March 8, 2007
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Band Together: Wear White During Post-Season Play
Defense the Key as Vanderbilt Enters Postseason
By Will Matthews
ATLANTA - Despite 20 wins and a second place finish in the Southeastern Conference's Eastern Division that earned them a first round bye in this weekend's SEC tournament, it is the way that Vanderbilt closed the year that looms largest as the Commodores approach postseason play.
Saturday's 82-67 Senior Day loss to Arkansas was the third time in Vanderbilt's last four outings in which their opponent scored at least 82 points. And by shooting 48 percent from the field on the day - including 50 percent in a first half in which they built a 12-point lead - the Razorbacks became the fourth straight Vanderbilt opponent to shoot that well against a Commodore team that, for the year, held their opponents to 44 percent shooting.
So it is, then, even while boasting the SEC's third best scoring offense and the recently crowned SEC Player of the Year in senior Derrick Byars, Vanderbilt Head Coach Kevin Stallings spent the week gearing up for the SEC tournament by focusing on defense.
"We have an opportunity to do some work this week and hopefully make our team better, particularly defensively," Stallings said this week before leading his team south to the Georgia Dome. "We have not been very good defensively of late. So we are hoping that we can fix some of those things and come down and stay in the tournament for a while and play deep into it and see what happens."
Perhaps it is appropriate, then, that Vanderbilt's first tournament test Friday will come from the very same Arkansas team that handed them their only conference home loss just five days ago.
Led by the 16 from junior forward Darian Townes, Arkansas routed South Carolina 82-52 in the first round Thursday to earn a rematch with Vanderbilt.
To have the kind of longevity this weekend that Stallings is hoping for - and to prove they have the kind of defensive mettle that will allow them to translate their regular season success into a run deep into March - the Commodores will have to shore up a defense that has played a significant role in Vanderbilt dropping two of its last four contests.
In their Feb. 28 overtime victory at South Carolina, the Commodores allowed the Gamecocks to shoot 52.7 percent form the floor - including 62.5 percent in a second half in which South Carolina erased an 18-point deficit and poured in 46 points.
Vanderbilt came away with a victory Feb. 25 against Kentucky despite allowing the Wildcats to shoot 58.1 percent from the field, including 60 percent in the second half.
And in Vanderbilt's loss to Mississippi State in Starkville Feb.21, the Commodores allowed the Bulldogs to shoot 58.1 percent in a first half in which they fell behind by 18 points. Mississippi State shot 53.4 percent from the field overall for the game.
But while playing better defensively this weekend will be a primary focus, so too will be maintaining the offensive standards that the Commodores have established for themselves during the course of the regular season.
Vanderbilt scored 76.8 points per game on the year and was deadly from three-point range, shooting 38 percent from long distance and averaging 9.3 three-point buckets a game.
"I think the nature of our team is that if we don't shoot the ball well, then we are subject to getting beat," Stallings said. "Our style of play and the way we play enables us to win some games that it might be otherwise difficult to win if we played a different way. Our shooting this year has enabled us to win some games that we otherwise might not have been able to win."
Vanderbilt had one of its poorest shooting days of the year five days ago against Arkansas, as the team shot just 31.7 percent from the field overall and 27 percent in the second half, something Arkansas Head Coach Stan Heath acknowledged his team cannot count on having happen again Friday.
"Anything is possible," Heath said when asked if it was realistic to expect Vanderbilt to shoot so poorly again. "I know that they are going to be very aggressive shooting the three. I know they are a great three-point shooting team. I know that it is going to be hard for us to keep them at those kinds of percentages."
But Arkansas brings one of the SEC's best field goal percentage defenses into Friday's game - prior to Saturday the Razorbacks were allowing teams to shoot just 40.6 percent against them and they held South Carolina to 33 percent shooting in their first round victory Thursday.
I think we are capable of doing some things that maybe some teams are not able to do," Heath said.
Will Matthews spent three years as an investigative reporter with the Los Angeles Newspaper Group in Southern California. He is currently in his third year at Vanderbilt Divinity School.