Men’s basketball faces challenges against young Vanderbilt team

By Jeremy Werner

The Illinois men’s basketball team will have its hands full on the court in Nashville, Tenn., on Thursday in their biggest challenge of the young season against Vanderbilt. But the court itself will provide additional challenges.

With an elevated playing surface and benches located on the baselines instead of the sidelines, Vanderbilt’s Memorial Gymnasium is unlike any arena in college basketball.

“It’ll be different,” Illinois coach Bruce Weber said. “I have a tendency not to stay in the (coach’s) box as it is, so I wonder what the heck I’ll do there. They might have to put like, with the little kids with the rope that goes so far and latch me up, keep me in.”

The Commodores have used the court’s uniqueness to its advantage, winning 59 of its past 61 non-conference home games. Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings, a close friend of Weber, said coaches can have difficulty communicating with their defense in one half and their offense the next.

“If you’re a guy that coaches your team throughout the game, really like Bruce does, in a very verbal way to where you’re constantly communicating and calling plays and doing things and coaching the way he coaches, it can be difficult when the plays on the other end of the court,” Stallings said. “I don’t think it quite honestly affects well-coached teams very much. So therefore I don’t think Illinois will be greatly affected.”

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Coming off two wins over non-power conference opponents, the Illini (2-0) will play a Vanderbilt program that has made five straight postseason appearances – two in the National Invitation Tournament and three in the NCAA Tournament – including trips to the Sweet 16 in 2004 and 2007.

But the Commodores (1-0) are a young squad following last year’s 26-8 team that lost to No. 13 seed Siena 83-62 in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. The Vanderbilt roster features 12 underclassmen and no seniors.

“Seven of our 14 played in their first college game this past Sunday,” Stallings said.

Though the Commodores are young, ranks the Vanderbilt freshman class as the 14th-best recruiting class in the nation. In its 74-48 season-opening victory against Morehead State, three freshmen – Jeffery Taylor, Brad Tinsley and Lance Goulbourne – scored in double figures.

“I think we just have to stay together,” senior guard Trent Meacham said. “They’re going to make runs. Their crowd is going to get into it. We just have to stay together as a team and be solid. If we keep getting stops and are solid on offense and take our time and don’t rush or panic, I think we’ll be alright.”

Vanderbilt also returns A.J. Ogilvy, the nation’s No. 2-ranked center by Athlon Sports. The 6-foot-10, 250-pound sophomore averaged 17.0 points and 6.7 rebounds last season as a freshman.

Weber said the Illini will defend Ogilvy using a variety of schemes: Mike Tisdale’s height, Richard Semrau’s strength and Dominique Keller’s athleticism.

“Part of it too … is the perimeter guys can help the post guys,” Weber said. “We always talk about football and rushing the quarterback. If you don’t rush the quarterback, the quarterback sits in the pocket and picks you apart. It’s the same in basketball. If you don’t get up and put pressure on the passer, he can look, look, look and it’s tough to defend for the post guy.”

The early season matchup between Illinois and Vanderbilt gives each team an opportunity to acquire a signature non-conference victory to help their respective NCAA Tournament chances.

“It’s one game, one night,” Stallings said. “Hopefully, the win will benefit the victor and give that team momentum to go through their non-conference season and play very well. Hopefully, whoever loses will be able to bounce back quickly and be able to gain valuable knowledge and information from it.”