It also signaled that Steele is back on target. Not just after a short January shooting slump so much as the year-ago knee injury that threatened to derail his whole college career.
"I think I'm almost there," said Steele. "I think I'm 95% and I think it's really going to hit me around the SEC Tournament, I'll be 100%."
Don't try telling Commodores that the Knoxville native was less than full-go when he was shredding their defense with 5-of-8 outside accuracy, and in notorious Memorial Gymnasium at that. Talk about an efficient evening, Steele didn't attempt anything inside the arc; he cocked-and-fired only beyond the arc and five times was rewarded with three points, including that four-make-stretch just when Vanderbilt thought they had checked an early second-half State surge.
Feeling it, for sure.
"Truthfully every time I shot it, it felt like I was blacking out!" Steele said. "Just forget about this shot and shoot the next one. But it felt like every time I shot it was going in."
The performance reinforced why Coach Rick Stansbury picked up Steele as a late signee in 2009, after the Tennessee kid was released from his commitment to Auburn. "We've always said Jalen is the one guy that does something different on this team, he's capable of jumping up and making shots." Which Steele did at a 33% rate as a freshman before going down badly in a home game with LSU. Torn ligaments needed repair and a summer's recovery.
An entire summer, that is, and a little longer. "When I was back home and doing the exercises I was saying to myself man, I don't think I can do this. But I had to get back on the court." Yes, even if it was just to practice with the team as they prepared for the late summer European excursion. "Rehab is definitely harder than practice. Practice you have to learn stuff, rehab you have to go through pain!"
"When he was overseas he was frustrated because his knee was slowing down," forward Rodney Hood said. "But you can see his energy level getting better and better."
"He's not 100%," Stansbury agrees. "As long as he wears that brace it slows his lateral movement." Meaning Steele isn't as active, or for that matter confident, on defense as ought to be for a second-year SEC veteran. Stansbury has seen signs of pressing at times on the defensive end.
Steele agrees he has pressured himself much more than any coach or teammate would. "At times I was trying to drive and couldn't get that first step as quick as I could. It was frustrating, but I had to slow the game down in my head." Interestingly though, adapting to his repaired knee—and not to mention the rest of a body another year developed by regular weight work and conditioning—has let Steele see things from a ‘slower' and thus smarter perspective as a sophomore.
"It actually feels like the game is easier now this year. The injury kind of set me back but I can see the floor more, and see what I can do and what I can't do."
Of course there is the one thing he always could do. In fact Steele is doing it even better this season than the last, hitting 37.0% percent of trey-tries so far. He has more makes this year, 34 in 20 games, than the 27 he had in 27 games as a rookie. Steele doesn't claim any credit for being that much of a better shooter this season. It's more that he is getting better shots.
"It really hasn't been a lot of change. The reason why I'm so open this year is because of Dee (Bost). The point guard has been getting into the lane and getting open, so I have to spot up and hit shots. Dee has given me more opportunities to make shots." At the same time Steele has gotten sharper in finding those openings. He's learned how to ‘scoot over' as he puts it when Bost or Brian Bryant blow by and get into a gap left by departing defenders. It means he is there for the quick kick-out. "So they see me more," he said.
Then again teammates also are looking for Steele more. "That's what he does, he shoots," said Steele, no mean hand at the arc himself. "And it opens everything up for everybody else, they can't help as much off Jalen or trap as much. You can't leave him open."
Shooters have slumps of course and Steele's 0-of-5 afternoon against Alabama still stings. Coincidence or not, after that one Stansbury changed his guard lineup with Bryant getting the start. Steele handled it well and came off the bench to bury a pair of treys at Ole Miss. He was obviously that much more productive in relief at Nashville. Though, down the second half stretch and in overtime it was Bryant on the floor with a weary Bost as Stansbury opted for the best backcourt defense and rebounding guys.
Steele isn't sure right now where he fits into any rotations, even with the current absence of backup point guard Deville Smith for at least two games. Start or sub, "It's just a decision Coach made. So I sit on the bench and cheer my team on."
"I like that role that he's in," Stansbury said. "He's probably shot the ball better the last couple of games."
Wednesday night Steele gets to shoot at the home goals again. Writers may be asking his emotions about taking on the team against whom his freshman season ended early, but it isn't a story line meaning much to the man himself. He seems to care more about making up for losing that home game and getting a State win streak going.
"I mean, it's motivation to win a game this time. We've got to beat them this time. I don't think about it and let it get to me too much, I just go out and play hard and do my thing."
And everyone knows what that thing is.