If you'll recall, Vanderbilt's loss in Athens on Feb. 6 came just three days before an eagerly-anticipated home game against Tennessee on Feb. 9. Even though the reality of the "look-ahead" is something primarily reserved for college football, it also happens in basketball, as the Dores showed five weeks ago.
Then, on Feb. 25, Vanderbilt got outplayed by Georgia for the first 39 minutes of a wild affair at Memorial Gym. C oach Kevin Stallings openly admitted in his postgame remarks that his team was suffering from a hangover following a two-point home loss to Kentucky. Yes, VU got out of Dodge with a 96-94 overtime win, but the last-place team in the SEC East had once again made life miserable for the Commodores.
When Georgia whipped Arkansas – the No. 3 seed in the SEC's West Division – in the first round of the SEC Tournament on Thursday night, Vandy realized it would play the Bulldogs a third time in 2010. The chatter about the kryptonite Georgia represented for VU was considerable. The words "it's a bad matchup" were used abundantly in order to minimize the sting of dropping a decision against the Dawgs. Commodore Nation was understandably worried that Georgia would create a very brief stay in Nashville for a club that needed to reach Sunday's SEC Tournament final.
But now, in the wake of Dores-Dawgs Basketball, Part Three, those worries about Georgia just don't seem to be very significant anymore.
Say it loud and proud: Vanderbilt finally figured out the athletes from Athens. Well into a long Friday night at Bridgestone Arena, VU finally delivered a swift kill shot against an inferior opponent. The Commodores, at long last, told UGA coach Mark Fox that his maneuverings would cease to have much of an effect on the Black and Gold. All it took was a little concentration, plus a sweet and liberating freedom from the mental demons that can and do emerge when a rival is about to be played (such as Tennessee in early February) or has just been faced (the week after the Kentucky clash).
On this night, there would be no looking ahead, or – on the other side of the divide – no hangovers in the wake of recent disappointments such as the Senior Day loss to South Carolina. On this night, Vanderbilt's band of basketball brothers jolted Georgia in authoritative fashion. Suddenly, the "bad matchup" line of analysis doesn't own quite so much intellectual heft or situational legitimacy.
Yes, that's what one win can do for a basketball team… even if it emerges only in the quarterfinals (and not the semis or final) of the SEC Tournament.
Friday's 78-66 win over Georgia doesn't announce that this team has somehow arrived in a newly important and powerful way, but what it does show is that this team is intent on working hard and getting better. What you saw inside Bridgestone Arena was a roster intent on developing for the NCAA Tournament.
In this game, Vanderbilt denied Georgia many of the putback opportunities and run-outs that led to one defeat (and very nearly two) against the Bulldogs this season. Vandy held the upper hand in the rebounding battle, registering a plus-9 total (37 to 28) and thereby denying UGA the ability to create easy baskets.
In the third time around the merry-go-round with this supposedly "bad matchup," freshman sensation John Jenkins shot the cover off the ball, draining three 3-pointers and hitting three more foul shots in a span of under four minutes. Jenkins scored all 12 Vandy points in a 12-5 run that turned a tenuous 47-42 edge into a comfortable 59-47 bulge with 8:22 left in regulation. While his teammates displayed great defensive strength and a newly flinty personality near the rim, Jenkins was able to run the wings in transition and spot up for threes before Georgia's defense could locate him.
Whereas Vandy flinched and faltered in its previous two games against Georgia – even in the Feb. 25 win which was undeniably fortuitous in the extreme – this SEC Tournament triumph witnessed a transformed ballclub. This third throwdown against UGA revealed a team that exuded maturity throughout its sensational second half.
After being drubbed in Athens and then escaping at Memorial Gym, Vandy was able to cruise to the finish line in meeting number three against the Dawgs. Once Mr. Jenkins did his thing midway through the second half inside Bridgestone Arena, delivering that aforementioned 59-47 lead with 8:22 to go, the Bulldogs never again pulled within single digits of VU. That's right – after Jenkins delivered regular doses of daggers to UGA, the visitors from the Peach State never again gained even the small satisfaction of a single-digit deficit.
That's what happens when a team puts its mind to basketball and doesn't look ahead.
That's what happens when hangovers and letdowns are banished from the living memory of big-time college athletes, who do need to move forward with their lives and take care of the task presented to them.
Vanderbilt – with maturity, steadiness and considerable efficiency – finally gave Georgia its undivided attention. An authoritative 12-point pasting of the No. 6 seed in the SEC East should lay to rest any lingering worries about bad matchups and other mini-crises VU might have faced over the course of the season.
Now, if VU can maintain this mindset which was so beautifully and organically operating on Friday, the Dores will not only be playing for the SEC Tournament title on Sunday; they could very well win the whole event. That would be a welcome change during this season of upheaval…
… kinda like the change orchestrated by Vanderbilt in a third and decidedly different duel against the done-and-dusted Georgia Bulldogs.
Bring on Mississippi State. If this new and transformed VU crew is found playing a second batch of Bulldogs, the Dores will find themselves contesting a championship on Sunday afternoon.
A.J. Ogilvy battles under the basket. (VM/Stan Jones)