Vanderbilt Hoops In 2007: Safe At Any Speed
It's a saying uttered by a football coach, about football coaches, but it applies just as much to basketball: "He can take his'n and beat your'n and take your'n and beat his'n."
That was the legendary Bum Phillips on both Don Shula and Bear Bryant. The best coaches in any sport are able to produce teams that can win at any speed and flourish when playing any style. This is a really good way to describe the 2006-2007 Vanderbilt Commodores, which reached the Sweet 16 and would have gone to the Elite Eight against North Carolina had Georgetown's Jeff Green been whistled for a travel in the final seconds of the East Regional semifinals in East Rutherford, N.J. We're definitely not here to talk more about that game or that moment; we're going to celebrate the journey which led the Dores to their Sweet destination, the second weekend of the NCAA tournament.
If you recall the 2007 college basketball season, it is true that Kentucky was not the juggernaut it is now. Tubby Smith was in his final go-round as the Wildcats' coach, and UK was not a second-weekend-level NCAA team. However, while Kentucky might have slipped, the SEC was clearly better than it has been the past few years.
In 2007, Florida was every bit the powerhouse that 2015 Kentucky proved to be, so that's a wash. Meanwhile, 2007 Kentucky made the NCAAs, unlike 2015 Florida, which crashed and burned. Elsewhere in the league, the 2007 SEC produced three "white-uniform seeds" other than its heavyweight team at the top of the rankings. A "white-uniform seed" is simply a higher seed in the round of 64, meaning that the team will wear its white home uniforms to start the Big Dance.
In 2007, the SEC provided Kentucky as an 8 seed, Vanderbilt as a 6, and Tennessee as a 5. In 2015, the SEC managed only one "white-uniform" seed other than Kentucky: Arkansas at No. 5. The trio of LSU (9), Georgia (10), and Ole Miss (11) filled out the remainder of the SEC's NCAA tournament haul this past year, and none of those three teams made it out of the round of 64. Arkansas reached the round of 32 but could not crack the Sweet 16. The 2007 SEC was better than the 2015 version, and Vanderbilt -- giving the SEC a second team in the second weekend eight years ago -- represented a central reason why that claim holds up under scrutiny.
Why was Vanderbilt able to not only survive, but thrive, in an SEC that was superior to this most recent iteration? Very simply, this team could play and win while playing different styles.
The two biggest wins of the SEC regular season were games Vanderbilt played in the 80s, against Bruce Pearl's Tennessee team (82-81) and the eventual national champion Gators (83-70). The tandem of Derrick Byars and Shan Foster gave VU two primary scoring options and enough offensive versatility to make Kevin Stallings's job that much easier as an X-and-O man. Stallings's wheelhouse is found in his ability to draw up great offensive sets for star scorer-shooters, and the only Stallings team better than the 2007 edition in this regard was the 2012 squad, profiled over a month ago here at VandyMania. Vanderbilt's last home game of the 2015 season -- the NIT second-round game against South Dakota State -- represented as complete an offensive performance as fans have seen in Memorial Gym in quite some time. For the 2007 team -- against opponents far better than South Dakota State -- such performances were a lot more commonplace.
Yet, as great as Vanderbilt could be on offense, and as fun as the 2007 team was to watch when everything was clicking, this was a team that could use more than a little elbow grease to win as well.
The Commodores did receive the benefit of playing Kentucky in a down year (and down period) for the Wildcats, but VU still had to go out and get the job done. The Dores did, in games with a slower pace than their conquests of the Vols and Gators: 72-67 in Rupp Arena, and 67-65 in Memorial Gym. Vanderbilt showed within the course of the SEC season that it could when when its offense wasn't flowing like a river.
Then came the NCAA tournament.
After breezing past George Washington by 33 points, the Dores tackled a third-seeded Washington State team coached by Tony Bennett, the same man who now leads the Virginia Cavaliers, one of the elite programs in the ACC and a top-two national seed each of the past two seasons. Bennett's teams -- then and now -- have been known for playing rugged, relentlessly focused defense. It's never easy to score against them. Vanderbilt had to think that it was in for a street fight in the round of 32 at Arco Arena in Sacramento.
That's exactly what it got... and VU was able to be the last team standing at the end.
The Dores and Cougars fought to a 60-60 tie at the end of regulation, with Foster scoring only 14 points, mostly because Washington State slowed down the game so much, in classic Bennett fashion. Vanderbilt managed only 63 field goal attempts in the double-overtime thriller, WSU only 60. Neither team went to town at the foul line, either -- VU attempted 18 foul shots, Washington State 17. For 50 scoreboard-clock minutes of action, those are low totals. Adjusted for 40 minutes, those numbers would be appreciably lower, not higher.
What's the timeless truism about postseason basketball? It's easier to slow things down than speed things up. Washington State forced Vanderbilt to play at its pace. Yet, with Foster scoring 6 points in overtime and VU limiting WSU to just five points in the second overtime period, Vanderbilt advanced. One specific key within the larger flow of this game is that Vanderbilt's backcourt shut down two of the Cougars' three starting guards. Derrick Low got free for 21 points on 8 of 16 shooting, but VU locked down Kyle Weaver and Taylor Rochestie, limiting them to 7 combined points on 2 of 15 shooting.
Vanderbilt's offense could play elegant white-collar basketball in 2007, but when the Dores needed to show whether they were worthy of a trip to the Sweet 16, their perimeter defense -- and all the blue-collar effort that went into it -- carried them home.
The 2007 VU men's basketball team possessed high-class skills, a reality constantly reaffirmed over the long march of the season, especially when Byars and Foster made things happen. (Byars scored 27 against Washington State, yet another memorable performance at the end of a spectacular season in which he was given the SEC Player of the Year Award, over the various members of Florida's 2007 national title team.) Yet, the Commodores showed in the NCAA tournament just how far their work ethic could carry them through slower-paced games in which the offense didn't enjoy as much room in which to operate. VU had the velvet gloves of pure shotmaking smoothness, but also the iron fists of suffocating defense in late-game situations.
The 2007 Vanderbilt Commodores could take your'n or his'n, and beat you just the same. Slow pace, fast pace, 80s, or 60s, this team was conistently more resourceful than its opponents. That's how a team reaches the Sweet 16 (and why a team deserved to be in the Elite Eight).
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