Despite Attrition, Vanderbilt Finding Surprising Success in SECPosted by David Changas on February 6th, 2014
Expectations for Vanderbilt were relatively low coming into the season, as the Commodores were predicted by most to finish in the bottom half of the SEC. A team beleaguered by defections and suspensions in the offseason started the year with an inexperienced nine-man rotation, but the loss of Josh Henderson to a torn ACL and leading scorer Eric McClellan to dismissal appeared to spell doom for the Commodores as they embarked upon conference play. Using a seven-man group that has forced starting guards Kyle Fuller and Dai-Jon Parker along with forward Rod Odom to essentially play with no rest, Vanderbilt’s start in the SEC went largely as expected with home losses to Kentucky and Ole Miss contributing to a 1-4 record. But after the Ole Miss loss, the Commodores went to Texas A&M and Georgia and grabbed wins, following that up with a home win over Mississippi State last weekend. On Wednesday night, they extended their winning streak to four after edging Tennessee, 64-60, to surprisingly move a game to 5-4 at the halfway mark of SEC play. With Arkansas coming to Nashville on Saturday, the Commodores have a realistic shot of adding to their current hot streak.
While Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings has endured his share of criticism for underachieving with several upper echelon SEC squads, the job he has done with this year’s team has drawn rave reviews. Included among the seven players who are part of the rotation are slender freshman Luke Kornet, who would have been a natural candidate to redshirt under different circumstances, and forward Shelby Moats, who logs just over 10 minutes per game. Fortunately for Stallings, he is especially able to rely upon the underrated Odom, who has stepped his game up to an all-SEC level.
Odom, a 6’9″ forward who spends most of his time roaming the perimeter, is shooting 43.5 percent from three-point range for the season, and last night he dominated Tennessee early by scoring 15 points in a six-minute stretch of the first half. The Commodores extended their lead to 12 early in the second half before Tennessee made a late run to tie things up, but thanks to Odom burying a key three with under a minute to play, the Vols could never overcome the deficit. Odom finished the contest with a game-high 26 points, going 4-of-7 from distance. With the exception of the loss to Kentucky and the win at Texas A&M, Odom has been a dominant offensive force this season, and his size and shooting ability creates match-up nightmares for Vanderbilt’s opponents. He leads the team in points (14.3 PPG), rebounds (6.0 RPG), and minutes (35.7 MPG). In fact, since conference play began, Odom has played fewer than 38 minutes in a game only once.
Thanks to the leadership of Odom and his fellow senior, Fuller — who finished the game with 12 points and 10 assists despite being hampered with flu-like symptoms — the usually hard-to-please Stallings is happy with what he’s getting from his thin squad. “I’m thrilled with my team’s performance. I’m really thrilled with how they’ve played,” he said after the game. Given that his team is so depleted this year, he no longer puts them through a game day shootaround, so it’s understandable that Stallings would be particularly pleased. And despite the fact that Vanderbilt has exceeded everyone’s expectations, this isn’t a team that anyone expects to challenge for an NCAA Tournament bid. The Commodores still have road games left against Missouri, Tennessee and Ole Miss, and a home date with Florida, and given the lack of depth on this team, there could be some further tough times ahead. Still, for a team that has gone through as much as the Commodores have since the end of last season, to be in a position of tied for fifth place in the SEC standings is a real testament to the resiliency of Stallings and his team.