Vanderbilt Moving Into SEC Play Full Speed AheadPosted by nvr1983 on December 30th, 2011
Bill Hupp is a correspondent for RTC who filed this report after Thursday night’s Vanderbilt-Marquette game. Follow him on Twitter (@Bill_Hupp) for his thoughts on hoops, food, Russian nesting dolls, and life.
It’s not necessarily a chip on his shoulder, but Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings is keenly aware of the perception that his team isn’t tough enough to contend for an SEC or National Championship. So when his preseason #7 Commodores started this season 6-4 after two gut-wrenching OT losses to ranked opponents (Xavier and Louisville), sandwiched between home upsets by Cleveland State and Indiana State, the whispers must have sounded deafening.
Gone and temporarily forgotten from the national rankings, Vanderbilt has rolled off three straight blowout wins since that Indiana State defeat and seems to be rounding into expected form with SEC play straight ahead. On Thursday in front of a electric crowd at the Bradley Center in Milwaukee, the Commodores bolted to a 31-6 first-half lead and never looked back, rolling to an impressive 74-57 non-conference road win over #14 Marquette. “Our goal coming into this game was to establish that there is some toughness to this team,” Stallings said afterwards. “We’re a little bit maligned for not being tough, but I thought we showed some pretty good toughness tonight.”
Vanderbilt (9-4) is known for its offensive firepower, but it was its defense against Marquette that was most impressive. Keying in on Darius Johnson-Odom and Jae Crowder, the Commodores held Marquette’s offensive leaders to 3-19 shooting in the first-half. They alternated between tough man-to-man and a 2-3-matchup zone in the second half, using their length to bother the smaller Golden Eagles. They will need that defensive intensity in the SEC where teams like Mississippi State and Alabama would prefer to grind it out on a nightly basis.
On offense, Vanderbilt is a uniquely difficult matchup for just about any team. They are very balanced and can beat you in a number of ways. They have solid post players and play a nice little inside-out game that allows sharpshooters like John Jenkins, Brad Tinsley, and Jeffery Taylor to get open looks with their feet set. They are a smart, experienced bunch that is patient and unselfish (assists on 17 of their 23 FGs against Marquette). They prefer to get looks out of offensive sets, but are skilled and quick enough to create their own shots with the shot clock running down.
To be fair, Vanderbilt’s strength of schedule is 11th in the country to date. Most teams would be reluctant to go on the road to play Big East heavyweights Louisville and Marquette in non-conference play, but Stallings believed his talented, senior-laden team could handle it and thought the challenge would prepare them for the rigors of conference play. Plus, this is likely the best team he’s ever had in Nashville. Five of the nine players in their regular rotation are seniors, and Taylor and Jenkins are projected late first-round picks in 2012 by Draft Express (further evidenced by the bevy of scouts on hand in Milwaukee). “I don’t know if losing ever helps, [but] it maybe made us more determined,” Stallings said. “Our guys came back from Christmas with a look in their eye that they wanted to get things right. If we’ve turned a corner – and I’m not saying we have – we’ll know in a few weeks.”
Perhaps most importantly, however, this victory gives Vanderbilt that signature win that had previously been missing from its non-conference resume. That could be the difference between a #3- and a #5-seed in March. And maybe it restored some confidence and self-belief to a team that had started questioning if it had what it takes to “finish” as Stallings challenged them to do this trip. “I like how my team is thinking,” Stallings said. “I like their attitude and determination. I like the fact that they’ve drawn a line in the sand and tried to do something about the things that have plagued us.” Only the Commodore players know whether such an determined stance will last into the new year.