On Saturday, January 23rd, the Vanderbilt Commodores should be 15-3 after they host the Auburn Tigers.
They should be able to extend their winning streak to nine games and their conference record to 4-0.
They should have caught the attention of Kentucky and Tennessee by this time and may sneak into the Top 25 the next time voting occurs.
But now the hard part begins.
The Commodores, owners of one of the coolest nicknames and one of the strangest home courts, "travel" to play Tennessee and then to Kentucky before returning to Nashville to host Mississippi State. This is the who’s who of the SEC and Vanderbilt will find out in rapid succession whether or not they can live at the top of the conference.
While the winning streak has been impressive, the opponents have not been at the level of the ones they are about to face. Alabama is an improving squad, while South Carolina and Florida have been a little disappointing. The next three haven’t disappointed. In fact, at this time they have a combined record of 47-5.
Kentucky will pose the biggest problem for the Commodores. A.J. Ogilvy has been solid but who backs him up? The Wildcats can throw any one of Patrick Patterson, Demarcus Cousins or Daniel Orton onto the block and will try to get Ogilvy into foul trouble or simply just wear him out. Festus Ezeli has given coach Kevin Stallings some decent minutes off of the bench and will need to do so against the Cats. Jeffrey Taylor is a fairly big body who may end up guarding Patterson as well.
The Vanderbilt perimeter is becoming more and more solid. Jermaine Beal is heating up and doesn’t turn the ball over a ton. His three-point field goal percentage is rising steadily, complimenting that of freshman John Jenkins (48%) who has made 24 of his last 40. They will have to deal with Eric Bledsoe and John Wall who tend more to force pace than shoot the jumpers. On their home court, the Commodores have that wacky advantage but winning at Kentucky will be a tall order.
Tennessee and Mississippi State are winnable games for Vanderbilt. Tennessee has performed admirably since the dismissal of Tyler Smith and the suspension of three others. But how long can this last? The suspended players could be back, but will they be difference-makers? Likely not, and if Vandy can play a composed, disciplined game - limiting turnovers - they will win. Remember, this isn’t like a game in a different state or time zone, and while the crowd will be overwhelmingly orange, the Commodores are not that far away from home.
The tilt against Mississippi State is also one that could have a favourable outcome. Jarvis Varnado is fun to watch and a superb shot blocker but the key to beating the Bulldogs is to shut down their three point shooting. Dee Bost, Barry Stewart and Ravern Johnson all light it up from downtown and Kodi Augustus can shoot as well. Vanderbilt needs to force the Dogs inside the arc and make them do their work from there.
Mississippi State will turn the ball over as well - Vanderbilt needs to have a + turnover margin. Ogilvy needs to stay within his game and not look over his shoulder at Varnado. And finally, that great homecourt advantage is there. State did win at Mississippi already, so they aren’t too fazed on the road but Vanderbilt Memorial is one tough place to play.
Look for Vanderbilt to try to steal the game at Tennessee and go 2-1 for this tough three game stretch.