OK, in reality we are between the pre-conference season and the SEC season-- a pretty good halfway point to evaluate the team and individual players. Please feel free to direct any comments to me if you think I am off. Here goes... the team first.
Defense : A-
This has to be some of the best team defense I have seen on the floor of Memorial in a long time-- players sacrificing their bodies to take a charge, double teams coming from the weak side and shutting off the low post areas, etc. Vanderbilt is near the top in the nation for field goal percentage by opponents, and we have controlled the tempo more often then not. Exceptional team play has dominated the games on the defensive end for the Dores. The only minus is simply that the Commodores have let down their guard at times and let opponents like TSU and IUPUI stay around longer than necessary. One need only look at the TCU game to see how dominating this team's defense can be, and Jason Holwerda has taken to the role of defensive stopper like a fish to water. I will love watch him match up against Kentucky's Gerald Fitch.
Rebounding: A This has also been a team effort. Vandy leads the SEC (and I think is in the top ten in the Nation) in rebounding differential. Everyone contributes on this end. What a world of difference Julian Terrell, David Przybyszewski and Ted Skuchas make as big bodies down low. However, let's not overlook the blue-collar efforts of Matt Freije, Scott Hundley and Corey Smith. The weightroom work really looks as though it is paying off, and it's translating into Commodore victories.
Matt Freije is showing us early why he was projected as the SEC player of the year. He is averaging well over 19 points per game and is slowly climbing the all-time leader board in scoring (he should pass Phil Cox sometime in February). The rest of the squad has added many surprises. Mario still doesn't look completely on track (but if he comes around during SEC play, watch out-- we might win 11 conference games this year). Scott Hundley has been extraordinary off the bench, and the added beef inside of David, Julian, Ted, and even Martin Schnedlitz (hit his career high, six points, twice already this season) has given Vandy a consistent edge in points in the paint. The Commodores' strong defense has led to more fast break opportunities, and easy buckets.
Bench Play: A
All right, I know, too many A's. But honestly, look at who comes off the bench. Example, one night Julian is out with a back problem, and David goes for 14 points and 8 rebounds. What more can be said about Scott Hundley's play off the bench? How about Russell Lakey coming in for Mario? In this day of seeking the limelight, Russell has stood up like a man, accepted his role and taken things to a new level of leadership, playing great defense and dishing out assist after assist in fewer minutes. Ted "Skooooooooooooooooch" has become a fan favorite, and I still smile thinking of his dunk in the Michigan game. He has shown size, strength and the ability to alter and block shots from the center position, something we haven't had in a log time, maybe back to Will Perdue. Przybyszewski has contributed additonal scoring, especially from 3-point land, but has learned to be aggressive down low and has at least 3 follow-up slams off or teammates' missed shots. Dan Cage has been shooting lights-out from the 3-point line, and gives Vandy a legit zone buster. I wonder if someone zoned us and we had Mario, Dan, and Matt on the floor (maybe even David) how could we be stopped? This team's biggest strength is that it can bring in five players in to sub for the starters and give up nothing on either end of the floor.
I must admit I am extremely happy on this front. Make no mistake, this coaching staff was under the gun when the season started. They knew that a winning season and an NCAA berth might be the only thing that could save their jobs. It's still a long way to go and we still have to survive February, but the adjustments this staff has made, and the HUGE addition of assistant Tom Richardson cannot be minimized. I definitely think that losing Coach Jankovich last year hurt the team and Coach Stallings. Who cares whether it was the addition of Richardson, the trip to Europe, or Stallings changing his approach? This team is playing like a team.
Matt Freije - What more can one say about Matt?? He is a great all-around player and is still just seeing about 25 minutes a game. He has consistently seen double- and triple-teams when he gets the ball, and he is still averaging over 19 points per game. I hope he breaks the scoring record at home, maybe during the LSU game on Feb. 21 (fans, you may want to circle that game). Matt has also come to be a team leader, both in his actions and verbally on the court. If he continues to score and leads Vandy to 10 or 11 league victories, he should easily be the SEC player of the year.
Julian Terrell - This young man has grown up amazingly fast. From what I have heard, he has been dominating practices. Considering Matt is drawing so many double-teams, Julian should be looking for many easy opportunities. So far he has shown us what playing above the rim is all about. I haven't checked stats recently, but I would guess he is quickly moving up the list of career shot blockers already. His rebounding is so vastly improved from last year, that it's hard to remember what it was like when Brian Thornton was playing center.
Corey Smith - I must admit I haven't seen what I expected from Corey. This isn't meant as a slam on Corey. This is a team, and it is playing like one. Corey just does his job day in and day out. I wish we could get a bit more of a consistent scoring punch from Corey, but he brings an attitude to the court that is needed, especially when playing such tough defense as this team has shown so far. I think Corey will win us at least one SEC game (and likely on the road - my guess will be at UT). When it comes down to crunch time in some game, watch for Corey to grab that key rebound.
Jason Holwerda - The team's best finisher, its best defensive player, and my favorite player to watch. Considering the expectations we as fans placed onto Jason, he has handled himself extremely well. When he scores, he makes this team even more dangerous. Congrats to Jason for leading the team in scoring against TCU. Jason also seems to play a kind of second point guard, and his passing has improved greatly.
Mario Moore - Who doesn't smile when Mario hits a big shot at Memorial and turns to the crowd with a big smile? Mario has some rare qualities that make me glad he is in the black and gold. He is a leader at the point position. He can take over a game offensively, hitting from every spot on the floor. He looks for the assists. Sometimes he gets a bit crazy and turns the ball over, but I'll take his speed and energy any day.
The bench - I could talk at length about every player and would still miss things an not do justice to what this group of "Grizzlies" have done. Scott, David, Russell, Dan, Ted, Martin and Adam Payton have given us so much excitement so far. Their value will be noted in the SEC games, when we can run them in to rest our starters.
So far this team is better than I had hoped for when we began the season. Wins over Michigan and Indiana have made me happy, and I watch the polls every Monday to see where we are in the Top 25.
For the last few years, we have all wondered what might happen if Vanderbilt could go through its pre-conference schedule undefeated. At last, it's finally happened-- the team has done its part. Now it's time for the fan base to do follow suit, by returning en masse and making Memorial Gym a home court worthy of a nationally ranked team.