Vanderbilt secured a big out-of-conference win Saturday, handing #21 Saint Mary's College just their third loss of the season in an 89-70 beatdown in Nashville. The Commodores were unable to take advantage of their advantages in the frontcourt but were able to handle the Gaels behind the team's strongest guard play of the season. Despite turning the ball over 23 times, Vandy was able to shoot their way out of trouble and put the clamps on a high-scoring west coast squad to give the team a resume building win.
Several common themes popped up in this game that have during the team's recent struggles, including the 'Dores' reckless behavior with the ball and Lance Goulbourne's beastly attributes rebounding in traffic. However, there were several new encouraging developments that should give Vandy fans hope for a long postseason run come March. Though the game was played in the friendly confines of Memorial Gym - an arena whose energy and funky baseline setup holds the key to stopping opposing comebacks - the foundation of a potentially epic Commodore season is beginning to take shape.
1. Have faith in small ball. Vanderbilt faced off against one of the country's best starting backcourts versus St. Mary's and came out ahead despite leaning heavily on true freshman Kyle Fuller for 22 minutes. The Commodores were able to shut down Mickey McConnell and Matthew Dellavedova on the perimeter and keep the Gaels from clawing back into the game in the second half. The pair combined to shoot just 1-9 from three-point range despite having a 42.8% average between the two of them.
John Jenkins and Brad Tinsley aren't heralded as great defenders, but they did all that was asked of them and shut down their opponents strengths like BYU and San Diego State had before them. Without their motor running in the backcourt, St. Mary's was unable to sustain the momentum they needed to pull out the comeback win. You can chalk it up to nerves (the Gaels missed some bunnies that would have put some real pressure on Vandy's lead), or McConnell/Dellavedova's lack of explosiveness and lateral quickness (part of why Jenkins/Tinsley were able to handle the pair), but the biggest factor in the win was the strong play from what is developing into an above-average NCAA backcourt. Of course, the catalyst was...
2. Kyle Fuller - he's starting to "get it." Fuller has the quickness to spark this team off the bench, but his insane shot selection (either a deep three or a circus-style lay-up...EVERY TIME) and penchant to whip passes at unsuspecting cheerleaders led to the development of three new ulcers in Kevin Stallings's intestines. For two months, he was a high school player trying to stay afloat as a Division I point guard. His talent was there, but it was clear that the freshman had yet to adjust to the level of NCAA play. Then, against Saint Mary's, something happened.
The trigger happy, out-of-control Kyle Fuller morphed into a patient guard who used his speed and athleticism as an asset without barreling wildly into bad decisions. He didn't force shots, didn't whip passes inside to players who didn't have position, and most importantly, used his size and quickness to defend well on the perimeter. Fuller still has a long way to go and still made mistakes on Saturday, but it was the most promising performance he's had as a Commodore. It's no wonder why he put up more minutes against Saint Mary's than he did in his past two games combined.
3. Can extended rest help Vandy's big men? Maybe this isn't a direct observation from Saturday's game as much as it is a projection of this week and last. Festus Ezeli and Steve Tchiengang - the team's two post threats - are both nursing leg injuries and played only 31 combined minutes against St. Mary's. While this didn't affect the 'Dores negatively against a team without a strong frontcourt presence, it may become an issue against Renardo Sidney and Mississippi State. Lance Goulbourne has played admirably in the absence of his fellow bigs, but the team will need depth against a dangerous Bulldog team in Starksville. Fortunately, the team has until Thursday to rest up. Until then, we'll have to hope that Saturday's limited action helped Festus and Steve on their ways to recovery.