Jan. 29, 2010
Photo by Mike Strasinger
NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) -- Kevin Stallings has coached in the Southeastern Conference long enough to know the value of each league win.
That might be why he is getting a little greedy.
His 21st-ranked Vanderbilt Commodores are enjoying their best start in SEC play since the 1965-66 season after an 85-76 victory Wednesday night at No. 14 Tennessee. They are the SEC's lone undefeated team at 5-0 in conference play heading into Saturday's visit to top-ranked Kentucky.
"Anything-and-oh is good, whether it's 1-0 or 2-0," Stallings said Thursday. "Anything-and-oh is splendid. ... So we'll like to hang onto it. We'd love to be 6-0. Six-and-oh would be greater than five."
The Commodores (16-3) have won 10 straight overall. Credit a deep bench led by five returning starters who are repaying the confidence Stallings showed in them last summer when he passed up the $100,000 pay raise due in his contract to fund a trip to Australia.
That togetherness has bred a resilience shown by Vanderbilt coming from behind in four of its five SEC wins. It also helps that Stallings is spreading out the playing time, with 10 Commodores averaging at least 8.9 minutes per game.
Junior center A.J. Ogilvy, the Australia native who benefited most from that business trip home last August, noted this team has spent most of the past year together. The lone exception was freshman John Jenkins, who couldn't go to Australia because school hadn't started yet.
"It's really starting to show some dividends for us," Ogilvy said.
Stallings had one of the least experienced teams in the country last season and the growing pains showed as Vanderbilt went 19-12 and missed the postseason for the first time since 2003.
All those freshmen became sophomores, and the payoff is coming now with a deep and talented roster. Jeffrey Taylor hasn't missed a start since arriving on campus, and he leads four Commodores averaging double figures with 14.1 points per game. But five different players have led the team in scoring this season.
Vanderbilt leads the SEC in scoring at 83.2 points in league play, and the Commodores are hitting 51.6 percent of their shots. In their first win at Tennessee since 2005, they shot at least 50 percent from the floor for the 11th game this season.
These Commodores don't give up, either. They have trailed in four of their first five SEC games, including at Tennessee, before rallying to win. Against Auburn on Jan. 23, it was Taylor scoring 18 in the second half. Senior Jermaine Beal took over at Tennessee with 18 of his 25 points coming in the second half.
Beal called being undefeated in the SEC a good feeling.
"But we know any week anything can happen. Right now our main job and focus is to stay focused," Beal said.
Stallings said a lot has to go right for a team to start so well, especially with three of those five wins coming away from home.
"We've won close games. Our defense has gotten better from a month ago, month and a half ago. It's still not where it needs to be. Our numbers are still not great, but our offense has been pretty solid. Our taking care of the ball and rebounding has been pretty good," Stallings said.
"What I like the best about us is we've got a good competitive nature, and we've got bodies, willing bodies and able bodies. So those things have all been really good for us and helped us to get off to this start."
The Commodores had little time to celebrate a win Stallings would've liked a week to savor. They returned to practice Thursday preparing for that trip to Rupp Arena, where the Commodores are just 19-78 when visiting -- though they did leave with a 72-67 win in 2007.
Vanderbilt will be the only SEC team to visit first Knoxville, then Lexington in back-to-back road games. The Commodores haven't beaten both Tennessee and Kentucky in the same season since 1973-74.
Stallings is counting on his Commodores' growing confidence to help them succeed on another road trip. He's feeding that emotion by noting his team did what then-No. 1 Kansas couldn't by winning at Tennessee.
"We have a lot of confidence right now in our team and our abilities to play. We know if we can win in Knoxville, we can win at Lexington also," Beal said.