Deconstructing Vanderbilt Heading Into the Stretch RunPosted by rtmsf on February 9th, 2012
David Changas is an RTC correspondent. He filed this report from the Vanderbilt-LSU game in Nashville last night.
The Vanderbilt Commodores continue to be one of college basketball’s biggest enigmas. It is hard to understand how such an experienced team with so much talent has managed to lose seven games this season. Senior center Festus Ezeli, who has missed practice time over the past week nursing a knee injury, was dominant inside, scoring 21 points in just 27 minutes of action against talented LSU center Justin Hamilton. Meanwhile, Jeffery Taylor and John Jenkins combined to go 8-of-12 from behind the arc, and showed why the Commodores could be dangerous come March. The three-headed monster combined for 60 of Vanderbilt’s 76 points in the Commodores’ 15-point victory in Nashville.
As impressive as Vanderbilt was in the second half, its first half performance was equally perplexing. The Commodores were suffering from a hangover from last week’s losses at Arkansas and Florida, or were looking ahead to Saturday’s ESPN prime time tilt with top-ranked Kentucky. Whatever Kevin Stallings said to his team at the break got it going, as the Commodores outscored the Tigers 49-34 after intermission. Stallings was pleased with his team’s effort and saw this game as a challenge. “I expected a hard-fought game, and got one. I was proud of my team. I thought we showed our experience there at the end of the game,” he said. Stallings was also pleased with what he got from his bench. The reserves’ contributions may not have been noticeable on the stat sheet (four points), but Stallings thought they gave his team a lift. “I thought our bench played very well tonight. I thought [it] was very, very solid, and that’s what we need from them.”
LSU Coach Trent Johnson thinks what a lot of others see: that Vanderbilt will be a tough out in March. “Vanderbilt’s a good basketball team. Very experienced. Very skilled. Very balanced. This is a basketball team that you don’t want to play in the Tournament,” he said. Vanderbilt’s defensive performance had to be encouraging for Stallings. LSU shot just 14% (3-21) behind the arc, and 37% overall. Despite those numbers, the Commodores clearly have had trouble guarding quickness on the perimeter throughout this season, and that was evident at times on Wednesday. Senior guard Brad Tinsley is particularly vulnerable against quick guards who can break down the defense. Ultimately, that could be this team’s undoing, as it has been the last couple of years.
Saturday’s showdown with Kentucky will be the biggest test Vanderbilt, which has played a difficult schedule, has faced thus far. The Wildcats have not lost since before Christmas, and their only setback then was a buzzer-beating loss at Indiana. They are coming off a 20-point throttling of Florida on Tuesday, and appear to be clicking on all cylinders. Ezeli insists the Commodores were not thinking about Kentucky until LSU was taken care of. “You can never look past any team in this league. Everybody is really good,” Ezeli said. For his team to have a chance against the Wildcats, Ezeli will have to hold his own against Kentucky freshman sensation Anthony Davis. He will also need help from the usual suspects, Jenkins and Taylor, but it is safe to assume the Commodores will need more from their bench if Vanderbilt is to pull the upset. While Stallings says that he did not see Kentucky’s beat down of Florida, he knows that Wildcats “must be pretty doggone good.”
The Kentucky game presents an opportunity for Vanderbilt to re-establish itself as a team that can be elite in March. Going into the season, many expected the Commodores to make a deep run in the NCAA Tournament. Four pre-Christmas losses – three of which came at home, and each of which came without Ezeli – may have tempered expectations, but this team is still capable of going far in the Dance. A win over the Wildcats would serve as a reminder to everyone that the Commodores are still a threat. A loss will leave many saying that nothing has changed in Nashville.
While the Kentucky game is important, what the Commodores do in the regular season is largely inconsequential. Seeding in the Tournament is important, but this is a team that has bowed out of the NCAA Tournament in the first round in its last three trips with no worse than a #5 seed – the first time that has ever happened. Thus, improving its current seeding may not be the Commodores’ highest priority. Ultimately, if the Vanderbilt from the first half of the LSU game shows up in March, the first-round losing streak may extend to four. If the determined team that put away LSU in the second half is the one we see, a historic run for a school that has never reached the Elite Eight may be in store.