Stallings assumes role of master psychologist

Before last Saturday's game vs. Florida, Vanderbilt head coach Kevin Stallings lamented to the media his team's self-esteem was "low... way low." After consecutive discouraging losses to Kentucky and Tennessee, the Commodore skipper said he would be assuming the role of "master psychologist." But if his team was suffering from any lingering self-confidence problems in Saturday's 86-72 win over Florida, there was no traceable evidence.

Before last Saturday's game vs. Florida, Vanderbilt head coach Kevin Stallings lamented to the media his team's self-esteem was "low... way low." After consecutive discouraging losses to Kentucky and Tennessee, the Commodore skipper said he would be assuming the role of "master psychologist" in order to ready his team for a clash with the tenth-ranked Gators.

Perhaps Stallings should consider joining the ranks of Freud, Skinner and Dr. Joyce Brothers. The Commodores played inspired basketball before a packed house Saturday, and surprised the Gators to the tune of a surprisingly easy 86-72 victory. If the team was suffering from any lingering self-confidence problems, there was no traceable evidence.

What kind of psychological tricks did Stallings pull from his hat to trigger such a reversal of fortunes?

"We just tried to address the things that were real, and tried to point out the things that were not," Stallings said Monday.

"In both of our games against Kentucky and Tennessee, rebounding was a problem. Shooting was a huge problem at Tennessee, and a little bit at Kentucky. But our effort generally speaking was pretty good. Our guys were still playing hard-- we just weren't doing all the things that we needed to do."

"We tried to point out to them that in spite of the fact that we lost, we were in both games in the last five minutes of the game-- and that's what you hope for when you go on the road. We had a chance to win, even though we didn't get it done. Even though we didn't maybe play our best game, we were still there at the end of both games.

"We just wanted to point out the positives to them and have them focus on what was real, and not feel like the sky was falling in, and that all of a sudden we had gone from being a pretty good team to a not very good team."

Stallings also emphasized that the boisterous sellout crowd at Memorial Gymnasium gave his team a huge psychological lift.

"Teams are just invariably more confident at home," Stallings said. "With confidence comes aggressiveness. You have that extra step going for you. You're a little quicker at home because you've got all the positive flow going. There's a number of things, but the majority of it is just confidence, familiarity with shooting backgrounds.

"The two road games that we lost... I hate to tell everybody, but most everybody is going to lose at Kentucky, and most people are going to lose at Tennessee. Those are two good teams that we lost to on the road. It's nothing to be embarrassed by.

"We'd like to have played a little better there, but part of the reason we didn't play better is because they have good teams."

Vanderbilt (13-2, 2-2 SEC) has no midweek game this week, but travels Saturday to Fayetteville, Ark. to face Stan Heath's Arkansas Razorbacks in a 2 p.m. CT tipoff. Stallings said the six-day layoff came at a good time for his team; the Commodores took Sunday and Monday off before returning to the practice court Tuesday.

"We've been going at it consistently for every second or third day for quite some time, and we've had a very difficult stretch of games to open the conference season. We're glad to have a little bit of time here.

"We've got a very difficult game coming up, but it's nice to go into an off-week with a win as opposed to a loss."

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Senior forward Matt Freije broke out of his slump in a big way in the win over Florida. After a much-discussed session with Stallings last Thursday, Freije looked like the Freije of old in responding with a 23-point outing.

"Matt got into a little slump three, four, five games prior to Saturday," Stallings said. "He had played very well up to that point. And a slump for him... he was going along about 15 per game or so. But he played very well Saturday.

"I just needed to spend some time with him, because when he stops playing well, there's usually something on his mind that needs to be addressed. Sometimes he doesn't realize that things bother him, either mentally or emotionally. We just kind of had to unpack a few things and see where his head was, and get him cleared up."

Despite his subpar outings in the Kentucky and Tennessee games, Stallings made a case that Freije is still clearly in the thick of the race for SEC Player of the Year.

"There aren't a lot of guys who could take a team that was 11-18 and have them turned around like this team has turned around," Stallings said, "and [Matt] has done that. He's had some help from teammates, but he's been the major reason we've turned this thing around.

"It depends on how you're picking for Player of the Year-- is it impact on his team? How many points and rebounds he gets? But nobody has impacted their team any more than Matt has impacted ours."

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