Vanderbilt won by 9 and did what no Commodore team had done since 2007: beat a lower seeded team in their first round NCAA Tournament game. There was a lot to excited about, and a lot to be frustrated with, in today's game. At the end of the day, Kevin Stallings is right, it's a math contest not an art contest, and when the final buzzer sounded, Vanderbilt was on the right side of the things (and covered the spread to boot).
John Jenkins played a tremendous game, scoring 27 points on 7-12 shooting, including 3-8 from downtown, and perhaps most impressively, 10-13 from the charity stripe. He also grabbed 6 boards, dished out 3 assists, and had a steal. Not a bad line at all. Brad Tinsley played very well for most of the game, although had 2 bad turnovers and an ill-advised drive as Harvard made the game interesting down the stretch. Big Shot Brad hit a huge three at the end of the 1st half to push the lead to 10, and sprinkled in a few other buckets to keep the Crimson at bay when they looked like they might make a charge. Brad was 5-6 from the field, 2-2 from downtown, and 4-4 from the free throw line for a total of 16 points. He also handed out 4 assists, but also had 4 turnovers (including 2 late that I mentioned above).
Jeffery Taylor's homecoming was good, but not great. He scored 15 points on 6-13 shooting, including 2-5 from beyond the arc. JT's free throw woes continued, connecting on just 1-4 of his freebies. At two points in the second half, it appeared as if Jeffery was poised to take over. Unfortunately, he wasn't able to get that next bucket to put him in "the zone." Taylor's steal and flush with 7:49 left gave the Commodores their biggest lead of the game (18). Tommy Amaker called time-out and the Crimson went on to out-score Vanderbilt 26-17 from that point on (more on that below). Taylor would attempt just one more shot, and would take just 2 free throws (connecting on 1) in the final 7:48.
Festus Ezeli played the kind of game on defense that the Commodores will need in order to advance in this tournament. 11 rebounds, 4 blocks, and 2 steals is an impressive line. What's not captured is how many shots he altered over the course of the contest. He was omnipresent in the lane all day long. Festus' 8 points on 2-3 shooting and 4-6 from the free throw line is okay. I would have liked the Commodores to make feeding the post more of a priority on offense, but considering they put more on Harvard than any team had all season by 9 (the Crimson had only allowed 3 teams to score 70, and lost 2 of those 3), it's hard to complain. Festus looked explosive (especially on defense) a fact that portends well for the Commodores if they are going to keep playing.
Perhaps the best news was the bench, who came up big and provided CKS a lift. Rod Odom gave Vanderbilt quality minutes as Lance fouled out of his first college game. Odom played 27 minutes, grabbing 6 rebounds and scoring 5 points on 2-4 shooting (1-2 from 3). On the whole, I thought Kedren played well, scoring 4 points in 22 minutes. Johnson is able to make plays that Brad can't, is definitely a true point guard in a way that Big Shot Brad is not. When he's good, he's great and the Vanderbilt offense looks like show time. When he's not, the team looks sloppy. Still, at the end of games, I really like Stallings going with a 3-guard set that includes Kedren. Finally, I would be remiss if I didn't mention Dai-Jon Parker, who's steal decision to bring it out and get the ball into Jenkins' hand with under a minute to go probably sealed the deal.
Overall, Vanderbilt was 54% from the floor, 44% from 3 (8-18) and 70% from the charity stripe (21-30). The Commodores out-rebounded Harvard 35-25 and had 10 offensive boards that led to 13 Commodore points. Vanderbilt's 16* turnovers is too many. I've put an asterisk because 3 of those turnovers were the result of truly awful offensive foul calls on Vanderbilt. Charges use to be an uncommon occurrence. That is until Shane Battier's flopping became mainstays on ESPN and officials decided to ignore the rules about defenders being set and not sliding under guys as they drive to the hoop. But I digress...Vanderbilt turned the ball over too much, and will have to do a better job against Wisconsin on Saturday than they did today.
Commodore fans will probably focus on the near collapse more than the fact, overall, the Commodores dominated this game. Given this team's play in March's past (and at times this season), that's fair. But consider this: with 5:28 left in the first half Vanderbilt trailed 20-17. Vanderbilt ended the half on a 16-3 run, and outscored the Crimson 45-20 over a 17 minute and 39 second period. Make no mistake, that's domination. Vanderbilt took control of the game because they began to dictate the pace of play, a lesson the Commodores would be well-advised to remember as they face a team in the next round who wants to take the air out of the ball. As VandySports.com's Jesse Johnson points out on his Twitter account, the Commodores are 10-2 in the NCAA Tournament when scoring 70 or more points; they are 0-11 when failing to do so.
I'm sure there are things that I'm missing, but overall I was happy with the performance, if for no other reason than we won. Coach Stallings made a point during his post-game press conference that I think is worth reiterating. Stallings said the way this game finished was actually the best-case scenario for his team because it allowed them to exorcise the demons of tournaments past. CKS isn't usually a "glass half full" kind of guy, which gives this statement a lot of credence to me. Vanderbilt stared into the abyss of another NCAA Tournament collapse and came out the other side. They'll need to bring their "A" game on Saturday, but the fact that we've got more basketball to watch is an encouraging sign.