Some Vanderbilt basketball observations
I’ve now seen the Commodores play exactly half of their 18 games from courtside at Memorial Gym. Here are some observations as they prepare for their final 12 SEC games:1. This is not your father’s Vanderbilt team. It’s unlike any Commodores team I’ve seen either, and I’ve been in Nashville for the past 10 years. It used to be Vandy got by on guile and 3-point shooting. This group might be the most athletic in Vanderbilt history. It has guys on the perimeter who are 6-7, 6-8 and 6-9 who are long and can rebound and defend and finish at the rim. This isn’t Barry Goheen or Scott Draud or Greg LaPointe. This is 6-8 forward Lance Goulbourne posting 56 rebounds in a five-game stretch. This is 6-7 forward Jeffery Taylor catching alley-oop inbounds passes that make SportsCenter anchors squeal. In years past these were the types of players on Kentucky and Tennessee and Alabama who killed Vanderbilt. Now they play for Vanderbilt.
2. One of the many reasons I like Kevin Stallings is because his players get better. The same cannot be said of even a majority of college coaches. Goulbourne is now one of the top rebounders in the SEC. Last year he averaged 2.1 rpg. Center Festus Ezeli has gone from afterthought (3.8 ppg, 3.2 ppg) to focal point (12.9 ppg, 6.5 rpg). Sophomore guard John Jenkins has raised his scoring average by more than 7 ppg and leads the SEC in scoring (18.7 ppg).
3. Health is a major concern, because if healthy this is a Sweet 16 team, maybe more. Right now Ezeli (knee), backup center Steve Tchiengang (ankle) and forward Andre Walker (ankle) all are struggling with injuries. Walker (4.1 ppg, 4.4 rpg, 3.9 apg), a true glue guy, has been limited to eight games. Ezeli and Tchiengang (5.6 ppg, 3.7 rpg) are playing, but their minutes have been limited. With all three Vanderbilt is a serious threat to win the SEC. Walker’s absence has allowed Goulbourne to blossom and freshman Rod Odom to gain valuable experience. But Walker’s calming influence and decision-making will be critical come March.
4. Brad Tinsley (9.9 ppg, 4.6 apg, 4.4 rpg) has played well at the point for the most part. It’s hard to argue with his numbers. But would I trust him with the ball in the closing minutes of a tight first-round NCAA Tournament game? Probably not. Stallings has turned to Taylor to go one-on-one in late-game situations a couple of times, with mixed results. Tinsley has been solid, but if there’s a weak link or a spot where you can attack Vanderbilt, this is it.
5. No lead is safe, in either direction. Already Vanderbilt has blown double-digit leads on the road against Tennessee and South Carolina. If not for those two losses they’d be sitting at 16-2, atop the SEC East and probably in the top 15 in the rankings. But they’ve gotten sloppy with big leads. They can fall into bad habits of taking questionable shots and turning over the ball. By the same token, they can get back in any game, too, because they have some lineups where everybody on the floor can shoot the 3. Jenkins has unlimited range, and Taylor deserves a lot of credit for adding the trey to his arsenal. The crowd loves it when Tchiengang steps out there, too, and he’s perfectly capable.
6. Jenkins is deadly. When the sophomore from Station Camp High School has his feet set, forget it. You can wait for the ball to come out of the bottom of the net. He’s added a stepback 3 to his repertoire, and he already has taken more free throws through 17 games than he did all of last year in 31 games. That’s a critical improvement because he’s one of the best free-throw shooters in the country.