Lost in the fray of last night's awful officiating was the rise of Brad Tinsley's leadership from the ashes of past defeats. Tinsley, the junior guard whose mistakes contributed to last-minute heartbreak against Missouri and Tennessee, had started to learn the label "anti-clutch" amongst the Commodore faithful. Then, trailing by one and with under 30 seconds to play, he nailed a long jumper and hit the foul shot afterwards in a game-changing sequence, leading the Commodores to the win.
Was it the ideal last-shot play? Probably not. But Tinsley converted and gave Vanderbilt their best opportunity to win the game - and that's all that matters. With John Jenkins drawing opponents' best perimeter defenders when the game is on the line, these opportunities are going to fall to Tinsley whether the Commodores like it or not. His play last night showed that there's still hope that he retains some of the late-game swagger that Jermaine Beal left behind in 2010.
Let's take a look at what else we learned last night, aside from the fact that the SEC employs some terrible referees:
1. For once, man-to-man defense bailed the Commodores out. Alabama absolutely shredded Vanderbilt's zone, using backdoor cuts and crisp passing to find open looks near the basket all night. After thirty minutes of play, the Crimson Tide were shooting over 62 percent from the field. Though Vandy had the lead, everyone watching the game knew that the 'Dores wouldn't win the game if Alabama kept up their torrid pace.
Fortunately, Kevin Stallings switched up his defense just in time, transitioning to a man-to-man scheme that left Brad Tinsley vulnerable at the point but made the team more stable in the paint. Alabama did their best to exploit this by forcing Tinsley through several screens every possession, but the Tide's backcourt was unable to capitalize on the separation they were able to create on the perimeter. Still, Alabama's 30+ minutes of dominance against the zone makes you wonder why Stallings didn't abandon it earlier, especially given the poor outside shooting of Tony Grant's squad.
2. Has Jeffery Taylor flipped the "on" switch? That's two solid outings in a row for Taylor, and over that stretch he's gone 8-9 from three-point range. That has made him a 40.2% three point shooter for the season. Read that sentence again, and then think about how realistic any of us thought that would be during the preseason.
The downside here is the Swedish Eagle's possible over-reliance on step-back jumpers and long threes. Most Vandy fans would rather see him drive hard to the rack, draw contact, and finish at the rim. However, it seems as though hard plays like that were a key factor in his brief midseason slump. By stepping back and playing a more composed game, Jeffery Taylor has found a way to take over a game without driving into the lane every possession, and is finding more composure and better position for rebounds (11 offensive rebounds in two games) as a result. Taylor may not be using his talents to take full advantage of the college game, but he's definitely using them to hone his NBA skills, developing a reliable outside shot and gaining experience on the boards.
3. Festus Ezeli's funk continues. Ezeli put up decent enough numbers - 11 points, six rebounds, and a block - but he should have been dominant against an Alabama team with no rotation players bigger than Lance Goulbourne. Ezeli is solid in one-on-one situations, but continues to struggle against opponents' double-teams. As a result, he's more likely to put up big numbers against a team with a true center than against smaller teams that can clog the middle against him. The presence of a second player in the paint limits Fes's offensive arsenal considerably.
In order to combat this, he'll either have to do a better job identifying these help defenders and launch into his post moves more quickly, or he'll have to improve his passing to find the open man on the perimeter. Both are areas in which Ezeli has been improving, but he's not yet proficient at yet. The big Nigerian has made huge strides so far this year, but there are many more to come in the evolution of Festus.