VandyMania Interview: Kevin Stallings

Is Vanderbilt finally ready to challenge Kentucky for supremacy in the SEC East? Which players have separated themselves in preseason practice sessions, and which newcomers look to make an impact? In this Q&A from SEC Media Days, head coach Kevin Stallings answers questions posed by members of the media, and catches VandyMania readers up on the early weeks of practice.


Q: Coach, lots of people are picking Vanderbilt to be a team that could challenge Kentucky in the SEC East this year. Do you feel like Vanderbilt is at the point to be a legitimate challenger?

A: I don't know... I just know I'm being asked that a lot more than I have been in the past, and actually it feels kind of good for a change. That's what we're building to. I think the fact that we've been able to increase the level of player that we've gotten in our program has helped us attract additional recruits that are better. They see the direction we're going. Obviously guys want to play with good players. It's fun to bring in high-level players and have them play with your team, and then ask them afterwards and have them say, "Man, this guy is good!", or whatever. I don't know if we're on the cusp yet or not, but we're certainly a lot closer to it than we've been.

Q: Is this as deep as your team has been? Quality depth?

A: Oh, no. This is the biggest separation that we've ever had between the eight or so and the other guys. Some years we were deep because there wasn't enough separation between you and him... on any given night you might be better than him, or he might be better than you. Quite honestly that's not very much fun. Now we've got clear separation. Now, that might cloud itself later in the year, as some of our younger guys progress and come on. But right now there's a pretty clear delineation between the first eight and the rest.

Q: You said you have more basketball/athletes than you've had... how tough was it to get to that point?

A: I don't know that it was tough to get there. It just took a long time to get there. With every mistake you make at Vanderbilt, that's a mistake that you live with for two, sometimes three years. If I make a mistake in judgment about a kid's character or ability-- he either transfers, or I dismiss him, or he's not good enough, whatever the case-- I can't go out and find a ready-made junior college player, like everybody else in this league can do, who can come in and give us a couple of years of a bridge, until I can grow up another high school guy and get him ready. Everybody else in our league can do that. That was probably the one thing that I underestimated when I took the job-- how badly each mistake would set you back. Now I've gone through it a little bit, and I understand most of what you need to understand to work at a place like Vanderbilt and be successful there. As a result we've made fewer mistakes, and we've had fewer problems.

Q: What impact might Derrick Byars have on your team this year?

A: Derrick can have a very good impact on our team. Derrick's impact will depend on Derrick, because his tools are there. If he maintains-- and he has certainly through the first few practices had the right attitude-- the attitude he's had thus far, he will have a tremendous impact on our team.

Q: George Drake and Kyle Madsen... what kind of impact do you see them having this year?

A: You know, they're behind, which is what they should be. They should be behind. I think both of them are going to be outstanding players for us in their careers. It's nice to have two really quality freshmen come in and be really behind! The day before we started practice I said, please understand, you're getting ready to go into a tunnel. You will come out of the tunnel, but you're not going to see the light at the end of it for some time, so please understand that and don't get discouraged by it. That's what happens when you're a freshman when there are good upperclassmen in your program.

Q: South Carolina and Vanderbilt have both had some moments of success. But to get over that curve... Coach Odom used the word "courage." "We've got to have the courage to make the play at the end of the game, to win those three or four games that get you from 8-8 to 12-4." Does that ring a bell with you at all?

A: Oh, "courage" would not be a word that would be foreign to our players either. (Laughs) Courage, mental toughness... there's something in that family that is expectation... some of it is, what do you expect? What do you expect to be? Do you always expect to be inferior to Kentucky and Florida? Or do you ever expect to go through that and compete with those guys? I'm hopeful that our team is up to that task and has gained in that courage department, to where we can make those same kinds of plays that Dave is talking about. Again, I think personnel-wise, we're as close as we've ever been to having a good team. We may have a hole here or a hole there, but it's not cavernous like it felt in the past at times. But "courage" is exactly what it is. What it comes down to is, do you have the self-confidence to upend the people that in our tenure have just had it their way? We'll see.

Q: In the leadership and courage department, who are some of the guys that can really lead that charge?

A: I don't know that I'm looking to anybody in particular. I'm waiting for the guys that show it. I would say that Julian [Terrell] has been a guy that has stepped up and shown some. Dan Cage is a guy that thus far this fall has played as courageously and tough as anybody we have. Part of that is because he got his nose broken in three places one day in practice... and I literally didn't know he was hurt. He went over to the sideline and the trainer stuffed cotton, or whatever it was, up his nose, and he came back out and practiced. Since that day he has looked... awful. He played the rest of the day with it. They went and X-rayed him that night, and his nose was broken in three places. He hasn't missed one second of practice. His eyes were discolored, and everything was swollen. You know he was in pain, but it was an incredible display of toughness.

Q: They talk about you as a possible challenger in the SEC East. What about South Carolina?

A: I think South Carolina is probably in that same situation we're in. They don't know if they're good enough, but there's a chance they might be. Neither one of us knows, because we just haven't done anything to unseat the top two. But South Carolina is experienced. They have been, for the last two years, probably the most athletic team in the league. They've got some guys that are seasoned and are very good players.

Q: How would you say the higher academic standards at Vanderbilt impact the basketball program?

A: I think it limits the size of our pool, but I don't think it limits the quality of guy that we can get. We may not have as many people to recruit from and choose from as our competitors do, but I think we are able to be effective in that pool, and in doing so it has given us an opportunity to have a good team. We're not going to use that as an excuse or reason why we can't be successful. We think it enhances the opportunities you have at Vanderbilt. If a guy is interested in getting a great education and playing really high-level college basketball, then we've got a great situation for him.

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