"Our bench has been playing like a bunch of grizzlies!" he said. "Hats off to them."
Though the term "Grizzlies" originated as something of an inside joke between Freije and his weightlifting buddies on the football team-- it applied to anyone studly enough to attempt a gargantuan lift-- fans have subsequently picked it up and pinned it as a nickname upon the Commodores' current array of non-starters.
And why not? A bench that's playing this well is worthy of some kind of moniker.
"Coach is going to play everybody, so they know they have to be ready, and they were," said Freije after the Michigan win. "They get to watch what's happening on the court, and then they just come in and do great."
For the first time in what seems like ages, Vanderbilt appears to have accumulated the kind of quality depth usually reserved for the Kentuckys, Dukes and North Carolinas of the world. The 2003-04 Commodores have ten players averaging ten minutes or more per game-- and for the most part, it's quality, experienced depth. Head coach Kevin Stallings can bring in five fresh players at any moment, as he's done numerous times this season, and there's little dropoff, if any.
There's little doubt the bench has played a big role in Vanderbilt's 7-0 start. A number of opposing coaches and players have raved about the Commodore second-stringers' ursine play.
"We couldn't match up with them in size; we wanted to play it small," said IUPUI coach Ron Hunter. "Their bodies just wore us down in the second half."
"They had great size in the post," offered Belmont's Adam Mark after Vandy's 74-59 win in the season opener. "One would go out and another would just come in. They just seemed to get bigger and bigger throughout the game."
But the quote which has really made fans sit up and pay attention is this one, from Tennessee Tech coach Mike Sutton:
"Vanderbilt's depth is a little ahead of Kentucky's right now, because they have experienced depth," said Sutton, whose team fell to both teams in the last few weeks. "They just present so many problems because of their versatility."
Just about the time opponents get tired of dealing with starters Matt Freije and Julian Terrell, Stallings can insert a second pair of twin towers, David Przybyszewski (7-2, 253) and/or Ted Skuchas (6-11, 248). Przybyszewski, averaging 8 points and 5 rebounds over 15 minutes of play, came off the bench to lead Vandy in scoring vs. Tennessee State.
"I love the way David's been playing," said Stallings. "This is how he's looked in practice, how he looked in Spain, and if we want to be a good team, we need to him continue to play this way."
Skuchas, a redshirt freshman averaging an even 10 minutes, has given the Commodores a shot-blocking threat at the post, has pulled down 18 rebounds, and has played better than fans ever dreamed possible.
"I think you could see the difference in strength," said a "Grizzled" Michigan coach Tommy Amaker, after Vandy out-rebounded his Wolverines 42-24. "For lack of a better way of saying it, we got pushed around on the glass."
(Wasn't it just two short years ago that Vanderbilt was getting out-rebounded and pushed around underneath?)
Senior forward Scott Hundley has probably earned the most recognition of any of the "Grizzlies", as his 13-point, 8-rebound performance off the bench keyed the victory over Michigan. The hard-working senior with the blue-collar ethic currently ranks second on the team in scoring (10.4) and third in rebounding (5.1).
How many teams in the country can bring a four-year starting point guard off the bench? Senior Russell Lakey leads the team in free throw shooting, making 22-of-23 attempts (.957), and his 28 assists this season is only four short of starter Mario Moore's 32.
Sophomore guard Adam Payton, averaging 10.9 minutes, is 4-of-7 from 3-point range. Even Dan Cage (6-5 freshman, 6.7 mpg) and Martin Schnedlitz (6-10 senior, 4.7 mpg) have proven themselves trustworthy in limited action this season.
"It's nice, especially when they play well," said Stallings of his role players. "We've been playing a lot of guys a lot of minutes, and I like that."
The problem Stallings may soon face is finding playing time for everyone-- in years past, the Commodore skipper has spoken of the difficulty of working with a rotation any bigger than nine players. As the season goes on and the competition gets more intense, will some of the reserves find themselves the odd grizzlies out? Very likely.
For the moment, however, it's a fabulous problem for Stallings to unravel. And if the "Grizzlies" can sustain this level of play through conference play, by tournament time stopping this team could be a real... bear.
Tickets remain for Saturday night's contest vs. Wofford and Monday's game vs. Appalachian State. Tickets can be purchased on the Internet at vucommodores.com, locally at 615-322-GOLD or toll free at 1-877-44-VANDY.