With one play, Kedren Johnson arrived on the national scene.
Vanderbilt and Kentucky were knotted at 62-62 with under two minutes to play in the SEC Title game. Johnson, the Commodores' true freshman point guard, met Marquis Teague at the three-point line in transition. Without hesitation, he used a quick first step to get past his defender, skipped under the basket, drew contact from Teague, and kissed a sweet reverse layup off the glass to put Vandy ahead by two. Seconds later, he hit a huge follow-up free throw to extend a lead that the Commodores wouldn't give up.
It was a huge play in the team's most important game of the year so far, and it came from one of the team's least experienced players. After years of failure in the SEC Tournament, maybe a player with a clean slate was just what the Commodores needed to carry them through the postseason.
Johnson's emergence has been one of the most interesting stories behind Vandy's late resurgence. The former Mr. Basketball (Tennessee) at Marshall County High School has played his way into a prominent role in the final minutes of key wins over Florida and Kentucky to close out the season. The freshman seems to understand his role perfectly in the clutch, providing a steady handle, solid defense, and occasional baskets when opposing defenses undersell him.
Johnson may be getting the headlines, but it is this team's bench play as a whole that has lifted the team up in 2012. Dai-Jon Parker and Rod Odom have both improved throughout the season to give this team key minutes down the stretch. Steve Tchiengang continues to contribute across the court as Vandy's sixth man. Josh Henderson, Shelby Moats, and James Siakam have all looked ready to play in limited time so far this season.
That's significant progress from where this team stood earlier in 2011-2012.
Now, we can look back at those games as building blocks for this team. Johnson, Parker, and Odom have slowly been building confidence as the season wears on, and all three have had moments that suggest that next season won't be as difficult of a rebuilding period as some may have thought. Coupled with Tchiengang's veteran presence, the team's bench has become one of the Commodores' strengths. While they lack a true scorer, they play the defense and showcase the efficiency that allows this team to rest its starters without giving up a lead.
Johnson's growth has been a big part of that, but it may not be the defining factor of this team's bench play.
Steve Tchiengang's contributions are getting overlooked in the wake on Sunday's win, but his presence was vital in Kentucky's defeat. The senior used his size to keep Anthony Davis and Terrence Jones away from the basket and pulled down five rebounds - two on the offensive end - in just 10 minutes of play. However, his biggest contributions don't show up on the stat sheet.
Tchiengang is a stabilizing force on both ends despite suffering through an offensive funk this season. His athleticism and understanding of the game allow him to play comfortably at the rim or 30 feet from the basket. When a backcourt player gets trapped outside the arc, Tchiengang is there to take a pass and allow this team to reset. When Jeffery Taylor or John Jenkins need screens to create space? That's Tchiengang's job too. Need someone to clear room in the paint for a Brad Tinsley drive? Number 33 has got your back. Tchiengang does a little bit of everything for this team - that is, except dunk.
Together, Vanderbilt's bench has all the components that a good team needs. They have a ballhandling point guard who can defend capably. They have a versatile big man who can play long minutes at the 4 or 5. They have a lockdown defender on the wing and a stretch three who does a little bit of everything. Behind one of the NCAA's strongest starting fives, that's about as much as you can hope for.
Their development will be put to the test on Thursday against Harvard and hopefully beyond. Vanderbilt will shrink their rotation in the most important games of their season, but all four key bench players should see the court in the NCAA Tournament. They'll need these guys to continue their unselfish play to keep Vandy alive against college basketball's best teams. Fortunately for Kevin Stallings, Sunday's win over Kentucky proved that they can do just that.