Mario Andrel Moore made his decision to verbally commit to Vanderbilt in September of 2000, over a year before NCAA rules allowed him to sign and make it official. During the ensuing year, make no mistake, Vanderbilt Head Coach Kevin Stallings indeed did some worrying-- but not about Moore changing his mind.
"[Mario] only lived about 15 minutes from campus," said Stallings. "He was with our guys a lot... to the point that we were concerned about his relationship with his own high school team. He would come to all of our games. I think he felt like he was part of the team before he ever matriculated."
Perhaps no Vanderbilt recruit since Sam Howard had been so dead-set on wearing the black and gold. Now seven games into his freshman season, Stallings is thrilled by Moore's unwavering desire to become a Commodore-- and he is even more thrilled by what he sees when Moore is on the floor. As a backup point guard, the Antioch High School graduate has made by far the biggest splash of any of Stallings' four freshmen.
Against Georgia Southern, Moore dished out six assists in only 20 minutes of play. Against Connecticut, Moore delighted the Memorial Gymnasium crowd by stealing the ball on successive Husky possessions midway through the second half. His breakaway layup gave Vanderbilt a 54-53 lead, its only lead of the game.
Stallings says the 6-0 Moore is as complete an offensive player as anybody on the team in terms of his skill levels.
"He can shoot it going right or left... catch it and shoot it... penetrate and give it to somebody... penetrate and finish in a crowd-- which is kind of surprising, because he's kind of small," said Stallings. We've been very impressed with his ability level.
"He's an energy guy. He's a guy that brings energy to practice. We're high on him. And we're high on the fact that we've got a guy in practice who's good enough to kick his butt every day."
That would be junior point guard Russell Lakey. Stallings attributes much of Moore's quick emergence to his having to face Lakey in daily practices. The competition between Lakey, one of the SEC's best defensive point guards, and Moore has been ideal for them both, says Stallings.
"Russell can guard the ball as well as any player in our league, I think," said Stallings at SEC Media Days. "He can guard the ball as good as anybody I've coached. So Mario has to play against him all the time, and Mario's probably leading the world in turnovers-- but only because Lakey's making him turn it over all the time."
"He puts heat on the ball!" says Moore of Lakey. "I mean, he makes me a lot better every day. I love playing against him. He's teaching me a lot of things. It's good to have someone as good as Russ out there playing you every day. We just go at it two-and-a-half, three hours every day."
Having gone through much of last season without a true point guard due to an injury to Lakey, Stallings realizes how blessed he is to have two point guards the caliber of Lakey and Moore. This year in Lakey he has a healthy, experienced point guard who has been through the wars, and a raw but talented freshman in Moore whom he can allow to progress and mature at his own rate.
Before the season some fans surmised that Moore's quickness, offensive abilities and floor vision might even allow him to supplant the veteran Lakey at some point in the season.
"Mario has some skills that today are better than Russell's, without question," acknowledges Stallings. "But I would say that Russell's command of the offense and command of what is supposed to happen and what is supposed to go on in the college game is very superior right now. Both of them are fun to coach, though."
There was very little drama to Moore's recruiting story.
"We saw him play in the summer after his sophomore year," said Stallings. "And we liked him, thought he was going to be very good. We got him and his family to come over to my office in August after the summer recruiting period was over and just said, we'll offer you a scholarship. We want you to think about making an early commitment. If that's something that's not good for you and your family, don't do it, but we want you to think about it.
"We discussed why we wanted him, and where we thought he would fit in. We met again a week later, and he told us he was coming.
"And this is what I like him the best for-- he never wavered. It was never, 'Hey coach, I'm going to take this one official visit, even though I told you I was coming.' He never wavered one day. There was never a day that he didn't want to be at Vanderbilt.
"I like people, in general, and especially 16- and 17-year-old kids, who say, this is what I'm going to do, and then they do it."
Having to play behind Lakey is an unfamiliar situation for Moore, who in the course of a brilliant high school career became Antioch's all-time scoring and assist leader. But Moore insists he is comfortable with his role of spelling Lakey off the bench.
"I just want to contribute," says Moore. "If I start or don't start, I'm not going to be mad or happy about it. If I'm behind Russ, I'm going to come in just the same as i