As a student at South Carolina in law school, I have several friends who went to undergrad here. Whenever Vandy comes to town I always get slightly nervous. I enjoyed two phenomenal Vandy wins in football over my law school career, one of which I had the pleasure of seeing in 2007. In addition, the last time I watched the Commodores play basketball here, Jermaine Beal hit a phenomenal layup with time expiring to capture a big road win, even though it seemed like we would face defeat. Literally 5 seconds before, I was shown on the jumbotron frowning about us squandering our lead. It was quite sweet to have the last laugh in that event.
However, I have never enjoyed a Vanderbilt performance as much as the one I saw last night. Sure, South Carolina had a ridiculous number of steals (15) and Devan Downey dropped his season-high at 35 points. But even for those moments where Downey placed the Gamecocks on his back, the 'Dores answered time and again. Clutch shooting, tough post play, and great rebounding were tremendous keys to our performance. I've seen quite a few Vandy basketball teams, but this one is different. This one is very balanced, and very deep.
The 'Dores shot 46.2% from behind the arc last night and were 61.1% from the field. Every South Carolina run was answered by a clutch Vanderbilt shot. While the crowd kept trying to get into the game, each run was stopped by a big play underneath, or a huge shot from three.
This was the first time I had ever gotten to see these guys play in person. I'm glad that I waited until now, because I couldn't have been more impressed. Instead of a raw group of young players, I saw guys with swagger and confidence. Three players who stood out to me in that department were AJ, Dolla, and Jeff Taylor. Perhaps especially Jeff, who, in my opinion, showed me that he can be a first round NBA draft pick in the future. It's quite incredible to watch him glide through the lane the way he does on the way to the hoop, or to watch his thunderous dunks on offensive rebounds. Perhaps the prettiest thing I saw, however, was a lovely 12 foot jumper that didn't even hit the rim. If I see that more often, Jeff Taylor will be near unstoppable.
AJ and Dolla were great, especially AJ in the second half where he seemed to wake up and realize that no one on South Carolina could guard him. It's pretty amazing that Big Fez has only played ball for a couple of years, he really has a natural awareness about the game that you would think he's been going for quite some time. I was THOROUGHLY impressed by Lance Goulbourne, who played a tremendous game. He crashed the boards, he made impressive shots, including a nice three, and he played very disciplined ball. As for John Jenkins, I think I pissed the Gamecock faithful off a tad when shortly after the ball left his hand, I would simply say "good", and it would be.
But perhaps the best thing I saw as I sat about 7 to 8 rows behind the Vanderbilt bench was the interaction of the team as a whole. This was never a scared group. They came into a decently hostile environment, complete with the "Garnet Army" chanting "Sweden sucks", and a guy asking AJ if they had razors in Australia, and smiled as they beat the Gamecocks in nearly every phase of the game. I wrote after the Florida game that this would be where the fun begins for this team, and what I saw on Saturday makes me believe it even more. This team is on the same page, has a multitude of weapons, and doesn't lose a step when a new group comes in. While we may not beat Kentucky in Rupp or Tennessee in Knoxville, we are going to give them a hell of a fight. I think the days of shell shock are over.
In short, it was one heck of a game to go to. I had the traditional sinking feeling in my stomach entering the stadium, worrying about what Vandy team I would see. I saw the one I knew we could be, and I don't even think we're close to our ceiling yet.