Against South Carolina, Vanderbilt dominated the first half in almost every statistical category. The pace of the game was so cripplingly slow, however, that 20 minutes of dominance did not add up to as big of a lead as one might have expected. When South Carolina came out of the gates quickly in the first half, quickening the tempo of the game, they scored more points in four minutes than they had in the entire first half. Memorial sat in stunned silence as the first half's dominant play had been reduced to nothing in a few short minutes.
Nobody outside the program knows exactly what changed after that game. Did Coach Stallings change his offensive philosophy a bit? Did the players learn something from the loss that convinced them to speed up somehow? While the program remains justifiably quiet on that front, the results spoke for themselves. Against Mississippi State, Vanderbilt forced many turnovers – including nine from the star Bulldog, Jamont Gordon – and capitalized on those turnovers with many fast break points. The offense was run with more fluidity and pacing, cuts were sharper, and the coaching staff tried to hide a bit of a collective grin as the Commodores started to show how well they can play.
So is this the pace that we can expect for the rest of the season? It seems likely. "It was a little more up-tempo," said Derrick Byars, "but the pace we played at was our style, and we controlled the pace of the game."
One of the biggest benefits of the looser tempo was that the ‘Dores played with more fluidity and confidence. As Byars put it, "We'll keep playing at a comfortable tempo so that we can just control the game. It helps us stay loose. We need to play comfortable out there – we can't get ahead of ourselves."
It's no secret why the Commodores are willing to play a bit faster this season – this is one of Vanderbilt's most athletic teams in years. Dan Cage says that the open floor can make this team run at maximum capacity: "It's more conducive to what our team brings to the floor every night. We have a lot of really athletic guys and really quick guys; we have some good outside shooters. When we run and the defense isn't able to get set, outside shooters start hitting shots and it makes it easier for the inside guys to start doing what they do… it makes the whole game a little bit easier. We have more of an open floor, and that's what we're trying to emphasize."
On the other hand, nobody is saying that Vanderbilt should always play at the same fast tempo. Sometimes, like against Arkansas earlier this season, the matchups will make a more deliberate pace a wiser choice for the ‘Dores.
"I wouldn't recommend [playing fast] all the time, because sometimes turnovers come with [that pace]," said Derrick Byars. "It played in our favor against Mississippi State though. Against the whole league, you shouldn't necessarily do that. It depends on the team."
It's obvious that Vanderbilt is continually realizing more of their team identity. The Commodores are comfortable with a deliberate half-court set, but they are perhaps playing their best when they push for fast-break points as well. The best sign of all is that the players are willing to play whatever style a particular opponent calls for. The willingness to be flexible demonstrates that Vanderbilt is increasingly confident no matter what style they play, because they realize that it's not the system that wins games, it's the team.
The attitude of Derrick Byars, one of the team's strongest leaders, says it all. "We just have to keep everything in the right perspective. Realize that this is a 16 game stretch, and we can't just get caught up in one victory – Kentucky or whoever. We have to keep everything in perspective and stay hungry."
"We have high expectations for this year. We set high goals. There's no reason we can't win the SEC this year. There's no reason we can't win the SEC tournament." With that kind of confidence in themselves and their style of play, the Commodores are ready to give the rest of the SEC a tough fight. More than that, the Commodores are ready to beat them.