Winning games at Memorial Gym isn't a problem, but stepping onto a court without a baseline bench (i.e., every other court in the country) has proven to be quite thorny for Kevin Stallings's group.
As VU begins a five-game holiday stretch against decidedly inferior opponents, the key for the Dores is to acquire a tougher, more hard-nosed personality at the defensive end, and a generally increased commitment to unflagging effort at all spots on the floor. The SEC season will make or break this team, but it's this upcoming sequence – beginning with a Saturday afternoon contest against Nashville-based Tennessee State – which will set the stage for conference play. Vandy has a choice: Expunge the laziness and inconsistency now, or pay a steep price come the first full week of January.
TENNESSEE STATE IN DEPTH
Because Tennessee State – like most of Vandy's next few opponents – plays many of its games off the national radar, it's worth examining this team a little more from a collective standpoint, and less from an individual viewpoint. A lot of things have happened with TSU basketball behind the scenes, and it's important to realize where the Tigers stand as they stroll into Memorial Gym for an afternoon delight on the weekend before Christmas.
No, not THAT John Cooper. The former Ohio State football coach is not on the Tennessee State bench, but TSU did hire John Cooper - a former player for Eddie Fogler at Wichita State (no, not Vanderbilt) and a recent assistant to Jeff Lebo at Auburn – to replace Cy Alexander earlier this year. Cooper evidently enjoys a great deal of familiarity with the SEC, so he'll be able to scout Vanderbilt with considerable expertise, even though the Tigers are situated in the Ohio Valley Conference.
Thin times, thin roster. Cooper has stepped into the TSU job without any cushion or comfort zone. Only four players returned from the 2008-09 roster, and three of last year's starters are now gone. With that having been said, it appears that the new sheriff in Nashville is beginning to get results. After starting 1-8 and looking overmatched, the Tigers have won two straight to improve to 3-8 on the season.
Newfound success. TSU knocked off Alabama A&M, 80-77, on Dec. 15, but it's the Tigers' 70-69 win over Detroit Mercy on Dec. 8 that truly turned some heads in the college basketball world. On Dec. 5, Detroit had defeated Cleveland State – a second-round team (and conqueror of mighty Wake Forest) in last year's NCAA Tournament – so the Titans owned some chops before lil' ol' Tennessee State chopped them down to size in the Motor City.
What makes TSU's recent surge all the more improbable is the fact that the win over Detroit came three days after an embarrassing loss to Southeast Missouri State on Dec. 5 (ironically, the same night that Detroit was clobbering Cleveland State). SEMO had lost 26 consecutive Ohio Valley Conference games until the Redhawks got well against Tennessee State. In that game, two of TSU's stat sheet stuffers – forwards Josh Sain and Darius Cox – sat out the entirety of the proceedings because Cooper had suspended them for violating team rules. Sain came back for the Detroit game, but Cox didn't.
Undermanned, but undeterred. In this past Tuesday's win over Alabama A&M, Sain once again registered a "DNP" (did not play), and Cox was nowhere to be found on the floor as well. It's absolutely remarkable that Cooper and the rest of his coaching staff have been able to plug in last-minute replacements, lengthen their rotation this early in the season, and coax a couple of wins out of a team that had been sinking like a rock in its first nine games.
Tennessee State might be an undermanned team with its share of player-based problems, but the Tigers who do lace up the sneakers and play by the rules have shown the perseverance and passion that Vandy would do well to emulate.
NOTES: There are no true centers on the TSU roster… four of the following five projected starters are extremely likely to start; only one slot is particularly subject to revision, depending on Cooper's wishes as tip-off time approaches.
Forward – Lonnie Funderburke – Senior, 6'7", 225; 2009-10: 3.9 ppg, 3.3 rpg
Notable stats: Season-high 28 minutes Dec. 8 against Detroit; shooting 56 percent from the field (15-of-29) this season; has fouled out in each of his past three games.
Forward – Robert Covington – Freshman, 6'8", 190; 2009-10: 10.4 ppg, 5 rpg
Notable stats: At least nine points, eight rebounds, one steal, and one blocked shot in each of his past four games; shooting 37 percent (14-of-38) from 3-point range; 77 percent foul shooter for the season.
Guard – Wil Peters – Junior, 6'0", 180; 2009-10: 9.2 ppg, 2.9 assists per game
Notable stats: 18 total assists and only four turnovers in his last five games; scored in double figures in each of his last four games; shooting 84 percent from the foul line (16-of-19) in his last four games.
Guard – Jeremiah Crutcher – Senior, 5'10", 180; 2009-10: 9 ppg, 2.9 apg
Notable stats: At least 21 points in three of his last four games; shooting just under 50 percent (23-of-47) from the field in his last three games; averaging 3.5 rebounds his last four games.
** (UNCERTAIN STARTING POSITION) Guard – Erick Peguero – Junior, 6'5", 200; 2009-10: 3 ppg, 1.6 rpg
Notable stats: Season-highs in points (8) and minutes (25) on Dec. 15 against Alabama A&M; at least three rebounds in four of his last five games; just four assists compared to 11 turnovers.
The composition of TSU's bench is very much up for debate. If Erick Peguero is indeed the fifth (uncertain) starter, and if the Josh Sain-Darius Cox combo is still in the doghouse, the Tigers still have four other players who average double-digit minutes per game. Because John Cooper has used very fluid rotations this season, and has wasted little time in lengthening his bench, he can call go nine deep even without Sain and Cox. Guards Jacquan Nobles and Martell Buie, plus forwards Hamilton Nash and Tashan Fredrick, all average over 10 minutes per game. If Kevin Stallings has any thoughts about going deep into his lineup for this contest, Tennessee State will be able to respond in kind.
Key to the Game
- Sacrifice. In this stretch against less imposing foes, Vanderbilt's basketball brothers must dedicate themselves to all the things that produce a winning team: making the extra pass; screening constantly and doggedly; communicating on defense; blocking out; taking charges; closing down on hot shooters; and so many other aspects of a sport in which the gruntwork precedes the artful dunk or the dagger-like 3-pointer from the wing. If VU doesn't develop a gritty and tenacious persona in this holiday stretch, the Dores can't expect to flip the "on" switch when SEC opponents come calling. Now is the time to weed out bad habits, and replace them with admirable traits.