2007 Vanderbilt Commodores
To say the season started slowly for the Vanderbilt Commodores is a bit of an understatement. They walked off the Memorial Gymnasium floor dejected as they suffered a baffling 70-62 defeat to the Furman Paladins. It was the first time Vanderbilt had lost to a Southern Conference school since 1968. There was only one win in their first four games. In the early-going, every team is hopeful that the hard work they put into the off-season will result in success. For Vanderbilt, that hope was quickly depleted.
But the Commodores regrouped quickly and reeled off seven straight victories, including a 73-64 W over Georgia Tech on national television. Then came a second-straight loss to a SoCon school, this one to Appalachian State in Puerto Rico over the holidays. While this loss has since become acceptable, given App State’s tear through the SoCon), for a Tournament hopeful, it’s the kind of game you simply must win.
The Commodores were twelve games into the season and they still had not found a groove. With SEC play looming, fans and media wondered: how could a team that lost to Furman and Appalachian State compete with the likes of Florida and Kentucky? Even the Commodores themselves had to question how they would fare.
They suffered two losses in their first three games in conference play but it was the game at Georgia that left Coach Stallings irate. Stallings ripped into his team after they allowed the Bulldogs to shoot 55% from the floor in route to an 85-73 defeat. It was evident something had to change and it needed to change fast. Defensively the Commodores were not doing their job and if they wanted to compete in one of college basketball’s toughest leagues they would have to become more aggressive.
Consider that message received: Vandy has been a completely different team since the Georgia defeat.
In the three games following the loss in Athens, Vandy defeated Alabama at home and Kentucky and LSU on the road. After holding LSU to an exasperating 53 points, it was clear Vanderbilt had flipped the switch on the defensive side of the ball. The most telling stat was the Commodores’ ability to collapse underneath and hold two of the league’s best big men in check. Glen Davis and Randolph Morris, as they were held to 12 and 11 points respectively. All the sudden, despite their poor start, Vanderbilt was back on everyone’s radar.
For the majority of the year, the Commodores have been an outstanding passing team. Whether in transition or in a half-court set, no one on the Vanderbilt roster is hesitant to make the extra pass in order to ensure a better shot. With their newfound success on the defensive end combined with their usual productivity on the offensive end, Vanderbilt is starting to win games against quality opponents.
With the basketball in hand, the Commodores have a full complement of weapons. Defenses are often put in a position where they must pick their poison. Vanderbilt features four players who average double figures: Derrick Byars (16.0), Shan Foster (15.0), Dan Cage (11.5) and Ross Neltner (10.2). They are an exceptional outside-shooting team, averaging an SEC-leading nine three-point field goals a game. Byars, Foster and Cage lead the charge from the outside as each has connected on more than 44 3′s this season.
But Vandy is more than a good shooting team. They’re also athletic.
At 6’7” and 6’6”, Byars and Foster are both too big to be defended by most guards, and their quickness is often no match when facing bigger defenders. Play off of them and they will knock down the open shot. Play up on them and they have the ability to get by their defender. If one penetrates, the other is usually spotting up on the opposite wing, waiting to pull the trigger on an open three. This duo plays exceptionally well together and has become a nightmare for opposing defenses.
Derrick Byars ranks second in the SEC in scoring (19.0 ppg) and is sixth in three point field goals made per game (2.63). The transfer from Virginia was named SEC Player of the Week for his play in Vanderbilt’s victories over Alabama and Kentucky. In those two games he averaged 19 points, 6 rebounds, shot 57% from the field and 54% from behind the arc. Byars has quickly put himself on the short list for SEC Player of the Year.
On Wednesday night the Florida Gators ended Vanderbilt’s four game winning streak, fighting back from an 11 point halftime deficit. In the second half the Gators gave good reason why many believe they will defend their National Title. They scored the first 13 points and never looked back, while shooting an exasperating 73% from the field. While Vandy has improved on defense, Florida quickly provided realization that the Commodores still have some work to do on the defensive side of the ball.
Florida loss notwithstanding, Vandy could find itself dancing for the first time since 2004, when they lost to Connecticut in the Sweet Sixteen. But to do so, they’ll have to maintain the defensive intensity that has characterized their early SEC road wins.
After suffering losses to Furman and Appalachian State to start the season, Vandy fans have to be ecstatic that his team and the NCAA Tournament are even being discussed in the same sentence. However, as with all teams who rely heavily on the outside shot, Vanderbilt could be quickly packing their things for the off-season if they struggle from behind the arc. But the play of Byars and Foster will keep them in the bubble discussion right down to Selection Sunday.
– Nick Evans