It's been a terrific 10 days since the frustrating foul-fest at South Carolina. In a week and a half, a floundering program that was headed for postseason exile has suddenly ripped off a three-game winning streak to become a near shoo-in for the NIT... and a bona-fide threat at the SEC Tournament in early March. Saturday's 71-61 win over Ole Miss at Memorial Gym only confirmed the progress the VU crew (15-8, 4-5 SEC) has made at the beginning of February.
Once vexed, Vandy hoops has now become unmistakably vibrant. A defense that once failed to communicate is now making some very loud statements with its energy and intensity. The toothless and tissue-soft surrender against Florida is a distant memory. Coach Kevin Stallings has coaxed increasingly impressive performances from his pupils in the past three games, and now, the outlook for the 2009 season is a whole lot brighter in Nashville.
It's been extremely encouraging to watch this team--perhaps given a false sense of confidence by a lock-down effort against Georgia on Jan. 14--rediscover a winning edge at the defensive end of the floor. Yes, the offensive numbers have been solid--one wouldn't expect anything less from a Stallings-coached outfit--but the key to Vandy's SEC surge has been its renewed hunger, which has manifested itself on defense and especially in the realm of hustle plays.
On Thursday, Jermaine Beal and Brad Tinsley saved loose balls to preserve possessions and blunt the late-game momentum Alabama had established. The Commodores became nervous in the latter stages of that tilt against the Crimson Tide, but their unceasing effort enabled them to survive. Saturday against the Rebels, a very similar formula played out on the home hardwood, as Vanderbilt's lunch-pail leadership became even more apparent.
VU mastered Mississippi because the Dores sacrificed themselves with considerable consistency. Whereas the Rebels looked like a two-man team--with guards Terrico White and David Huertas carrying most of the load for the visitors--Vandy competed at every position. The Dores received contributions from several different players, and in ways that transcended the scoring column.
Forward Steve Tchiengang--whose inspired defense helped sustain VU's second-half momentum against Bama just two days before--continued to get his hands dirtry against the lads from Oxford. No longer playing passively, Tchiengang snagged 7 rebounds on a day when he took just three field goal attempts and accounted for just 5 points. Many basketball players don't defend or rebound when they're not a central part of the offense. Tchiengang's willingness to crash the glass showed just how much the Dores' attitude has changed in the past week and a half.
The Rebels also got rebuffed by the backcourt combo of Tinsley and Beal, which is only becoming more confident as this season continues. Tinsley--despite his evident lack of size--also mixed it up in the painted area by snagging 5 boards in the face of taller trees. Backcourt rebounding is a telltale sign of a team that's buying what its coaching staff is selling, and the Dores are getting that from Tinsley. Beal, for his part, played a very mature game in his own right against Ole Miss. While allowing others to receive the scoreboard glory, Beal--who tallied just 8 points on a modest 7 field goal attempts--handed out 6 assists and gave shape to the Dores' halfcourt offense. That degree of unselfishness went a long way toward enabling Vandy to shoot 55 percent (28-of-51) from the field, in an extremely efficient display. Ole Miss and its backcourt hoisted shots. Vandy, on the other hand, shot wisely. There's a big difference between hoisting and shooting, and Vandy took the better path because of guards who were both fearless and smart.
In addition to all these heroes in the backcourt and on the wings, Vanderbilt powered past Ole Miss--much as it did against Bama--because A.J. Ogilvy is finding himself. Legs, confidence, and toughness, you name it--the whole package has returned to the superb center, who has shaken off the combination of physical and mental fragility that dogged him for much of January. After a 20-point, 12-rebound effort against Bama on Thursday, Ogilvy went for 17 and 9 against the Rebels. Just as it was hard to envision how Vanderbilt could excel when Ogilvy was struggling, it's quite natural to connect this three-game resurgence to the Australian's awesome performance in the paint. It's as though the reapperance of the big guy has given everyone else on the VU roster the confidence to play their game, fulfill their own roles, and--most importantly--to stop worrying about doing too much on the court.
In a weird but very real dimension of sports psychology, the fortunes of one player--Ogilvy--have affected the mindset of an entire team. Perhaps that shouldn't happen, but it does... especially at a level of competition where the participants don't get paid. In the NBA, the loss of a key contributor will affect the Xs and Os of a basketball battle, but the mental side of competition isn't supposed to sag. The college game, however, is too emotionally volatile for a team to remain unaffected when a star performer encounters an injury or endures a bad stretch.
Going forward, the Dores--who wish that they wouldn't have to take a whole week off, given the way they're playing--will want to sustain the effort level displayed in the past three games, particularly the home conquests against Bama and Ole Miss. But if this team sees A.J. Ogilvy lose some of his edge, the key for the Dores will be to retain the hunger that's carried them back into the postseason mix. Lunch-pail leadership--with every player leading by example--can carry the Commodores to greater heights. If Ogilvy gets punched in the mouth, it will be up to the supporting cast--Tchiengang, Beal, Tinsley, and others--to continue to do what they've done the past few games.
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