SECT Preview: Peck analysis of VU strength

As Vanderbilt prepares to take on Arkansas and potentially LSU and Tennessee to reach Sunday's tournament title game, VandyMania spoke with ESPN analyst and former Commodore (1984-1988) player Carolyn Peck to verbalize what coaches across the country are saying about Head Coach Melanie Balcomb.

Now in her eighth year with three SEC Tournament championships and four NCAA Sweet 16 appearances, the woman said to be among the smartest coaches in the country by legendary peers and competitors Andy Landers and Pat Summit, is taking a young team challenged with injuries, inconsistencies and height into post-season play.

It's in this type of environment that Melanie Balcomb and her staff excel. From the recruiting that begins years before fans ever see a player walk on to campus, to the conditioning that defines how far players can push themselves, to the complex plays and system appropriate for scholar athletes, she often finds a way to motivate beyond what people may believe her teams are capable of achieving.



"It's the type of players she recruits," said Carolyn Peck without hesitation. The former Vandy athlete also competed against Balcomb at times. Prior to working for ESPN, Peck held coaching positions at Tennessee, Kentucky, Purdue and Florida.

"I can remember coaching against her and preparing for Vanderbilt, and there could be forty offenses. You have to do what you do well and try to go that route because it's a tough job to figure her teams out. There are so many different reads."

In Monday's SEC media conference, Coach Balcomb commented that people recognize Vandy wins on hard work and execution, but not necessarily on talent. This season, in which 6-4 McDonald's High School All American Stefanie Holzer has sat sidelined from day one recovering from ankle surgery, in which sophomore Jordan Coleman tore her ACL after starting nine games and losing intensity in the post, in which point guard Jence Rhoads battled through pain after missing two games to play with a busted hand -- this season has seen adversity and people playing out of position to manage 20 wins in a talented conference.

Peck and ESPN colleague Kara Lawson have noticed. "Yes, there have been some inconsistencies, but there have been many coaches spending sleepless nights preparing to go against Vanderbilt," Carolyn said. "Number one, how to defend them, because they can always score the three, which brings you out and they pick you apart. And how are you going to score against their zone defense? The things some teams have been a little successful with this year is taking advantage of the height but that has nothing to do with Melanie's coaching, other than injuries she's had to deal with."

Last season's squad drove deep into the Sweet 16, barely missing the Elite 8 with a 4-point heartbreaker to Maryland. But super starters Jennifer Risper and Christina Wirth graduated, and in their shoes, Peck sees stellar play emerging from senior Merideth Marsh, junior Jence Rhoads and freshman Tiffany Clarke. Each was named, along with freshman Elan Brown, to an All SEC team for this year's tournament.

"It's those types of players, along with talent, along with high basketball IQ, that gives Vanderbilt the ability to be pretty dangerous. With a young team, which Melanie had last year except for Wirth and Risper, it takes a little while to catch into the system. Going into the SECT and NCAA tourney, they were right where Melanie wanted them other than Hannah Tuomi being hurt, which hurt a lot."

The color commentator adds that this Vanderbilt squad could be a team that, because of how well coached and disciplined it is, could take the SEC by surprise. "Vandy has the ability to be able to turn around a scouting report from one night to the next to the next. Having a high IQ gives you that. Seeing her team play this year, I think they could beat anybody and get to the finals. That would affect where she gets seeded for the NCAA. The SEC Tournament is really up for grabs. Yeah, Tennessee finished at the top and is playing very well, but the SEC is wide open."

With tourney play just hours away, Vanderbilt will try to make that a reality. Leaving the past behind and pressing on to what's ahead, the head coach said recent losses don't matter. "It's how good are we now and how good we are Thursday night. And that," Balcomb said, "means that we are mentally and physically prepared."

Take it from one of the best coaches in the country: "Game on."



From Memorial Gym's sideline, the coach sets up a play.

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