Vanderbilt Hoops: A look in the Mirror

The Commodores need to take a long, hard look in the mirror after their first loss of the season. The undefeated start to the season is over. The two strongest teams that Vanderbilt has beaten, Oregon and Georgetown, were both routed by Illinois this week. Cincinnati, the only team to beat the Commodores, lost a home game to Dayton and was taken to overtime by Murray State.

While 5-1 is certainly a solid start, Vanderbilt's strength of schedule might not be as formidable as was expected at the beginning of the season. So when this team looks in the mirror, what does it see?

Certainly, the team sees an excellent wing player who can be counted on to play well against talented, athletic opposition. In the preseason, the Commodores thought that Shan Foster would fill this role, but as of today the shoe seems to better fit Derrick Byars. The transfer from Virginia has performed well this season, leading the Commodores by making 57% of his three pointers, and leading all Vanderbilt perimeter players in rebounds and overall field goal percentage. Byars is second only to Alex Gordon with 22 assists (Gordon has 24), and second only to Julian Terrell with 19 defensive rebounds. Additionally, Derrick's best games have come in Vanderbilt's toughest matchups – against Oregon and Cincinnati.

Julian Terrell has also lived up to high expectations thus far. With 14 rebounds against the Bearcats, he brought his season total to 54 (9 per game), more than twice as much as any other Commodore. Julian is shooting 48% from the field and 75% from the charity stripe, and has more assists than turnovers on the season. As though that were not enough, he's been doing it all on an injured foot. "JT's really battling a sore foot right now, that got stepped on a couple of days ago during practice," said Coach Stallings. "He doesn't have any lift. We had to take him out of practice yesterday and not let him do too much. I thought he gave us a great effort [against Cincinnati] under his physical limitations."

DeMarre Carroll was the only other player who received words of praise from Stallings in the coach's post-game interview. Despite coming off the bench in every contest so far, Carroll averages over 11 points and 4 rebounds per game. There is reason to think that DeMarre's efforts could land him a starting position after the Cincinnati game, as Ted Skuchas' performance was disappointing.

After starting out the season with a new confidence and a definite improvement in several aspects of his game, Skuchas had perhaps the worst night that a Commodore has had in this decade. In only nine minutes, Skuchas collected four personal fouls and gave up five turnovers. Coach Stallings didn't name any names, but here are a few of his remarks that could easily be applied to Ted's subpar night: "[Cincinnati] got control early on because we made some ridiculously bad turnovers… we were on our heels the rest of the game… We had too many of our important parts not "on go" today to beat a team like that. The problem was that we turned the ball over to them."

Shan Foster, like Ted Skuchas, has started every game so far this year. Shan is undoubtedly a very talented player, but he has struggled against Vanderbilt's toughest competition. Whatever the reason for Shan's struggles, the Commodores need him to become more productive. When Coach Stallings was asked in the post-game press conference what it would take to get Shan Foster back in sync with the offense, Stallings said "I don't know. Maybe the bench." Coach Stallings has been known to "send messages" to his players by giving or taking away playing time and starting assignments, and it seems that he is about to use that tactic again. DeMarre Carroll has performed more than well enough to justify a starting job, so do not be surprised if Skuchas or Foster is taken out of the starting lineup, at least for a couple of games.

Fans who came to watch Vanderbilt's first defeat noticed at least three things that had a role in the outcome, the first of which was perimeter defense. Cincinnati's Downey had a great game, leading his team in points and penetrating the Commodore defense at will in the second half. Derrick Byars was impressed with Downey's play, commenting that "he's extremely quick and strong, and he has a good build on him. In the first half, he wasn't as aggressive and assertive on offense, but in the second half he just took control out there." When the coaching staff examines the game tape, they will likely observe that Vanderbilt's zone defense was much more effective than the man-to-man. The Commodores will likely begin to play more zone defense against quick opponents. When Vanderbilt is not in zone, each player has a tendency to stay on their man too long, making them too slow to help out when a perimeter player drives to the hoop.

But even if the defense was working well, turnovers would have killed the Commodores. "can't defend when your defense doesn't have a chance to get set," said Stallings. "That's how we lost a lot of games last year – just ridiculous turnovers – just unforced, you throw it to them and they lay it in the basket. We'll have to go back to work on that." Both Mario Moore and Alex Gordon had more turnovers than assists, and several other Commodores fell in the same category. While Derrick Byars described the turnovers and bad passes as "uncharacteristic of us" and claimed that "we don't see that in practice," some observers of this year's Vanderbilt team would disagree. Vanderbilt routinely takes certain types of passes for granted, and Cincinnati's aggressive defense exposed that Commodore weakness.

Finally, the vast majority of Commodore fans at the game seemed to have a problem with the officiating. While that is always the case to some extent, this matchup against a very physical and aggressive Cincinnati team was called so loosely that the fans' displeasure with the officials was greater than in almost any other contest in the last three seasons. Julian Terrell seemed to be the primary victim of the questionable non-calls in the paint, while the game seemed to be called much tighter at Cincinnati's offensive end of the court. Coach Stallings pointed out one of the officials' most egregious errors after the game: "[Downey] is a hard guy to keep in front of you, and [the officials] bailed him out a couple of times with a couple of calls. On Ted's fourth foul, he went in there and he jumped. They showed it clear as day on replay that there was no contact." But Coach Stallings did not blame the officials for the loss. Like most others in attendance, he laid the blame squarely on the shoulders of his players, especially noting the turnover problem.

So as the players on the Commodore squad spend seven days taking final exams and preparing for the rest of their non-conference schedule, what lessons should they take from the Cincinnati game? Read what the head coach himself had to say: "I think that it needs to send a message to our guys that …there can't be any excuses when the referee throws the ball up in the air. It's about coming and bringing the best you have. We didn't bring our best today and they did. They deserved to win – the right team won the game today. … We just had too many guys who we count on today who were just never in the flow of the game for us to have a chance." Nothing – not even questionable officiating – can excuse the lackadaisical performance that the team as a whole provided on Saturday night, and the coaching staff seems to be ready to shake things up a bit in order to send that message to the players. Top Stories