MBB Blog: Wednesday in Albuquerque

March 14, 2012

Wednesday's Photo Gallery | Practice at The Pit | Tuesday's Blog

I woke up Wednesday morning to the harmonious sounds of Skip Bayless and Stephen A. Smith on ESPN First Take arguing about whether the Denver Broncos should go after Peyton Manning.

Barca by Brandon Barca (Archive)
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"(Tim Tebow) saved the season for (John) Elway and (John Fox) and this is his reward?" cried Bayless.

"I am so sick and tired of you and your pathetic affection for Tebow," moaned Smith.

What better way to start Day 2 in New Mexico than with two scrambled eggs and a large side of crazy. 

Alrighty, let's get to the recap.

The Commodores had a late breakfast followed by a team meeting on the main floor of the Sheraton. After the meeting, the doors opened and players walked out with Nike boxes and smiles as long as the word "Albuquerque." The guys recently chose from five options of sneakers prior to the morning delivery. Ah, the rewards of postseason. 

Dan Cage, assistant director of operations, told me players these days "get way more stuff than back in the day." Seems like Cage (also referred to as Cage Fighter around the office for his toughness as an undersized 4 on the 2007 Sweet 16 squad) was one of these kids just the other day, serving as a reminder that I'm only getting older. Another warning- I don't own a pair of Beats by Dre, which puts me in the minority of this travel party.

At 11 a.m., Vanderbilt headed to the Knights' Castle at Del Norte High School for practice prior to media day festivities at The Pit. As the Black team warmed up on the other side of the court, assistant coach Tom Richardson went over the scouting assignment with the Gold Team. 

Both squads broke into stretches and Head Coach Kevin Stallings called the group to center court to set the tone for the Dores' final full speed practice before gameday. "I can tell you one thing... the energy better pick up around here. If everyone has energy, well have a good day," he said. 

Stallings also reminded his team that Del Norte didn't have breakaway rims. "We don't need shattered backboards." With dunk masters Jeffery Taylor, Lance Goulbourne, Festus Ezeli and James Siakam on the roster, it made perfect sense to communicate this minor detail.

When the huddle broke, players did their usual high-fives with each other and the whistle sounded to signal the start of practice. And the energy picked up immediately in the opening drill. In what's called "single exchange," players form two lines at the opposite corners of the court and perform a variety of passes -- bounce, chest and handoffs -- while accelerating the full length of the floor.

Coaches continued to push for maximum effort and intensity for the remainder of practice as the team went over offensive and defensive schemes to get prepared for Harvard. The squad also worked on late-game situations and free throws to close out the hour and 45-minute session.

The next destination was The Pit, which serves as the home arena for the University of New Mexico and host site for NCAA Tournament second and third round games. The Commodores had a 1:30 p.m. appointment to meet with the media followed by a light practice for fans.

The Pit has been the home of Lobo basketball since 1966. Like Memorial Gym, The Pit offers a unique and special setting with a rich history of college basketball. What makes The Pit different from other arenas is that it was built in a 37-foot hole (yes, the court is underground). According to GoLobos.com:

"First the roof was constructed, then the hole was dug and the Arena built. That all happened in 1966. The unique Behlen roof (338 by 300 feet) was set up by contractors and then 55,000 cubic yards of earth were removed. About 28,000 yards of concrete were poured in the initial construction, which allowed a seating capacity of 14,831. The cost - an incredibly economical $1.4 million."

One of the wacky parts of the building is the steep ramp that connects the locker rooms to the court. The downhill walk to the floor is long but easy, although you might need your hiking boots to handle the incline when you return. You'll see what I mean after you watch this video from the Dores' shootaround today.

National writers on assignment in the Albuquerque Region include Bob Ryan of The Boston Globe (read article) and Dennis Dodd of CBSsports.com (read article). Also, props to the Nashville media contingent that made the long trip: The Tennessean (read article) and WKRN News 2. They're probably happy to be in the much more relaxed tournament setting compared to the hysteria surrounding the Tennessee Titans' facility over the last 48 hours. ("If only we could capture a quick shot of Peyton and his orange shirt so it could be replayed over and over again on the Worldwide Leader in Sports!!!")

