Stallings: Other players must complement Freije

Vanderbilt returns one of the top players in the Southeastern Conference in senior forward Matt Freije. But in order for the 2003-04 Commodores to be successful, says head coach Kevin Stallings, Freije will have to have scoring help from a number of other players. In Part III of a series of reports from SEC Basketball Media Day 2003, Stallings talks about several other players he hopes will complement Freije in the offense.

Q: Did you get accomplished what you wanted to on the trip to Spain?

A: You know, it feels like we did. We played well. I think our kids had a great time. There were a number of reasons we needed to go on that trip, a lot of them for competitive purposes. Some of it was for purposes of getting out of our own environment, culturally and for a togetherness thing. I think the trip was a huge success in every way. It just feels like we're so much further ahead than we've ever been at this point in any year I've been at Vanderbilt.

Q: Talk about the challenge of making that climb up in the Eastern division ranks.

A: It's obviously very difficult, because we have two perennially-Top-Ten programs in the country in our division. To try to make the climb when you're playing Florida and Kentucky is a difficult task, and it's difficult for all of us. But it's enjoyable, it's fun, it's a challenge, and I think that's what keeps us all energized, to try to close that gap down.

Q: What players will you depend on to help close that gap?

A: Matt Freije is the guy that our team will revolve around, but I also think we've got some other guys that will make an impact and take some of the scoring load off of Matt. If the trip was any indication of what's going to happen, Mario Moore and Julian Terrell will be guys who can help alleviate some of that scoring burden off of Matt's shoulders and maybe give us more dimensions.

Q: What do you see as your team's biggest strengths, and maybe some concerns as you get close to the start of the season?

A: One of our strengths is that we're going to go out each night with a guy who's as good as anybody else in the league. The second thing is, we will finally be one of the more experienced teams in the league. Obviously we need to have some success, so that that experience becomes something that is valuable, because it doesn't help if you have experience that doesn't have confidence. Weaknesses... until we've proved ourselves, are our players really going to believe that they can do it? If Matt Freije gets hurt, we've got problems. That's another concern of ours, we can't afford an injury. So maybe we're not as deep as we'd like to be. But we feel like we've got seven or eight guys that are going to make us a pretty solid team.

Q: Matt's essentially had a target on him since he's been at Vanderbilt. How do you think he's handled that challenge of always being double-teamed, sometimes by the other team's best defenders?

A: He's handled it great. There were times last season when, as our opponent, he was the only guy that you would concern yourself with. Fortunately for him and fortunately for us, that seems to have changed. His response when things didn't go well was that he didn't do enough. We all know that that hasn't been the case.

Q: You have to be pleased with Russell Lakey, seeing him play in every game last year, and now getting ready for a solid senior year.

A: We're really pleased with where Russell is right now, both from a playing standpoint, a physical standpoint and a mental standpoint. He's been hampered by injury, but he's really playing at a level above right now, maybe anything we've seen him do since he's been here.

Q: In what ways has Matt Freije improved since last season?

A: I just think his strength level is so much greater. He's very confident. Two days ago in practice, in live situations, he goes 13-for-19. And you can imagine what we do to him in practice every time he gets it. We'll double-team him, or we'll always try to make it difficult for him. Anything we can do to try to disrupt him. And in live situations he goes 13-for-19. The difference in him this year over last year is, he finished last year at about 218 pounds. He's lost five pounds this week, and he weighs 243. Sunday he weighed 248. There's just a huge difference with a guy-- it hasn't affected his quickness or mobility. He jumps better, and he jumps well to begin with. So he's just a more physical player, and much more effective because of the level of physicality.

Q: Does that translate into him being better inside?

A: Yes, it will really help him inside, moreso than any place else.

Q: Did teams used to try to get physical with him?

A: Oh, yeah, and frankly it wasn't that hard to do, but the best thing you could do with him was try to move him off his spot. The saving grace for him was, OK, you could move him out to 12 feet, and he can still make it. You move him out to 20 feet, he can still make it. It doesn't really make any difference to him. I think what will happen is, he will get fouled more. He's just not going to give up that spot on the block, where people could push him that step off the block and make it harder for him.

Q: I'm sure your fans can look at a guy like that... he might be the best player in the league. Sometimes a guy like that can really carry a team. Are you putting that burden on him?

A: No, because he carried us last year, and we saw what that got us. For our team to be successful, he's got to have help, and the more help he gets, the better we'll be. That's scoring help, it's rebounding help, it's defensive help. It's everybody. He can't be the only guy that teams are worried about.

Q: When you brought him in, did you think he would be this good.

A: I did. I thought he was this good.

Q: You thought he could be the best player in the SEC?

A: I just... I never really thought of it in those terms, but I had Langhi at the time, and I thought he could be something like Langhi was. And Langhi was the SEC Player of the Year. So maybe subconsciously I thought that and didn't know it, but yeah. I thought he was going to be a great player.

Q: What do you think is the key to beating the Florida Gators?

A: I don't know. We didn't do it. You should ask Tubby [Smith] when he gets here. Tubby beat them last year. I don't know, the only answer I can give you is the answer you don't want... you've got to outplay them. They've been able to beat you inside, they've been able to beat you outside. So you've just got to find a way to outplay them, and that's a lot easier said than done. They've got good players, and they're well-coached.

Q: Matt Freije was talking about your team being a dark horse [in the SEC East race]. I know you don't like to make predictions...

A: I feel like our team will do as well as it's capable of doing. I feel like we will play at the level at which our talent allows us to play at, which we did not do last year. I don't think any of us know what that means this year-- including Freije. Top Stories