Commodores making plenty of noise
Published: Friday, January 26, 2007 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, January 26, 2007 at 12:00 a.m.
A few months ago, the music around Nashville centered around whether Kevin Stallings was the right coach to lead Vanderbilt.
SEC Power Rankings
- 1. Florida (18-2, 5-0): Best league record since starting 7-0 during 2002-03 season.
- 2. Vanderbilt (14-6, 4-2): Shan Foster, Derrick Byars provide perimeter scoring punch.
- 3. Georgia (12-6, 4-2): Yes, the Dawgs are for real.
- 4. Kentucky (15-5, 4-2): Still soft? Randolph Morris grabs just two rebounds vs. Georgia.
- 5. Auburn (13-8, 3-3): Starting to grasp Jeff Lebo's up-tempo offense.
- 6. Alabama (15-4, 2-3): Biggest disappointment in the league so far.
- 7. LSU (13-6, 2-3): Slimmer Glen Davis shooting just 34.5 percent (20-58) in last three games.
- 8. Tennessee (14-6, 2-3): Needs Chris Lofton back as soon as possible.
- 9. Mississippi State (11-7, 2-3): Great bench, just lack quality size.
- 10. Arkansas (13-7, 2-4): Like Alabama, Hogs are dreadful on the road.
- 11. Ole Miss (13-7, 2-4): Outscored last two opponents 99-65 in the second half.
- 12. South Carolina (11-7, 1-4): Finally, a win for Tre Kelly and co.
The Commodores had come off an embarrassing home loss against Furman, and the future didn't look bright in an SEC East division that included heavyweights Florida, Tennessee and Kentucky. Stallings, in his seventh season, had become as stale as Billy Ray Cyrus.
A home win in December against Georgia Tech quieted some critics. Now, nearing the end of January, Vanderbilt has emerged as one of the surprise teams in the league, with Stallings going from the hot seat to early candidate for coach of the year.
Vanderbilt capped a stretch of three straight wins against ranked teams with a 64-53 upset Wednesday night at No. 21 LSU. The Commodores started the stretch beating No. 12 Alabama, then surprised No. 25 Kentucky this past weekend at Rupp Arena 72-67.
At 4-2 in the league, Vanderbilt is tied for second with Kentucky and Georgia in the SEC East. It's the first time in school history that the Commodores have beaten ranked teams in three straight games.
"I think you can have guys like each other, but until they hit their stride and have success playing, I don't think it fully comes together," Stallings said. "Our chemistry has just jumped up a level or two or three with the wins."
Defense has triggered the turnaround. Vanderbilt has held each of its last three opponents to under 44 percent shooting from the floor. LSU managed to make just 32.3 of its shots Wednesday night.
"Our guys have really turned it up defensively," Stallings said. "It's something that you strive for as a coach. Sometimes it clicks early sometimes it takes longer. Guys are making two and three plays per defensive possession.
"It has become a team defense in essence. Our guys are enjoying it and getting locked into it."
Ross Neltner, a transfer from LSU, has provided a physical presence inside. The 6-foot-9, 245-pound Neltner held LSU center Glen Davis to 12 points Wednesday and held center Randolph Morris to 11 points in the Kentucky win. Morris came into the game averaging close to 17 points per game in SEC play.
Neltner and point guard Alex Gordon are joined in the starting lineup by three inter-changeable swingmen. Derrick Byars and Shan Foster have supplied the scoring during the current win streak, with senior Dan Cage coming up with the hustle plays.
"Dan Cage has been the leader of this basketball team," Stallings said. "He's had plenty of help, but he's really been the backbone of our team."
The Commodores visit the O'Connell Center next Wednesday and have already proven they can win on the road, beating Kentucky at Rupp Arena and LSU at the Maravich Center. But Stallings cautioned against ordaining Vandy as the surprise of the league.
"Anybody on either side is capable of getting on a run," Stallings said. "There just aren't any off nights. There aren't any easy games."
Who wants the West?
Before the start of this month, few would have predicted Saturday's showdown between Florida-Auburn as the game pitting the top teams from the SEC East and SEC West.
But at 3-3, Auburn has emerged as the surprise first-place team in the division, ahead of returning NCAA Tournament teams Alabama (2-3), LSU (2-3) and Arkansas (2-4).
The mediocrity in the division is related to its woeful road record. SEC West teams are 0-18 on the road. Arkansas lost Wednesday night at a South Carolina team that looked like it had the potential to go winless in SEC play.
The poor road performances have allowed all six teams in the division to stay in the race. Ole Miss and Arkansas, at 2-4, are tied for last, just a game behind Auburn.
Talent-wise, Alabama and LSU should eventually emerge, though time is running out. The Tide have been terrible away from Coleman Coliseum, losing three road games by an average of 24 points.
"It's a long season, and there's a ton of basketball left," Alabama coach Mark Gottfried said. "My objective is to get this team to play better basketball and maximize ourselves. That's where our concern is and we're trying to be the best team we can be - nothing else."
Georgia will honor late former walk-on guard Kevin Brophy during halftime of Sunday's home game against LSU.
Brophy, 21, was killed in a single-car accident last July 21 in Greensboro, Ga.
Brophy's parents are traveling from his native Melbourne, Australia to attend the ceremony.
He said it
CBS Sportsline national college basketball columnist Gary Parrish, comparing the strength of the Pac 10 to the SEC, "The Pac 10 is more concentrated at the top," Parrish said. "There is some depth in the SEC, but there's a clear separation between Florida and everyone else. In the Pac 10, you don't have that level of separation."
Kevin Brockway can be reached at (352) 374-5054 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org .
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