Prior to the season Head Coach Kevin Stallings was thrilled by Thornton's progress. "Now [in Thornton] we've got a guy down there hunkered in that, you've got to work pretty hard to keep it out of his hands," Stallings said. "I think Brian will score points on a consistent basis for us."
Thus far in 2002-03, however, the Commodores' big man in the middle has struggled with consistency. In six of Vanderbilt's first 12 games, Thornton has scored 18 or more points; but in four other games, he's been held to seven or less. Thornton was particularly ineffective in road games at Indiana and Notre Dame, when he encountered early foul trouble. "When you get two fouls in the first five minutes [as Thornton did at Notre Dame], you didn't come out ready to play," Stallings remarked disgustedly after the Fighting Irish contest.
Early on, Wednesday night's game against Auburn looked like another one of those frustrating nights for Thornton. On the road, against an imposing front line that included Kyle Davis and Marco Killingsworth, Thornton again picked up two quick fouls in the early going and was limited to five minutes of play in the first half.
But in the second half the Deuce went wild, for what turned out to be his finest half of the season. The Commodores' muscular 6-8 sophomore picked up 19 second-half points, and was virtually unstoppable in the paint. The few Vandy fans who made the trip got a glimpse of Thornton's newfound potential-- which, somewhat like his girth, is enormous.
The day after the game, Stallings poured on the praise.
"Despite the fact that Auburn has one of the best shot-blockers in the country [Kyle Davis], Brian did a good job of taking the ball at them and scoring," said Stallings. "He showed last night that he can get it done against a shot-blocker.
"He's done very well against non-shot-blocking guys. He's had more struggles against good shot-blockers. Last night he played like we hoped that he could and would. He was really outstanding."
Stallings said Thornton did a better job of using his body in the second half.
"He did a better job of getting position before he received the ball and then taking it to the basket, as opposed to maybe going away from the basket," said Stallings. "He was creating angles for himself. Our guys did a pretty good job of getting him the ball. He has great hands.
"He was just doing a really good job of using the basket to protect himself. He just did a nice job of being aggressive."
Vanderbilt ultimately lost 62-59 to Auburn in its SEC opener, and one of the key plays late in the game was a Thornton shot from underneath the basket with under two minutes left that went almost halfway down before bounding out. But perhaps Thornton can be forgiven for that one, because a number of his second-half field goals were of the "How-did-he-do-that?" variety.
"I think even the one shot that he got blocked, he got it back and scored," said Stallings. "We were very happy with him."
Thornton and Vanderbilt get a chance to redeem themselves Saturday night against another SEC West foe, as the fourth-ranked Crimson Tide of Alabama comes rolling into town. Facing a highly ranked team is nothing new for Vanderbilt-- the Commodores have already faced three Top Ten foes this season (Connnecticut, Indiana and Notre Dame) and have lost to all three.
"Obviously Alabama's one of the top teams in the country," said Stallings. "They've been ranked in the top five almost the entire season, so Mark [Gottfried] has obviously done a great job with them. It appears to me in seeing their scores and statistics that they're a great team defensively.
"They have inside-outside weapons and they guys that are playing at the best of their career right now. I think that's important, especially for older guys in any program. I think they've got that going on with some of their players."
One of the game's key matchups will feature Thornton vs. Alabama senior center Erwin Dudley, last year's SEC Player of the Year. Dudley, who, like Thornton, is 6-foot-8, 260 pounds, turned down a chance to play in the NBA in order to play his senior year with Gottfried's Crimson Tide.
"It will be a typical, tough matchup," said Stallings. "But we're looking forward to it. With Alabama's ranking we would expect a good crowd this weekend, and hopefully it will be a tough environment to play in."
Saturday's game time was moved from 4:00 p.m to 8:00 p.m. CST to avoid a conflict with the NFL Playoff game between the Tennessee Titans and Pittsburgh Steelers. Stallings said the change in time made no difference at all to him.
"Games are re-timed all the time for television," said Stallings. "It would have been a night game had TV not been involved in the first place, so it doesn't make any difference to me."