Freije leads Vanderbilt revival

Published: Thursday, January 15, 2004 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, January 15, 2004 at 12:59 a.m.

In assessing senior Vanderbilt forward Matt Freije, Florida Coach Billy Donovan pointed out his ability to come off screens and knock down three-pointers.

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Vanderbilt forward Matt Freije (left) is drawing comparisons to former Gator Matt Bonner (right).

The Associated Press

He pointed out Freije's post-up ability, his rebounding ability, his ability to drive to the basket and create his own shot.

It all reminded Donovan of a player he coached in the not-so-distant past.

"He's probably the closest thing to Matt Bonner that I've seen in this league in some time," Donovan said. "He's a difficult matchup."

A matchup that No. 15 Florida must contend with when they play Saturday at No. 23 Vanderbilt.

Florida forward David Lee will face the task of defending Freije during some offensive sets. Last year, Donovan threw top defender Justin Hamilton at him, only to have Freije score 21 and 24 points against Florida in the two-game series.

"He has an inside and outside game," said Lee, who also made the comparison to Bonner. "The offense they run is built around him."

Freije has lived up to the billing set last October, when he was named preseason Southeastern Conference player of the year. He came into the week averaging 18.3 points and 5.6 rebounds. Vanderbilt came into the week with its first national ranking since February 2000.

A team with 10 returning players is starting to believe.

"It's been a lot of fun," Freije said. "I've been here four years and I can't recall a time when we've played better. Everything is coming together for us."

Bonner is playing professionally in Italy after being cut by the Toronto Raptors in October in training camp. The Raptors acquired Bonner in a trade shortly after he was selected with the 45th overall pick in the second round of the NBA draft last June by the Chicago Bulls.

Bonner left Florida last spring as the only player in school history to score 1,500 points, grab 750 rebounds and sink 150 three-pointers in a career.

Like Bonner, Freije is between 6-foot-9 and 6-10. Like Bonner, Freije has the body of a power forward (240 pounds) and is skilled enough to play on the wing.

"It's a pretty fair comparison," Freije said. "Just to be considered in the same sentence with a guy like Matt Bonner is pretty flattering because of all the things he accomplished at Florida."

Freije arrived in Nashville without the pedigree of a college basketball star. While more highly touted prospects spent summers playing AAU ball, Freije spent his summers working at a pizza parlor in his native Overland Park, Kan.

His home-state school, Kansas, spurned him during recruiting. Freije chose Vanderbilt over Utah, Northwestern and Iowa State.

Since, he has become an example of how a college player can grow and develop if he stays for all four years of his eligibility.

"You can say that, but at the same time, I didn't have some of the opportunities that maybe some other guys had after their freshman year or after their sophomore year," Freije said. "After my junior year, I wanted to stay because I knew there were still some things in my game I needed to work on."

Freije made a big jump between his freshman and sophomore year, when his scoring average went from 10.4 to 15.1 points per game. He increased it to 17.9 as a junior.

Over the summer, Freije hit the weights with teammate Julian Terrell. It's already paid off with his play inside. Freije grabbed 14 rebounds in a non-conference win early in the season against Indiana and went to the free-throw line 18 times, making all 18.

Vanderbilt won its first 12 games, its best start in school history, before losing by 12 at Kentucky last Saturday. The Commodores only trailed by two points with 5:52 remaining. Progress, considering Kentucky blew out Vandy by 62 points at Rupp Arena last season.

Kentucky held Freije to just one shot in the second half. The tape is sure to get around to the rest of the SEC coaches intent to stop him.

"I got a lot of attention from defenses my junior year," Freije said. "But we're seeing maybe a few more box-and-ones than we did last season."

Vandy's hot start has increased expectations. Freije said he would be not be satisfied with anything less than an NCAA tournament berth.

"If we don't make the NCAA Tournament, it would be a waste," Freije said. "I'd consider the four years here a waste if that happened."

Kevin Brockway can be reached at 374-5054 or by e-mail at

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