Vanderbilt's win over Marquette was everything that this team needed with SEC play on the horizon. Kevin Stallings's team proved that they could defend with tenacity and create open shots for a full 40 minutes in a wall-to-wall rout of a very good Golden Eagle squad. Two of the team's biggest issues - earning defensive stops and moving without the ball - cleared up in a cathartic victory Thursday night.
With the Commodores coming off their biggest basketball win of the season and the football team gearing up for the Liberty Bowl, this may be the most optimistic Friday any Vandy fan has ever seen. Last night's blowout was strong enough to bump the 'Dores up from 56th to 38th in Ken Pomeroy's rankings. While that's still disappointing, it's a good example of just what beating Marquette will do for the team when Selection Sunday rolls around.
If the best case scenario holds true, this victory will stand as the turning point for this team. It would be the foundation of a run that puts Vanderbilt back in the upper echelon of this year's college basketball teams. After months of struggling to put together a consistently strong 40 minutes of play, the team finally figured it out. More importantly, they harnessed their massive talents on the road against a top 15 team, even without a big game from their top scorer.
We'll have to wait to see if that holds true. Still, it's encouraging that Vandy ran a very good team off their home court despite a bad game from John Jenkins and limited minutes from Festus Ezeli. If they can do that in Milwaukee, they should be able to hang with anyone once they get back to full strength. If you're a Commodore fan, that's the hope you'll be carrying with you into March.
Meanwhile, here are the three things we learned about this team from last night's win:
So Vanderbilt can defend. The Commodores hit Marquette with a combination of man-to-man and zone defense, and effectively clamped down on a team that many - myself included - thought would turn this game into a shootout. The team used some strong individual performances early to keep the Golden Eagles from getting any open looks, then switched over to a zone defense to take advantage of the team's poor shooting streak. Both strategies paid off, as the first 10 minutes of the game threatened to turn into 2008's Kentucky at Vanderbilt blowout.
Vanderbilt clamped down on the wings and crowded passing lanes to throw a wrench in Marquette's usually-potent offense. Passes into the paint were knocked down and turned into fast breaks with efficiency. Jeffery Taylor, John Jenkins, and Brad Tinsley proved that they can defend a backcourt filled with strong, athletic scorers. In all, it was an impressive performance from a group whose toughness had rightfully been questioned over the past two seasons.
Jeffery Taylor's draft stock is rising. Taylor hit last night's game on a hot streak, averaging 24 points and five rebounds in his last four games against some decent, but underwhelming, opponents. He showed that this newfound intensity was no fluke with a solid performance against an upper tier rival Thursday night. Taylor played a major role in the team's lockdown defense and scored using everything from breakaway dunks to pull-up jumpers and long threes. He shot 50 percent or better from the field for the fifth straight game.
The Commodores have a nice core of big men that can rebound and defend in the post this season, but with Josh Henderson and Festus Ezeli battling injuries, Tchiengang's presence on the court is more important than ever. He'll have to make a stronger effort to control his body and figure out what it is that makes referees hate him. While Lance Goulbourne is having a career year this season, his effectiveness will be sapped if he doesn't have a reliable presence behind him at the five.