Vandy. The Rockets were picked to have a good season, and seem to have more things going in their favor than the Commodores.

I was wrong about the Furman game, and hope I'm wrong here, but...

Toledo 77, Vanderbilt 72


Mike Rapp
Franklin, TN
VandySports.com Publisher


My take: How low can you go? Coach Stallings may just find out if things continue as they have been going around West End.

Vandy was hardly an offensive juggernaut last season, but they looked like the Knicks compared to how they've shot the ball so far this year. Dead last in the league in field goal percentage? Are you kidding me?

Suffice it to say, Vandy won't beat anyone with shooting performances like Tuesday's. Foster, Cage and Byars can shoot the ball...can't they? Sure they can. So, what's the problem? The new system? Short bench? Bad luck? One thing is certain, which is that the team looks dead and resigned to their fate before even getting to December.

Joplin is one of my boyhood heros growing up in Toledo, and I am thrilled again to see his face in Memorial. But, I am not thrilled about seeing Valencia and Payne. Vandy caught the Rockets on an off night last year, and I expect to see the real deal tonight.

Key to a Vandy win: Shoot the ball decent, and play some on-the-ball D. Is that too much to ask? Waits to be seen.

Player to watch: Valencia. He is their biggest big man, and may see D from Cage and Brown. Furman's Diagne had a career rebounding night on Tuesday, and either someone is going to get sick of playing the patsy in the paint, or Valencia will be the next to go to town on VU.

X-factor: Early momentum. VU just HAS to get an early lead and hit their first open shots.

And the winner is: It kills me to see how badly this team is shooting, and I just cannot believe this will continue forever. But every time I say that... well, you know the rest. But even if our outside touch returns, there is absolutely no reason to believe we can defend Howell, Payne and/or Ingram.

Toledo 84, Vanderbilt 78


Jesse Johnson
Murfreesboro, TN
VandySports.com Publisher


My take: Vanderbilt's loss to Furman was one of the most embarassing losses in the last decade for a proud program because it happened at Memorial Gym. Most years, one thing you could generally count on with just about any Vanderbilt team, including their worst ones, was the Commodores holding their own at home. Now though, with a 1-2 record at Memorial and an obviously less-than-enthusiastic fan base (even the loss to Furman), things look like "Memorial Magic" is to be replaced with "Memorial Malasie".

For that reason alone, Vanderbilt's game with Toledo looks to be a tough game for the Commodores. It could be one that makes or breaks the entire season from here on out.

Toledo might appear to be a very vulnerable 2-3 at this point with losses to 2005-2006 postseason teams in Missouri State and Iowa and a loss to Drexel on Wednesday, but don't read to much into those games when it applies to playing this Vanderbilt squad. Toledo has four key players in Ingram, Valencia, Howell, and Payne. All are solid mid-major level players and can create problems for Vanderbilt's suspect defense.

The Commodores should be able to score more than they did on Tuesday, but the question still remains: Can they stop the other team from scoring and can they make winning plays when it counts? So far this season, Vanderbilt has shown an inability to do both.

Key to a Vandy win: BE VANDERBILT! It's really not rocket science here. If Vandy plays like they should, plays with confidence, and plays to win the game rather than lose it, they are likely to represent the name across their chest proudly. Actual basketball factors in this game mean virtually nothing when you are 1-3 and having to defend your home court. Vanderbilt's players must remember there is a reason why they are playing in the SEC and need to go and prove it to Toledo.

Player to watch: Toledo point guard Kashif Payne. Vanderbilt must not let Kashif Payne look like Ishmael Smith or Devon Downey against them. They have to make him make mistakes. They have to make him run Toledo's offense poorly.

Toledo is not an overly impressive offensive team once you get past their top three scorers and they only average in the 60's. Still, we've seen Vanderbilt make teams like Georgetown and Elon look way better than they are on the offensive side they actually are. Payne is just the kind of opposing point guard that typically has a field day against Vanderbilt. VU must not make a star out of him tonight.

X-factor: Byars and Brown. If Byars plays better than the last game out, Vanderbilt should win. Byars has to exert himself more offensively. He's a better player than the last two games have shown. Another key is getting Brown on the floor more. He has already shown some of the best inside skills on the Vanderbilt roster, and he has already had a knack for making both smart and hustle plays. If JeJuan plays more, it is likely that Vanderbilt should win because I don't think Toledo would have an answer for his nose for the rim at this point.

And the winner is: Weeks ago, I honestly thought that Memorial Gym would be the key to Vanderbilt starting off the season with a Top 10 victory. Now after actually seeing things unfold, I don't know if it's a safe play to think that even the "ghosts" or "magic" of Memorial can help the Commodores.

Toledo is a more athletic team than Furman or Elon, and I feel the fact that over half the Rockets roster has played in Memorial Gym before, will probably help them. It kills me to pick against Vanderbilt in Memorial, but until I see better, I just can't confidently go with the 'Dores right now.

Toledo 79, Vanderbilt 71


Robbie Smoot, aka BigHornSheep
Nashville, Tenn
VandySports.com Guest Writer


My take: It is very tough not to have a negative attitude at this point about any game Vandy plays, as these Commodores to this point have struggled with every team they have played.

Toledo has a good backcourt. Their frontcourt is not that strong, but that didn't stop Furman from winning in Memorial. VU's confidence has to be as low as it has been in years. In an absolute must win game, things are not stacked in VU's favor.

Key to Vandy win: Vandy has to have a good shooting game. They have shown they struggle greatly on defense, they don't have the low post threat in case their shots aren't falling, and the schemes VU are running aren't fooling anyone. Another shooting performance like the Furman game will spell certain doom.

Players to watch: Foster & Byars. VU's supposedly best players really struggled vs Furman, and basically have struggled shooting all year. For their confidence, and the entire team's confidence, they desperately need to have good games.

X-Factor: Overall atmosphere. What I mean by this is, the fans are obviously down on the team right now. The confidence of the team may be at an all time low in the Stallings era. Losing breeds attitude problems. I still believe Vandy is the more talented team in this game, but can they get past all the negativity that will be in the air to be able to play a good game. It is very tough to do.

Final Score: VU's back is against the wall. They are in Memorial. They are playing a MAC team. You would think VU would come out on all cylinders. However, I have seen absolutely nothing to make me believe they will. My brain last game told me to pick Furman, but I listened to my heart. For this game, I'm listening to my brain.

Toledo 84, Vanderbilt 77


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