Yes, College basketball is a sport in which remarkable things can and do happen. Wichita State makes a Final Four. Butler makes back-to-back national title games. Villanova shoots 79 percent from the field to beat Georgetown in 1985. It’s not unheard of for a college team to create magic from the rubble of uncertainty, but on most occasions, the heavy weight of odds crashes down on the exuberance of aspiration.
Vanderbilt and head coach Kevin Stallings needed Kedren Johnson and Kevin Bright to be on the 2013-2014 roster. For one thing, the 2012-2013 Commodores grew a lot at the end of the season. They gained the sweet pleasure of relegating Kentucky to the NIT, and they outplayed Ole Miss for 25 minutes before running out of steam in the SEC Tournament semifinals. This team was headed on an upward trajectory in March of last season. The loss of Johnson due to suspension, combined with the loss of Bright due to family matters that made it hard for the young man to resist a pro paycheck in his native Germany, have depleted the VU lineup. How much has Vanderbilt lost? In terms of cold math, just over 20 points per game; 9 rebounds per game; and nearly 5 assists per game.
Where’s that production going to be replaced? The journey to find out begins on Tuesday night against the Georgia State Panthers.
GEORGIA STATE AT-A-GLANCE
The Panthers are trying to make their way up the ladder in the Sun Belt after spending several seasons in the Colonial Athletic Association. They’re an intriguing assortment of figures from other places in the vast world of college basketball. Head coach Ron Hunter used to ply his trade at IUPUI. Transfer Ryan Harrow played against Vanderbilt last year as a member of the Kentucky Wildcats. The addition of Harrow makes this team quite explosive, as you’ll soon see. The Commodores aren’t playing Duke or Michigan State on opening night, but this is anything but an ease-into-the-season cupcake.
Forward-Center – Curtis Washington– Junior, 6-9, 240 2012-13: N/A
Washington’s been out of the sport for the past two seasons after playing with USC in the 2010-2011 campaign. He blocked nine shots and snared seven rebounds while scoring six points in GSU’s opener this past Saturday against Southern Poly. Even if you block nine shots against The Little Sisters of the Poor, you’re doing something right on defense. Making effective, alert low-post moves against Washington should be a point of focus for the Commodores.
Forward – Manny Atkins – Senior, 6-6, 205; 2012-13: 14.2 points per game, 6.7 rebounds per game
Atkins is one of three returning starters for Georgia State who averaged at least 14 points per game last season. He’s also a capable passer and an active defender who will throw in a few assists and steals on most nights. A well-rounded, multi-tool player such as Atkins gives cohesion to Georgia State at both ends of the floor. Matching his energy will be a priority for the Dores’ interior players. One should specify that VU doesn’t necessarily have to shut down Atkins as a scorer. The better way to characterize VU’s plan of attack against Atkins is to limit the overall scope of his effectiveness. If Atkins scores but doesn’t rebound, assist teammates, or swipe a few steals, Vanderbilt will accept the trade… unless Atkins goes for 30 points or some exorbitant amount. Against Southern Poly, Atkins posted 13 points and 9 boards.
Guard – Devonta White – Senior, 5-11, 170; 2012-13: 14.8 ppg, 2.8 rpg, 3.9 assists per game
White was the Panthers’ foremost distributor and playmaker last season. Given his small frame, that’s the only way he can be on the floor. A slippery and elusive dribble-penetrator, White is hard to corral. Kedren Johnson probably would have gained the assignment on him, so White could very well represent the player that must demand more attention than anyone else in VU’s rotation. Georgia State has a chance, through White, to attack Vanderbilt at its least experienced spot on the floor. The more one thinks about the various matchups in this game, the more this one stands out as the number one concern for Stallings and his staff.
Guard – R.J. Hunter – Sophomore, 6-5, 185; 2012-13: 17 ppg, 5.1 rpg
This is the son of GSU head coach Ron Hunter. Clearly, R.J. has earned his spot in the lineup by being the Panthers’ leading scorer this past season. In the team’s opener against Southern Poly, Hunter dazzled, throwing down 27 points on 5-of-11 three-point shooting with an 8-of-8 display at the foul line. Hunter added 7 rebounds and 4 assists for good measure, showing that he’s going to be a load for Vanderbilt to deal with at the defensive end of the floor.
Guard – Ryan Harrow– Junior, 6-2, 170; 2012-13: 9.9 ppg, 2.8 rpg, 2.8 apg
Harrow was part of Kentucky’s “lost boys” team last season. Having played previously at North Carolina State, the junior is now making his third separate stop as a collegiate player. He’s a reflection of a changed landscape in college basketball, in which transfers and the larger idea of player movement are not as foreign as they used to be. Harrow and Vanderbilt naturally enjoy familiarity with each other, adding a rich and juicy subplot to this contest. Georgia State has added to its roster by pulling in Harrow; Vanderbilt has lost quality on its roster due to the departures of Johnson and Bright. The re-ordered calculus of the starting fives and the respective benches will create a brand new basketball cocktail. Harrow is just one of many prominent reasons why this matchup should be anything but boring.
The Panthers’ bench didn’t leave a large imprint on Southern Poly this past Saturday. The only two performers who made an impression on the stat sheet were forwards Markus Crider (5 points, 5 rebounds, and 2 steals) and LaRon Smith (5 points and 3 rebounds). Guard Rashaad Richardson attempted eight field goals, seven of them threes… and missed them all. GSU’s starting five is extremely potent and formidable, but the bench remains an unknown entity. If the benches decide this game, Vanderbilt will probably like its chances.
Keys to the Game
1) Lock down White. Because Kedren Johnson is not around at the point, Vanderbilt’s defense on the perimeter will become the focal point of this contest. Denying dribble penetration and clogging the paint will be primary points of emphasis for the Commodores on Tuesday night. If they succeed in that one aspect of competition, their odds of winning will increase to a considerable extent.
2) Handle Harrow. Vanderbilt doesn’t really know how much Harrow has (or hasn’t) grown since his difficult year at Kentucky, but in the event that Harrow has indeed improved by leaps and bounds as a player at both ends of the floor, the Commodores need to be ready to contain him. White and Harrow are the two defensive assignments that will matter more than anything else for VU in its season opener.