Is Vanderbilt’s Turnaround Complete?Posted by Brian Joyce on January 20th, 2012
Vanderbilt started out the season with the highest expectations in program history, but a disappointing 6-4 start including losses to Cleveland State and Indiana State labeled the Commodores as underachievers not able to overcome their defensive liabilities. Center Festus Ezeli returned, but doubts of Vanderbilt’s potential remained. Even an eight game winning streak hasn’t won over the Commodores’ critics, but a 69-59 win in Tuscaloosa was good enough to convince me. Vanderbilt still has a lot to prove because of a lack of recent NCAA Tournament success, but its defense against Alabama displayed just how high the ceiling is this year.
The Commodores’ defense was the key to their win on Thursday night. Kevin Stallings’ club held Alabama to 32.9% shooting by putting the Crimson Tide’s stars on lockdown. Leading scorer Tony Mitchell, coming into the game averaging 13.7 points per game, scored zero points on 0-8 shooting. Alabama forward JaMychal Green managed only six points. Ezeli’s impact on the Commodores’ interior defense was on full display, as was the potential of Vanderbilt’s defense when the center is on the court.
Everything went Vanderbilt’s way in this game. The Commodores controlled the boards with a plus-10 rebounding advantage. Vanderbilt put together an impressive defensive rebounding percentage of 70% and a 39.4% offensive rebounding percentage. The final margin of victory was 10 points, but this game was never that close. The Commodores dominated this game from start to finish, and it took place in Tuscaloosa where the Crimson Tide have only lost one other game in the past two seasons.
Many still aren’t buying Vanderbilt as an elite team, but their win over Alabama showed us everything we needed to know. The win signifies the completion of Vanderbilt’s turnaround this season, proving the Commodores are a legitimate contender at the top of the conference. They have committed to team defense, and showed a higher level of aggressiveness on offense. Vanderbilt is a different team than the one we saw lose early season contests in disappointing fashion. This team has an air of toughness, and a will to win that they lacked just a month ago. After dismantling Marquette and dominating Alabama, the Commodores’ turnaround is complete. If you can’t see Vanderbilt as an elite team in March, then you simply weren’t watching close enough.