Jan. 26, 2011
NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) - There's still a big blotch of red in Jeff Taylor's left eye from when he was poked during Vanderbilt's latest win.
Despite the gouge, Taylor finished the game as soon as his blurry vision cleared up. Now the junior forward is looking for even bigger things from Vanderbilt.
"We feel the last two games we really took a lot of steps forward after we felt like we took a couple steps back the previous week," Taylor said Tuesday before practice. "So we're really good where we're at right now and hoping we get better."
Vanderbilt is back in the Top 25, and this time the 19th-ranked Commodores plan to stick around. That is if they can get healthy and start clicking the way coach Kevin Stallings think they can.
Both he and his Commodores (14-4, 2-2 Southeastern Conference) have high expectations for a team that went 24-9 last season and won 12 league games. They feel they're talented enough to win the Eastern Division title and even the SEC league championship, which Vanderbilt hasn't won since 1993.
First, they must win games away from Memorial Gym - all four of their losses have come on the road. Their next shot at an SEC road win comes Thursday night at Mississippi State (10-8, 2-2).
"Winning on the road certainly in the league would be a great thing for keeping ourselves within striking distance of the division championship and the league championship," Stallings said.
The Commodores spent two weeks in the rankings before starting SEC play by blowing big leads on the road. Vanderbilt responded by thumping Mississippi and then routed then-No. 22 Saint Mary's 89-70 to move back into the Top 25 Monday with its highest ranking this season.
Stallings is doing it despite having his bench shortened by injuries.
Redshirt junior forward Andre Walker has missed 10 of the last 11 with first mononeucleosis and now a sprained ankle. Center Festus Ezeli was limited to 18 minutes with tendinitis in a knee against Saint Mary's, while Steve Tchiengang, who usually spells him, played only 13 himself due to his own sore ankle.
Starter Brad Tinsley missed practice Tuesday due to an illness that had him at the student health center overnight. It's combined to keep Stallings from practicing as completely as usual.
"We've weathered the storm in games honestly better than I thought we might. ... If we can get Fes and Steve closer to 100 percent health-wise, I'll feel good about our team going forward because then we'll have what we're used to," Stallings said.
A healthy Vanderbilt squad could be a problem.
Sophomore John Jenkins is the SEC's top scorer averaging 18.7 points per game, and he also ranks fifth nationally with 3.2 3-pointers per game - tops in the league. He also is pretty automatic at the free throw line (88.5 percent), and Jenkins isn't the only scoring option as four Commodores score in double figures.
The 6-foot-7 Taylor averages 14.8 points and can slash to the basket or hit 3-pointers. Ezeli (12.6) has been a pleasant surprise replacing A.J. Ogilvy, while Tinsley (10.4) leads the SEC in assists. The Commodores currently are the league's top scoring offense averaging 78.7 points per game and are 4-0 when hitting 50 percent or better from beyond the arc.
Then there's junior forward Lance Goulbourne, the SEC's top rebounder since league play started. He's posted the first double-doubles of his career in the past two games to be named the SEC's player of the week, and his 16 rebounds against Ole Miss tied for the most in Stallings' 12 seasons.
"Lance has got a gift that helps anybody be a good rebounder," Stallings said. "He's a very explosive two-footed jumper so his athleticism allows him to rebound in other people's areas, not just his own. He gets up high. He goes after it with two hands, and he can rebound the ball above the rim ... Those are the things that make him such a rebounder, and he takes pride in it."
Mississippi State coach Rick Stansbury said he thinks the Commodores and Georgia are the SEC's best teams.
"And Vanderbilt certainly didn't do anything to change anyone's mind by beating St. Mary's by 20. They don't have many weaknesses. They've got the most improved player in the league in Ezeli. Absolutely the best shooter in the league in Jenkins. Then you've got Taylor who everybody talks about being their best player," Stansbury said.
Stansbury also thinks Vanderbilt is as good defensively as anyone in the SEC.
The 'Dores are 16th nationally holding opponents to 38.5 percent shooting - 28.2 percent from 3-point range, sixth-best in Division I.
"It's discipline," Mississippi State guard Dee Bost said of Vandy. "They run their sets. They play defense. They've got scorers."
The Commodores' four losses have been by three points each to West Virginia in Puerto Rico and at Missouri in overtime. In the SEC, Vanderbilt blew leads of 14 in losing at South Carolina and 17 at Tennessee. They've worked on talking to each other and taking better care of the ball.
"We just have to focus on ourselves," Taylor said. "If we can do the things we know we can do, we should win a lot of games."