In previous years, Vanderbilt has seldom approached the SEC Tournament with the requisite depth even to think about winning it. Typically, the shorthanded Commodores have had to sit back and watch as other teams with longer benches paraded into the semifinals and finals.
But suddenly things may be looking up in that department. Head coach Kevin Stallings has been able to rely upon 10 to 11 players all season instead of the usual 7 to 8. As a result, Vanderbilt (19-8), the fourth seed in the East, may have its best chance to advance at least to the semifinals in many years.
Vanderbilt has relied all year on a strong cadre of bench players, a group affectionately known as the "Grizzlies", to spell its starters and allow them to gather their strength back. On more than one occasion, the bench players have held their own against the opposition when given their chance.
"It all kind of started with Matt [Freije]-- he first called us the 'Grizzlies'," said Scott Hundley, who perhaps best epitomizes the strong play the Commodores have received from their bench. "The first five go in there and bust their butts for the first five or six minutes, and they need somebody else to step up. I and the rest of the bench have been there.
"It's one of those roles you kind of have to adopt-- you kind of have to commit to it. I always try to come off the bench so that they don't lose anything from the first five. I just try to lift the team as much as I can."
Commodore fans have recognized Hundley's contributions all season-- and the league's coaches recognized them as well on Wednesday by naming him the SEC's Sixth Man of the Year.
"Since Scott has got here, he's made tough plays and hustle plays," Stallings said. "He's just been an energy-giving guy, whether it be in practices or in games."
Stallings agreed Wednesday that his long bench could be a factor in a four-day tournament, provided his team is able to advance past the perilous first two rounds.
"If we were able to get [to Saturday or Sunday] in the tournament, [having a deep bench] would help us," Stallings said. "It won't help us on Thursday [vs. Ole Miss], because both teams are going to be fresh. Then if you're fortunate enough to beat Mississippi, you play a team that hasn't played [Mississippi State]. So depth isn't as much of an issue in that game.
"But if you're able to get to the weekend, yes, it could come into play."
Still, the Grizzlies could figure strongly into Vanderbilt's game plan against Ole Miss (13-14), a team that has mostly relied on eight players, and a team which relies heavily on only two scorers (Aaron Harper and Justin Reed). The Rebels, which average only 62 points per game, prefer a slower pace-- while Vanderbilt may try to speed things up in order to wind Ole Miss with its numbers advantage.
"Ole Miss definitely likes to dictate the pace of the game, but so do we," said Hundley. "If they try to slow it down, and we get an opportunity to run the fast break, we're going to try to push the ball up and do what we've done all season.
"We won't change our style. We're just going to keep on playing our game."
Vanderbilt won the previous meeting between the two teams, 77-65, in a game played in Oxford, Miss. on Feb. 25.
Speaking of the "Grizzlies," how did that nickname come about? Matt Freije, who first referred to the bench players as Grizzlies after a win over Michigan, said the name came about as the result of an unusual agreement between him and Jim May, a former offensive lineman on the Vanderbilt football team.
"Jim promised to name his first kid after me if I called somebody a Grizzly," said Freije. "After the [Michigan] game, I just thought it would be appropriate to call the bench the Grizzlies."
The name seemed to stick with fans, who deemed it an appropriate moniker for a group of bench players who were making estimable contributions to the team's success.
But why Grizzlies?
"Jim just calls everybody a Grizzly," laughed Freije. "Every time he saw you, he called you a Grizzly. Everybody is a Grizzly to him. I just made some kind of reference to it."
Injury report: Freshman reserve guard Dan Cage, who injured his ankle nine days ago in practice and missed the final two games of the regular season, was back participating in practice Wednesday and seemed to be cutting and running full speed. He is likely to play at some point this week if the Commodores advance, but his status is day-to-day.
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