Wednesday night was a roller coaster for Commodore fans as Vanderbilt twice gave up big leads but finished strong to put away Ole Miss at Memorial Gym. Vandy watched leads of nine and 10 points evaporate in separate occasions but failed to allow the Rebels momentum to bomb them out of the game. The 'Dores responded with an aggressive and efficient attack that played to their strengths and gave the team a crunch-time performance to be proud of.
The win moved Vandy into a four-way tie for third place in the SEC East, and a quarter of the way through the league slate it is that the conference title is still very much up for grabs. Few could have predicted that Vanderbilt, Tennessee, and Kentucky would be looking up at Alabama and South Carolina as the league's leaders so far. This is a major benefit for the 'Dores, who have the advantage of being dead even with some of the SEC's most talented teams despite an uneven 2-2 start.
Can the Commodores capitalize on this opportunity? Wednesday's win suggested that things are starting to click in Nashville - but they'll have to show this type of composure on the road to put some of the louder criticisms to rest.
1. Lance Goulbourne isn't going to be affected by what happened in the past. Against Tennessee, Goulbourne had more fouls and turnovers (eight) than rebounds, points, and assists (six). He came back with a vengeance against an outclassed Ole Miss frontcourt to post his first collegiate double-double and lead Vanderbilt to the victory. "Lance Uppercut" was all over the boards and used a combination of athleticism and positioning to snatch loose balls and get to the line on offense. In the end, he finished with 14 points and 16 rebounds.
However, his five assists (and just one turnover) were probably the most impressive piece of his stat line Wednesday night. Goulbourne matched a career high and proved that he can offer some of the offense-facilitating passing that the team has lacked in Andre Walker's absence. The junior SF/PF hybrid has proven that he can be one of the SEC's most effective big men when he finds his game. If he can continue playing at this level, Kevin Stallings will have a potent forward rotation between Goulbourne, Walker, and Jeffery Taylor.
2. Eureka! The hat goes on the head! It's all so obvious now! When the Commodores came back in the second half to pull away, they did it by playing to their strengths. Jeffery Taylor drove to the basket and drew contact. John Jenkins waited for open shots and capitalized. The team dumped it in to Festus Ezeli in the post. In short, the team did all the things that you'd expect them to do to be successful - and it worked.
Gameplans like these have been absent in the 'Dores recent outings. Taylor had been settling for too many jumpers, Jenkins was forcing too many shots, and the team as a whole struggled to get the ball into the post so the team's big men could work inside and draw fouls. Last night's performance shone with some of the promise of what this team can do when they take advantage of their talent.
3. This team can distribute the ball without Andre Walker on the court. In the team's first three SEC games, they posted a 30:46 assist-to-turnover ratio and had assists on just 44.8% of the team's field goals. Against Mississippi, the team improved to a 1:1 AST:TO mark and assisted on 62.5% of the team's made shots. This is a testament to the flow of the game in the second half, where the team eschewed long bombs in traffic to make the extra pass and find open players. Though it was just against a struggling Rebel squad, it was still a promising display. Vanderbilt will have to show the same patience against Saint Mary's to topple the Gaels in Nashville; if they can, they'll be on the fast track back to the AP Top 25.