And perhaps most perplexing of all... what has happened to cause Vanderbilt's men's team's free throw shooting to go south in recent SEC games?
At the end of their first 11 games, all wins, the Commodores were shooting free throws at a league-leading 76.4% clip. Over the last four games, Vandy has dipped to a cool 63.4%. Take out the big home win over Kentucky, and the percentage in the three losses drops to only 59.7%.
"I really don't have any answers for it," head coach Kevin Stallings said. "Going into the league season we were shooting 76 percent as a team, and we're doing the exact same things we were doing leading up to that. We just have some guys that aren't stepping up and making them, and it's hurting us."
Missed free throws were key in Vanderbilt's loss to No. 21 Florida on Saturday. The Commodores connected on only 11-of-20 attempts from the stripe in Gainesville, where a few more made free throws early in the game almost certainly would have had Vandy in position to win the game down the stretch.
Instead, the Commodores were forced into a fouling game in the final two minutes. To make Vandy's shortcomings even worse, the Gators (led by Matt Walsh) went nearly unconscious from the line and finished with an other-worldly 35 made free throws in 39 attempts, including 17 in a row at one point.
"I told the team going down to Florida three things: we've got to take care of the ball-- we've got to take care of the defensive board-- and we've got to make free throws," Stallings said. "Otherwise, you've got no chance to win road games.
"We did a pretty good job valuing the basketball, but the other two we didn't do so well. We just have to keep working at it."
Missed free throws also played an important role in losses to South Carolina at home and Arkansas on the road. Take both of those games, and add back just two or three more made free throws early in the game, and the Commodores are in position to win the game at the end, rather than having to go into desperation-foul mode.
"It just doesn't make any sense," Stallings said. "The free throw is the one thing that doesn't change. We had shot them a little better against Kentucky, but even in that game we missed a couple of key ones down the stretch. I really think as a team we're probably a 74-75 percent shooting team under normal circumstances."
The free-throw disease is much like a virus, and not even Vandy's best and most experienced players have been immune. Matt Freije, who hit 18-of-18 free throws in a Nov. 24 win over Indiana, missed a big free throw in the closing minutes vs. Kentucky and missed three vs. Florida. Russell Lakey, who opened the season hitting 22 of his first 23, missed a key free throw vs. Florida. Even shooting specialists David Przybyszewski and Dan Cage had uncharacteristic misses in the final minutes vs. Florida.
In all, seven different Vanderbilt players missed free throws vs. the Gators. Stallings isn't sure what to make of it, but he is sure of one thing.
"I know this, if that doesn't get worked out, we're just not going to be very successful in this league," he said.
"Our guys want to make them. It's not like they're trying to miss 'em."
Not surprisingly, the Commodores (14-5, 3-5 SEC) dropped out of the ESPN/Coaches Poll Monday after losing to Florida 81-71 last Saturday. Vanderbilt had not been ranked in the AP Top 25 the previous week, and this week is not ranked in either major poll.
The Commodores host Georgia Wednesday night at 7 p.m. at Memorial Gym.
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