Defense at Vanderbilt? Believe it
On Jan. 7, the Commodores held Auburn to 35 points -- the lowest point total for an opponent since 1982 -- in a 65-35, Southeastern Conference season-opening win. They followed up on Jan. 10 by allowing just 12 first-half points in a 67-57 victory over South Carolina.
The Commodores have struggled with perimeter defense, but guards Brad Tinsley and John Jenkins and forwards Jeff Taylor and Lance Goulbourne have been excellent of late at preventing drives from the point and the wing.
Of course, it helps with you have a guy like center Festus Ezeli, the school's all-time leading shot-blocker, to back you up. VU missed Ezeli for much of the season's first two months due to injury.
It's worth mentioning, though, that Auburn and Carolina are hardly two of the SEC's elite offensive teams. Next up is Georgia, which is also limited offensively.
The challenge Saturday for VU will be containing guards Gerald Robinson Jr. and freshman Kentavious Caldwell-Pope. Both can be explosive athletes, and VU has had trouble containing Robinson throughout his career.
ON THE SPOT: Center Festus Ezeli was considered a potential first-round NBA pick after this season, but injuries to both knees derailed most of his December. The Nigerian is just now returning to the starting lineup in the last two games. Last year, Ezeli busted out in a big way, averaging 13 points and 6.3 rebounds. A key was his ability to get to the foul line: he took 216 shots from the charity stripe. It was a huge step up for a guy who hadn't played high school basketball.
The rumor this summer was that Ezeli had improved significantly again, even adding some range on his shot, but it hasn't borne out that way. On Tuesday, the 6-foot-11 center scored just two points and pulled two rebounds and fouled out in 18 minutes of play.
In six games, Ezeli is averaging just 5.8 points in about 19 minutes of play. On Tuesday, he attempted just one shot from the field, and none from the line. Look for VU to involve Ezeli more actively in coming weeks; if he can return to last year's form, the Commodores will probably be the Top 10 team they were expected to be entering the year.
Vandy makes shot-clock era history
--The 35 points Auburn scored in its 65-35 loss to the Commodores on Jan. 7 were the fewest by a Vanderbilt opponent in the shot-clock era. It was the fourth time since the clock was introduced for the 1985-86 season that Vandy has held an opponent under 40 points.
The Commodores gave up 37 to Georgia on Feb. 26, 2005, and 39 to the Bulldogs on Feb. 11, 2004. Vanderbilt also held Nicholls State to 37 on Dec. 15, 1996.
The 35 points marked the fewest by an opponent since Jan. 30, 1982, when Mississippi State scored only 33. But that was enough for the Bulldogs to post a two-point victory that season.
--Vandy held Auburn to just 27.3 percent shooting from the field, a season-low. The previous low was 32.2 percent by Marquette, which was victim No. 3 in the current five-game winning streak.
--Junior G John Jenkins was 5-of-8 on three-pointers against Auburn. Since making only one of his six attempts in the loss to Indiana State on Dec. 17, Jenkins went 24-of-44 (54.5 percent) from behind the arc over his next five games.
BY THE NUMBERS: 10-1 -- Vandy won 10 of the first 11 games in which it outrebounded an opponent, after gaining a 42-34 advantage on the boards against Auburn.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "I guess it was the breakfast we ate today, I guess. I don't know. We just couldn't miss." -- Junior G John Jenkins, after the Commodores were 9-of-16 from three-point range in the first half of the win over Auburn.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
THIS WEEK'S GAMES:
--vs. Georgia, Jan. 14
KEY MATCHUPS: The Bulldogs have given the Commodores some problems in the past, but Vandy's overall experience should make the big difference this time. G/F Jeffery Taylor figures to get the assignment covering Georgia freshman G Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, the Bulldogs' top scorer. Shutting him down could make life easier for the Commodores.
FUTURES MARKET: One down note in the win over Auburn was Vandy's struggle from the free-throw line. The Commodores were only 8-of-16 from the stripe after combining to go 33-of-41 (80.5 percent) in the previous two games combined. "I'm not sure if it was because they were amped for the start of SEC play or what," coach Kevin Stallings said. "It's disappointing to have it go like that." It's something the Commodores cannot afford to become a trend.
--Guard Brad Tinsley had one of his career-best games on Jan. 10 against South Carolina, scoring 13 points, dishing out nine assists, and committed just two turnovers. Tinsley now has 70 assists against 31 turnovers, and moved into 34th on VU's all-time scoring chart (1,098 points) and seventh in assists (405).
--Guard/forward Jeffrey Taylor's 13 points on Jan. 10 against South Carolina gave him 1,588 for his career and pushed him past Jeff Fosnes for ninth-most on the school's all-time scoring list. Taylor also ranks 10th on the career steals chart (126) and needs just 28 rebounds to crack that top-10 list as well.
--Senior F Lance Goulbourne tied a career-high in steals with three against Auburn on Jan. 7.