By Chris DePew
Jan. 12, 2016
Everything and everybody said this was Vanderbilt’s year.
After three straight years of NCAA Tournament misses, the Commodores were a trendy preseason Top 25 pick, a consensus top three pick in the SEC and a potential threat to Kentucky’s designs on back-to-back conference crowns. With virtually everyone returning from a surprising 21-win team and as many as three potential NBA prospects, spirits were high in Nashville. And after two dominating games and a hard-fought loss to Kansas the week of Thanksgiving, expectations reached a fever pitch.
Now, Vandy is fighting for its postseason life with January not even half over. The Dores are last in the SEC and have lost seven of 10 overall. Perhaps worse, there isn’t one particular flaw for Coach Kevin Stallings to try to address. Instead, Vandy has lost three conference games in different ways.
- Versus LSU, the Commodores were helpless to stop freshman sensation Ben Simmons, who bullied his way to the rim (and foul line) time and again, finishing with 36 points and 14 rebounds as the Tigers jump-started their own moribund season with a 90-82 upset.
- Three days later at Arkansas, Vandy got its best news in weeks when 7-footer Luke Kornet came back from a multi-week injury and shook off his rust to collect 11 points and eight rebounds in 28 minutes. But the Dores had 26 turnovers and ran out of gas in a 90-85 overtime loss.
- Vanderbilt dialed back the turnovers (11) and cranked up the defense in an inspired showing at unbeaten South Carolina. But the Commodores’ normally-reliable shooting touch deserted them, as Vandy shot a season-worst 32.8 percent and made just six baskets after halftime of a 69-65 loss.
Coaches in any sport seldom get fired after just one disappointing season on the West End, and even this flameout probably wouldn’t cost Stallings his job. But with his recent tournament drought and a history of early NCAA exits before that, grumbling is growing louder in Music City If Vanderbilt can’t break through with this team, it is fair to wonder if it ever will again under Stallings.
Game of the week: Florida (10-5, 2-1 SEC) at No. 15 Texas A&M (13-2, 3-0), 6 p.m. Central today, SEC Network – The Gators have the best scoring defense in the SEC, allowing just 63.4 points per game. That’s good for a tie for 22nd nationally, and Florida is the only conference team in the top 50 in that category. Amazingly the Gators are slightly stingier away from home (62.2 points per game) but that hasn’t translated into success away from Gainesville. In five road games, Florida has scored an average of 61 points and won just once, defeating Navy 59-41 in the season opener. Scoring points hasn’t been a problem for the Aggies, who average 80.1 points per outing (although remarkably that only merits a fourth-place tie in the SEC). A&M is in first place by a half-game and is coming off a two-game road sweep, but things are slightly less rosy than they appear. The Aggies needed late comebacks to beat Mississippi State (61-60) and Tennessee (92-88), teams with a combined 15-14 record. If Florida is going to pull off a surprise championship, it probably needs no worse than a split from this game, its trip to South Carolina and the home-and-home series with Kentucky. Tonight might be its best opportunity.
Missouri at No. 19 South Carolina, noon, SEC Network
No. 15 Texas A&M at Georgia, 1 p.m., ESPNU
Tennessee at Mississippi State, 2:30 p.m., SEC Network
No. 14 Kentucky at Auburn, 3 p.m., ESPN
Alabama at Vanderbilt, 5 p.m., SEC Network
Florida at Ole Miss, 7 p.m., ESPN2
Arkansas at LSU, 7:30 p.m., SEC Network
1. South Carolina – The Gamecocks’s leading scorer, Sindarius Thornwell, only averages 12.6 points per game. Their fifth-leading scorer, Laimonas Chatkevicius, averages 10.8. That’s not balance, it’s precision engineering. And did we mention USC is still undefeated?
2. Kentucky – The Cats figure to go as far as senior forward Alex Poythress can take them, and against Alabama he showed what he can do when properly motivated (25 points, seven rebounds). So why is it still so hard for him to stay motivated?
3. Texas A&M – The Aggies (barely) survived MSU while missing All-SEC shooting guard Danuel House. They got him back for the trip to Knoxville, and not a minute too soon. He had 23 points and five rebounds in A&M’s wild 13-point comeback.
4. Florida – There’s a noticeable drop-off after the Big 3, but the Gators redeemed themselves after a midweek dud at Tennessee by cooling off LSU. Ben Simmons still got his share of points (28) but Florida forced him into eight second-half turnovers.
5. Ole Miss – Stefan Moody overcame a quiet first half against Bama to finish with 21 points, then really cranked things up with 29 points and seven assists in the Rebels’ 72-71 comeback against Georgia.
6. LSU – A letdown seemed inevitable after knocking off UK, but it still has to smart seeing the Tigers go from a respectable 6-for-14 showing behind the arc last Tuesday to a puny 3-for-20 performance at Florida.
7. Vanderbilt – When it rains it pours. Matthew Fisher-Davis injured his foot against South Carolina and may not get to play against Auburn tonight. The Commodores need their 3-point sharpshooter (48.5) healthy if they are to have any hope of digging out of the SEC cellar.
8. Georgia – The best things to happen to the Bulldogs last week took place in the ACC race. Georgia Tech and Clemson, who represent UGA’s most impressive wins to date, scored Top 25 upsets of Virginia and Louisville respectively. As for Georgia itself, a heartbreaking loss at Ole Miss is a glimmer of hope at least.
9. Alabama – The Crimson Tide hasn’t been able to paper over the holes in its lineup now that SEC play is here and things could really go sour fast. Bama plays undefeated USC twice in the next six games, and in between travels to Vandy and Auburn and hosts high-scoring LSU and Tennessee. Ouch.
10. Tennessee – Kevin Punter continued his emergence from anonymous to All-SEC candidate with a white-hot start against Florida, making his first seven shots (including three treys) en route to 26 points and an upset of the Gators.
11. Arkansas – The Razorbacks’ league-leading scoring average of 83.8 points per game isn’t a fluke. The Hogs scored 77 in regulation against Vandy before pulling away for a 90-85 win, then followed it up with an 82-68 blowout of Mississippi State. Notably, the Hogs take the fewest 3-point shots of any SEC team.
12. Mississippi State – The Bulldogs hopes of a turnaround after nearly upsetting A&M were dashed after a late crash and burn in Arkansas, when the Hogs turned a one-possession game late into a 14-point laugher.
13. Missouri – It may only last a week, but a surprisingly easy win over Auburn springs the Yankee Tigers out of the cellar. Four players scored in double figures for Mizzou, which also avoided turnovers (eight) and outrebounded AU 41-34.
14. Auburn – The Tigers got eight bench points combined in two losses last week, all from Cinmeon Bowers, who has gone into a prolonged slumping after scoring double figures in 10 of his first 11 games.
Follow Chris DePew on Twitter @TideFansChris
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