What a difference a game makes.
Last night's thorough thrashing of Marquette in their own gym deserves quite a bit of praise, particularly to those guys who have received a great deal of criticism (from yours truly included). Probably the #1 person who deserves a bit of praise is Kevin Stallings, though to hear him tell it from his post-game presser, he claims he had nothing to do with it.
Vanderbilt, for the first time all season long, looked comfortable and confident in its own skin. They appeared to just wipe the slate clean, forget about the expectation and hype, and just got back to playing solid team basketball. Marquette played poorly and has for the past two games, but this was a pivotal game for the 'Dores season. With conference play starting up next Saturday against Auburn (not to mention a home date against Miami-OH), Vanderbilt needed to establish momentum and confidence. Without question, this win should do just that.
1. Lance Goulbourne was fantastic last night. 13 points and 16 boards to go with 3 blocks and 3 steals. Simply put, he was a force. Lance has really emerged this season in just about every aspect of his game. I talked at the beginning of the season about needing to get more production out of the power forward position, and Lance has certainly answered that call.
2. Jeffery Taylor's month. I know we're discussing this particular game, but you'd be remiss to not see, despite a couple of rough losses, that JT is showing signs of reaching that next level that we all want him to reach. He's averaging 23 ppg in December, is providing a consistent presence on the glass, and is playing fantastic defense. He's beginning to understand and utilize his athleticism to his advantage, particularly on the weak-side when the ball gets swung to him and he's mano-a-mano with whoever dares to try to stop him. But even more than that, the three and the mid-range jumper are falling for him. His step back J in the short corner last night was a thing of beauty. That kind of offensive diversity is what Vanderbilt fans and NBA pundits have been waiting for. Could Jeff turn into this team's Derrick Byars? Not sure yet, but he's on his way.
3. Speaking of Defense and Rebounding. Vanderbilt won both categories last night. The stats are somewhat skewed because 1) Marquette was absolutely ice cold and 2) with their starting center sidelined and their biggest post in foul trouble, they lacked size for most of the game. But even with that, Vandy did something that it really hasn't done all season; and that is take advantage of their strength and athleticism. Early in the game, it looked as if we'd see the same old same old of sitting back, letting guys gain position, and giving teams second bites at the apple. But then Lance went beast mode on the glass, Fez did as much as he could do (which is a lot) with a hobbled leg, and Jeff started to crash a bit more. I was really pleased with the aggresiveness around the bucket.
1. The Bench Play. There aren't many lows to speak of in the game, and this one really wasn't that low. The reserves came in and maintained nicely. Dai-Jon was suffocating on defense. Kedren played within himself for the most part and dished a couple of great dimes. Rod did well defensively and hit an important three, something he seems to be trying to get back in his game. Despite all that play, we simply have to get more out of our bench. More scoring, more defense, and more rebounding.
2. Help defense. This was somewhat apparent last night and really existed more when the subs were in than anything else. Vandy has to do a better job communicating on defense. There were at least 5 possessions that I noticed where there was a miscommunication on switching. That resulted in wide-open looks on the perimeter. It's been much ballyhooed that Vandy's perimeter defense is weak, but I'm not sure it's all a limitation of our front court. We are not very good at rotating over and not very good at communicating on the switch. If it weren't for Marquette's stone cold first half, we may not have won as handily.
3. Steve T. At the risk of sounding hypocritical (even though I'm not), I gotta mention one player. We've gotta get more out of Steve. The guy is a favorite of mine because he has heart, he hustles, and he works hard, but for whatever reason it's simply not translating for him right now. It might be that he's just playing kind of out of position. But he really limits his effectiveness when he fouls and he had zero rebounds last night. We just can't have that out of the 5 position when Fez is not on the floor. Steve is a big body and he is athletic, he just needs to focus more on adding to the rebounding category than on shooting the three.
Where's the Arrow Pointing?
A lot of pundits were ready to pronounce us dead at this point. Some had the faith that when Fez returned, we'd be a different team. After this win, I'd say we're headed more towards the latter camp. We have 4 losses with only one of them likely to have a real damaging effect on our tournament resume. Losing to mid-majors hurts, but Cleveland State has a real good chance to win the Horizon. Indiana State is a scrappy team, but that loss looks a little worse. Winning at Marquette without question is a quality road win and Davidson is doing its best to help in that department after beating Kansas. So the question is, are we going to see one of Stallings "miraculous" gelling teams after a super disappointing loss? Or is it going to be a roller coaster for the rest of the season? The nice thing is, there's still time to find out.