Stallings, Freije talk about UConn, Sweet 16

Vanderbilt Coach Kevin Stallings and senior forward Matt Freije answered questions from the national media Monday regarding the Commodores' wins in Orlando and their upcoming Sweet 16 matchup with Connecticut. The team departs Nashville Tuesday for Thurday's 6:10 p.m. game in Phoenix. Here's the abridged text of Monday's press conference.


Q: Could you talk about the emotion of [the win over North Carolina State], and how do you get your team back down to earth for this next game?

Coach Stallings: I think so much of the emotion of the game was being down by ten with less than three minutes and looking maybe like you're dead in the water, and pulling off a great comeback victory. I think there was a lot of emotion just because of the way the victory occurred. I don't think you'd have seen the same kind of emotion if it had been a game that we'd led wire to wire. In terms of getting them back and ready to play, Connecticut will get us ready to play, just because we're not wanting to get embarrassed. You have to be ready to play them because they were the preseason No. 1 team in the country, and they may very well be the best team in this entire tournament.

Q: A lot of times when people get on the floor with Emeka Okafor, they spend a lot of their time looking for him. You guys have seen him last season and the season before. Is it a little bit of an advantage that you know what to expect?

Coach Stallings: I don't know that it gives us an advantage. He's obviously a great player, and as good a player as there is in college basketball. His presence will be felt in every game he plays in, because he plays so hard and is so talented. Yes we've seen him before... he tore us apart last year here. He has great impact on the games he plays in when he's healthy. I think any coach's goal is to minimize the impact he has, but that's a lot easier said than done.

Q: Could you talk about Matt's great performance on Sunday? For a couple of games Matt had struggled a little bit with his shooting.

Coach Stallings: Well, Matt's a heck of a player, and a guy who has done that throughout the course of his career, to where sometimes you just get on him and ride him. He's put our team on his back a number of times this season, and he certainly did Sunday afternoon. It was just a phenomenal performance. It was a case of him having more desire to affect the outcome of the game than anyone else on the floor. Ultimately he did. It looked shaky there for a while, but he took the game over and ultimately decided the outcome of the game.

Q: Matt, was there any particular moment where you felt the game was turning, where you said, we can win this game?

Matt Freije: I never felt we were out of it. We had been in that position before and had pulled out victories in the same type of situation. We just got some stops and made some plays down the stretch that we could make it close and pull it out. I guess when Corey [Smith] got the intentional foul and sunk his two free throws, that's when I really felt that, this is our chance. Then Mario [Moore] stepped up and made that big three, and the rest is history.

Q: When your athletics department got restructured, a lot of people thought your athletic program would take a step backward. Do you see this win and what you all have accomplished this season as a statement about the school's emphasis on athletics?

Coach Stallings: I don't think so, because frankly I don't see that anything has changed relative to our emphasis on athletics. I don't think it's impacted anything that's happened with our basketball team. I think this is more a statement about our basketball program and the kids in it. This has got nothing to do with anything that's happened administratively in our university. This has to do with 12 guys who have really come together for a common cause and made something very special happen.

Q: Everybody expected Kentucky and Mississippi State to still be surviving. Do you take any pride in the fact that Alabama and Vanderbilt are still alive and that you're kind of "carrying the torch" for the league?

Coach Stallings: I would hate to say that we're carrying the torch for the league, because that would be a slap in Kentucky's face. They've been carrying the torch in this league for about 50 years, so in no way would I say that we're carrying the torch. I do take pride in the fact that we're still playing. I wanted Mississippi State to win, and I wanted Kentucky to win. I was not pulling against our league teams. But I'm proud of the fact that our players have defied the odds and the naysayers and the experts who said we would lose all these games that we've won.

Q: Matt can you talk about the mood around campus after your surprising run?

Matt Freije: It hasn't really changed a whole lot around campus. We get a few more congratulations, but other than that, things are pretty much the same. We just go to class and get ready for practice.

Q: No signs up or anything special like that?

Matt Freije: When we got back from Florida there was a crowd outside of Memorial welcoming us back, so that was a little different. But today around campus, it was just normal.

Q: When you look back at the season, do you ever think about how close you guys came to not even getting into the tournament? And was there a specific point where you thought, everything is going to be all right?

Coach Stallings: After our loss at South Carolina, in the locker room that night we sort of decided that it was time to either make a run or quit talking about it. From that point on, our team has played very consistently and very well-- not that we hadn't played well up to that point, but we were in a situation up to that point where it was getting more critical. Our players responded in great fashion. The point where I thought we were OK... I never had the feeling we were OK. I think... after the South Carolina game we went and won at Alabama, and that started a lot of positive thinking and flow for us. After we beat Mississippi State in the SEC Tournament, I felt we had probably helped ourselves in terms of seeding for the tournament. As it turned out, I think that did impact our seeding fairly significantly.

Q: Matt, how did you find Vanderbilt, and how did they find you?

Matt Freije: I guess they kind of found me. They were one of the first schools to start recruiting me. In the recruiting process I just built a relationship with Coach Stallings, and knew through that that I wanted to come here. I only took one official visit and that was here. After I visited, I knew I wanted to come here and sign here.

Q: What were your impressions of UConn? What do you remember about them?

Matt Freije: Obviously they're one of the best teams in the nation, if not the best. They've got one of the best inside-outside combos with [Ben] Gordon and [Emeka] Okafor. Okafor might be the best player in the nation. They're a great team, and they're a handful.

Q: Does it help having played them at least once before?

Matt Freije: I don't think so. They're a little bit different team than they were last year.

Q: You guys come into the Sweet 16 with an image nationally of a book-toting basketball team. Does that bother you guys, or do you welcome that image?

Matt Freije: It doesn't really bother us. We know what we are, and it doesn't really bother us. People can say what they want about us, but all we can do is just go out and play. That's what we've done in this tournament, and that's what we've done all season.

Q: Do you feel some of that conference pride going into the Sweet 16? And how much would you like to meet Alabama in that regional final?

Coach Stallings: I'd like to see Alabama in the regional finals. That would mean we got to the regional finals. It's nice being one of the last two teams left, but you've got to give a lot of credit to Kentucky and Mississippi State, and even Florida for having great seasons. They just happened to get unlucky, and that's what happens in a tournament.

Q: [Alabama coach] Mark Gottfried said you guys had talked this morning. Can you let us in on what you guys talked about?

Coach Stallings: I think it was just a call of congratulations, and a little bit of, who would have thought this? And a call of good luck. That really was all it was. He gave me some impressions of his of our team, and I gave him some impressions of mine of his team. He told me some of the things that he thought Connecticut might be worried about, and I told him things that Syracuse might be concerned about in playing them. That was about the extent of it.

Q: Coach, can you talk about Mario Moore and his development this year?

Coach Stallings: Mario is a very talented guy that likes it when the lights are bright. He certainly had a huge impact on our success in Orlando. He has been a good player in postseason for us. The challenge we have with Mario is to get him to play consistently at the level he's capable of playing at. If we can do that, he'll be a terrific player. Right now he's terrific sometimes-- and very few people are terrific all the time. But we could stand for him to be just a little more consistent. But when he's on, he's really on.

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