Stallings, Ezeli, Taylor and John Jenkins had the privilege of taking the podium to answer a plethora of questions leading into Thursday's game (for example: Jeff, do you prefer red or green chili?). 

Taylor was the popular choice among reporters since he played his final two years of prep basketball down the road at Hobbs High School (and when I say down the road, I mean you would actually have to travel 317 miles to the southeastern tip of New Mexico). Taylor won a state championship in his final game, which was played at The Pit. That game still ranks as one of his fondest basketball memories.

"It's one of the best games I've ever been a part of," Taylor recalled. "We play against our rival, Clovis. The stands were full. It was great. Great anticipation for the game. They had beaten us twice during that year. It was just a huge game."

By the way, Jeff said he preferred red chili.

Stallings gave his assessment of Harvard, winners of at least a share of the Ivy League title in the last two seasons. The Crimson is making its first trip to the NCAA Tournament since 1946. "The thing that stands out is they're very, very well-coached," he said. "They have a definite plan on offense. They play extremely well together on both ends of the floor. Their team defense is exceptional as is their willingness to share the ball and move the ball and get it to the best option on that particular possession."

Stallings was also asked if he's ever referred to Vanderbilt as the "Harvard of the South" on the recruiting trail.

"I've used that Harvard of the South a few times, and I hope that the Harvard people don't take that as a slap in the face. We obviously feel like we'd be comparing ourselves to greatness. We obviously really admire Harvard as an institution.

"(Harvard Coach) Tommy (Amaker's) got to do the same thing that I have to do, and he knows it. He has to get players that can do the academic work at Harvard Monday through Friday and then he's got to try to beat Boston College on Saturday. That's what they say about us. They want us to be Harvard Monday through Friday and beat Alabama on Saturday."

Read the entire press conference transcript by clicking here.

After the press conference, the team hit the floor to get their first feel for Bob King Court. It was a laid-back session catered towards the 100 or so fans in attendance. Stallings even tried his behind-the-back, half-court shot in the closing seconds, but misfired on both attempts (also in today's video). On the way back to the locker room, players signed autographs for people hanging over the railings of the ramp.

The bus trip back to the Sheraton was quiet, probably due to exhaustion. Between practices and media requirements, we were gone for five hours and the hands on the clock already pointed to 4 p.m. 

During the ride, the team had to vote on whether to have their mandatory study hall before or after dinner. "We're a team, we study as a team," assistant coach Dan Muller said. 

Senior academic counselor Neal Clark, my roommate on the trip, ended up holding the session following the team's meal at Marcello's Chophouse. Give the student-athletes credit for taking care of business off the court. It was a long, tiring day and it can't be easy juggling athletics and academics with little down time; something they do on a daily basis.

Earlier in the day, Stallings revealed the most impressive Commodore statistic, one every fan should be proud of. "The last time a guy played basketball at Vanderbilt and he played as a senior and he didn't get his degree was in the late 1970s."

And I should mention that dinner was tremendous. Items that might have made it to my plate: a 16 oz. New York strip steak, shrimp, potatoes, corn, carrots, and salad, topped off with a smooth-tasting piece of cheesecake.

We had a private room in the back of the restaurant, but that didn't stop one Commodore fan from meeting the team. The gentleman, who graduated from Vanderbilt in 1957, strolled in and introduced himself to the group.

"We had Al Rochelle and Bobby Thym in those days," said the alumnus, recalling two legendary Commodores. 
Then, out of the blue, he asked the Dores if they were making good grades.

That's why I love this school. He was more interested in the players' success in the classroom instead of asking about the big game.

Well, that does it for Wednesday. Vanderbilt and Harvard will meet for only the second time ever Thursday at approximately 3:40 p.m. CT (or 30 minutes after the Wisconsin-Montana game). You can watch the Commodores on TNT (Spiro Dedes and Bob Wetzel). Boggles has more information in his preview and notes package sponsored by his precious Mr. Kitty.

"For us, it's a one-game tournament," Taylor said. "We're focused on Harvard right now. We're trying to do everything we can in preparation to try to beat those guys, then we'll go on from there."

Enjoy more photos from the road...



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