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It’ll be Maui Armageddon today at the Lahaina Civic Center (AKA the Maui Gym at the Maui Jim Maui Invitational) as Vanderbilt prepares for its biggest game as a program in quite some time. The fifth-ranked Kansas Jayhawks await, but many see this game as a 50/50 proposition. Here are some notes on the matchup.

A depiction of how the Maui Invitational has gone for Vandy so far. Yes, this is from this week.
A depiction of how the Maui Invitational has gone for Vandy so far.

–       Kansas was my preseason #1 team as well as my pick to win the national championship, but they’re down Brannen Greene and Cheick Diallo right now. For as impressive as Vanderbilt looked against Wake, KU looked even better in dispatching UCLA Tuesday night. Kansas has averaged 99.3 points per game this season (!), and its guards will really test the Commodore backcourt. Devonté Graham (along with Wayne Selden) completely shut down UCLA scoring guard Bryce Alford Wednesday, and it stands to reason that he’ll be assigned to follow Riley LaChance around all game. I don’t expect LaChance to do much if that’s the case. “You’ve got to give Kansas a lot of credit,” UCLA head coach Steve Alford said. “They switched people on (Bryce). I think Graham to start with, and then came with a bigger Selden. That’s different. There are not a lot of guys at 6’5”, 6’6” that are checking (Bryce) that can defend like Selden did, and I thought he did a really good job on him.”

–       Vanderbilt’s big men have an advantage here. KU’s Perry Ellis is a frontrunner for Big 12 player of the year honors, but he’s only 6’8” on a good day. Starting 5-man Jamari Traylor likewise stands at 6’8”. Ellis should still be able to score on the perimeter, but I think Damian Jones and Luke Kornet will probably overwhelm Traylor and Landen Lucas if they can stay out of foul trouble. “Luke and Damian are understanding how to play together on the defensive end,” Stallings said. “They’re good about challenging other people’s shots. We’re not always trying to block our guy’s shot that we’re guarding, but we want to challenge other people’s shots.” Traylor is strong and it may not be all that easy for Damian and Luke to score over him, but I’d be surprised if Traylor has much success on offense. Traylor does rebound 11.4% of KU’s misses, so Vandy needs to keep him off the boards.

–       Kansas isn’t very deep right now with Greene and Diallo out, but Graham, Frank Mason, Wayne Selden, and Svi Mykhailiuk will test Vandy’s guards. Mason is one of the best point guards in the country: he has a greater than 5:1 assist to turnover ratio, assists on over 35% of teammates’ made shots while he’s on the floor, only turns the ball over on 8.1% of his used possessions, and draws 6.4 fouls per 40 minutes. Selden and Svi have been hot and cold throughout their respective careers, but they’re both big and athletic while still adding some perimeter scoring, so it could be tough sledding for Matthew Fisher-Davis, Nolan Cressler, Camron Justice, and even Riley LaChance against those two.

–       Stony Brook aside, Vandy had been destroying opponents this year. Can they keep the momentum up against a great team? It’s hard to say, and this is the first time they’ve played against this caliber of opponent since a trip to Lexington in January. Honestly, it’s hard to put too much stock in the win over Wake, since we don’t really know how good the Indiana team is that Wake beat. I was really impressed with the team’s energy, however. The bench was really into the game, and every time VU scored or made a nice defensive play the subs were up off their seats applauding the effort. Head coach Kevin Stallings alluded to the overall momentum his team has with one single quote: “I like how we’re playing right now.”

Could Vandy be saying "Aloha" to the Maui trophy tonight? It means both hello and goodbye, so clearly this game is a toss-up.
Could Vandy be saying “Aloha” to the Maui trophy tonight? It means both hello and goodbye, so clearly this game is a toss-up.

–       This is a slightly bigger game for Stallings considering he worked as an assistant under Roy Williams at Kansas for five years in the late 80s and early 90s. “It’s just a wonderful place,” Stallings said. “My son was born there. He’s 25 now. And we have great memories of coaching there and Phog Allen Fieldhouse, and having lots of success.” As far as Vanderbilt’s program goes, a win over a name brand program like Kansas on national TV would be a nice little boost to the Commodores’ street cred. It could also set up a return game in Nashville next year as a part of the Big 12/SEC challenge.

–       This will be a real litmus test as to whether Vandy can compete for more like a 2-4 seed in the NCAA Tournament or whether they’ll remain closer to my preseason prediction as a 5 or 6. The game could get really interesting, and I expect it to be played within about six points or so in either direction. I’ll take KU’s experienced guards in what could be the most entertaining Vanderbilt game in years. This should be a pretty close one.

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