After a day of reflection, I have come to this careful conclusion: that sucked. Vanderbilt fans were treated to a fraction of the feeling that Mississippi State fans had when Shan Foster tore them down in '08 during Saturday's loss. The Gamecocks, led by Bruce Ellington and Sam Muldrow, made tough shots look easy and long rebounds the norm in a game that looked like a Vandy win midway through the second half. Behind a barrage of deep threes and converted second chances, South Carolina not only forced overtime against the #22 Commodores, but dominated the favored team in the extra frame.
Vanderbilt had just one field goal - a John Jenkins three pointer - over the last nine minutes of play, leading to a 75-83 loss and the first major blemish on the Commodores' NCAA Tournament resume. The Gamecocks needed to catch fire to beat their more talented opponents, and did so behind freshman Ellington's hot hand. Just like Devan Downey's clutch shooting buried Vandy in the two teams' previous meeting, a diminutive SC guard proved to be the key to unraveling the 'Dores again in 2011.
That wasn't the only thing we learned about this team in the first SEC game of the season. Let's look at what the season's third loss said about the Commodores.
This team still doesn't know what to do with the final shot of the game. For all the announcers' praise of Kevin Stallings's play-calling abilities, his choices with the game on the line have left much to be desired. The 'Dores have had five opportunities to tie or win games with the final shot of regulation this season, and only converted one. Granted, situations against West Virginia and Missouri gave the team a pretty limited window of opportunity to get a shot off, but the fact remains that Vanderbilt is converting just 20 percent of their most important shots.
Saturday was no different. With 17 seconds left on the clock and the game tied, the 'Dores couldn't shake John Jenkins loose for an open look or feed the ball to the paint for the basket. Instead, we got a long step-back jumper from Jeffery Taylor - a player in the midst of a 4-16 shooting night. Taylor no doubt wanted the ball after his big confrontation with Sam Muldrow earlier, but he wasn't the right guy to put up a contested shot from 20 feet out. His touch was just slightly off, and those inches were enough of an opening for South Carolina to run past the 'Dores in overtime.
It's also worth noting the list of players who have taken the final shots in close games for Vandy this season. Brad Tinsley (twice), Andre Walker, Taylor, and Rod Odom. Notice anyone missing from that list?
Cohesion. We does not has it. Saturday marked another performance where the team was firing at less than 70% efficiency. John Jenkins and Lance Goulbourne played well, but it wasn't enough to stop the hemorrhaging when South Carolina started shooting the lights out. Taylor made up for his offensive deficiency with solid defense and chippy play but his scoring prowess was missed, especially in crunch time. Festus Ezeli couldn't capitalize on a solid start and played flat throughout the second half. Brad Tinsley failed to contribute much.
You can point to the fact that this team led by 14 in the second half despite these problems if you want to be an optimist, but the reality is that this inconsistency gave away a winnable SEC game against an inferior team. The Commodores are one of the most talented squads in the Southeastern Conference, but they won't be able to scrap by on individual efforts alone. Vandy can post a winning league record if they keep putting up performances like Saturday's. However, if they come together and put together a solid cohesive effort each night, they can win the SEC title.
Lance Goulbourne's progression continues. Goulbourne's development as a rebounder has been impressive, to say the least. The knock on the athletic forward last year was that he was often out of position when shots hit the rim and lacked the aggression to pull down rebounds consistently. This year, his footwork has improved and his anticipation in the paint has made him a beast on the glass. The junior had 14 boards on Saturday and is averaging 7.2 rebounds in just 24.4 minutes per game. He and Festus Ezeli have emerged as the team's backbone on the backboard this season:
In the NBA, an figure of four minutes per rebound is considered just about average for big men. A mark closer to three minutes suggests a top tier rebounder. Goulbourne and Ezeli, with rebounds for every 3:24 and 3:15 of court time, respectively, have developed into one of the SEC's best frontcourts in that regard. Though lots of long rebounds found their way into Gamecock hands Saturday, Commodore fans should feel better about this team's ability to secure missed shots compared to 2010.