Vanderbilt posted one of their biggest wins of the season last night, pasting Alabama on the road to improve to 4-0 in SEC play and move one giant step closer to getting back into the top 25 rankings. The Commodores put this one away early in the second half, opening up a lead that grew to as much as 21 points with under four minutes to play. John Jenkins and Jeffery Taylor showed how explosive they can be in a low-tempo game, combining for 37 points and 14 rebounds in the victory.
However, the game wasn't without some drama for the 'Dores. After handling Alabama's full court pressure with aplomb through the first 35 minutes of play, Vanderbilt fell apart as they turtled up to protect their lead. Point guard Brad Tinsley accounted for five turnovers in a 3:04 stretch that suggested that the team forgot how to handle Alabama's pressure. The 'Dores gave up 16 points in those final four minutes, dulling the lustre from an otherwise sparkling win.
It's easy to overreact to moments like these when you're dealing with a team that has proved time and again that they can cough up double-digit leads to good opponents to lose heartbreaking games. It happened in 2010-2011 against teams like South Carolina and Tennessee. It happened this year against Xavier and Louisville. It has been this Vanderbilt team's crux during the Taylor-Tinsley-Goulbourne era.
Precedents from this year's South Carolina, Davidson, and Marquette wins may suggest that these lapses at the end of the game may just be a product of Vanderbilt's style of play with a big lead. It's clear that when the Commodores are carrying a double-digit lead in the final minutes of a game, they ease off the gas - even if their starters are still on the court. The offense stops attacking the full-court press and often passes up open shots in lieu of grinding down the shot clock and the defense slinks inside and focuses more on not fouling than playing hard-nosed defense. The combination of these two factors have helped turn blowouts into closer affairs on the scoreboard.
So how much can you fault a team for playing with a lack of intensity when 1) that's what the playcalling suggests and 2) they're ahead by more than a dozen points? Unlike those Xavier and Louisville losses (and Indiana State, to an extent), their letdown on Thursday came when this game was already out of hand. Vanderbilt had already displayed the fire they needed in order to win, and only Alabama's nothing-to-lose style of play made this one close - if the 'Dores wanted to capitalize, they had some easy looks around the basket early in the shot clock on a few possessions late in the game. Still, it would have been nice to see Kevin Stallings rip into Tinsley after his third turnover and put Kedren Johnson in the game - even if the outcome had been decided, there's still an opportunity to make a statement.
Should we really be worried about a double-digit road win against a team that was ranked 12th earlier in the season? Probably not - but if you're really a Vanderbilt fan, you'll find a way to worry about anything. The two other things we learned from Vanderbilt/Alabama are after the jump...
That reffing was...not great. Anthony Grant ripped into the referees with 12 minutes to play, unleashing a Darren McGavin-esque stream of profanities while doing everything in his power to keep the veins in his neck from exploding. Part of the frustration came from how his players were reacting on the court - but a big part of his rage came from the refs themselves.
Vanderbilt seemed to receive most of the 50/50 calls early in the game, and most questionable whistles sided with the Commodores in a contest that saw the crowd use plenty of sarcastic applause whenever the 'Dores were called for a foul (Vandy only had 12 in the game). This early advantage seemed to have taken a toll on the Tide, and it helped the team dig themselves a hole that they couldn't climb out of. Vanderbilt is a team that excels at getting to the free throw line, but many off-the-ball fouls and charges that could have been blocks seemed to go Vandy's way in Tuscaloosa.
Was it the reason why Vanderbilt won? Absolutely not. But the foul trouble and the damaging effect that it had on Alabama's players (and coach) likely played a role in turning this one into a 20-point blowout midway through the second half.
Vanderbilt's rebounding was superb. Ah, so here's the biggest reason why Vanderbilt won last night - they were absolutely dominant on the boards (reason 1a - great defense. See KingJamesIV's postgame report or Jason Fukuda's breakdown for more on that). The Commodores had a major size and strength advantage over Alabama and they took advantage of it across the lineup, using superior positioning to limit the Tide's opportunities. Four starters had six rebounds or more in a game where the team held a +10 advantage on the boards. Festus Ezeli put up his first double-double of the season with 12 points and 10 rebounds, and ostensibly would have had more if his free throw shooting weren't still in early-season mode.
This size and strength advantage kept Alabama from getting into the paint and scoring where they are the most effective. Coach Kevin Stallings went with a relaxed man-to-man defensive set for most of the night and challenged the Tide to shoot. While Alabama was solid with their ball movement, they were unable to take advantage of mismatches and were often forced into deep shots - a poor look for a team with few efficient shooters. On the other side of the court, Vandy's big men used the pick-and-roll to create some easy baskets and turned these looks into a big Commodore lead as the first half wound down.