For the first time all season long, Vanderbilt put together a performance that justified their preseason top 25 ranking.
Jeff Roberson led four players in double figures with 20 points as the Commodores put an impressive beatdown on No. 8 Texas A&M, sending them home from Nashville with a 77-60 defeat. Vandy shot 13-for-29 from beyond the arc in what was their most impressive offensive showing since November. Given the caliber of the opponent — the Aggies are one of the best defensive teams in the country — you could argue that this was the best the ‘Dores have played on the offensive end all season long.
This Vandy team, the one that showed up on Thursday night, will be a trendy upset pick when — if? — they make the NCAA tournament.
And yes, that’s still an ‘if’ at this point. That’s how much Stallings’ club struggled earlier this season. They’re now just 13-9 on the season and 5-4 in the SEC. Prior to tonight, their best win of the season came last week, when they beat Florida at home, and after tonight, they’re probably just barely on the right side of the cut-line.
In other words, it took a win over the SEC favorite and another win over an RPI top 25 team just for Vandy to be thrust into the bubble conversation.
That’s not exactly a good sign.
But there is reason to be hopeful, because this is still a group with talent.
The reason that they were so well-respected heading into the season was because there are three future NBA players on the roster — center Damian Jones, stretch-four Luke Kornet and point guard Wade Baldwin IV. Combine that with a couple of quality recruiting classes in a row, a myriad of shooters on the perimeter and a coach that is as respected as Kevin Stallings (more on that in a minute), and what you get is preseason hype.
The problem is that that hype forced us to ignore some red flags.
For starters, the future pros on Vandy’s roster will be drafted based on their potential. Entering the season, Baldwin — who is just a sophomore — was still very much learning how to be a point guard, and I think it’s fair to say that he still is today. Jones is a big, athletic kid that can rebound and block shots, but he hasn’t turned into the low-post presence on the offensive end of the floor that we expected him to be this season. And Kornet? He’s a 7-foot-1 rim protector with three-point range, but he’s spent the first three months of the season injured and totally out of rhythm; he missed his first 14 threes of the season, had made just 11 on the season entering Thursday and seven games on the year were he even made one triple.
But on Thursday, Baldwin looked like a lottery pick (17 points, eight assists, one turnovers), Kornet caught fire from beyond the arc (4-for-6 from three for 14 points) and Jones was able to be a factor in the paint despite not being the focal point offensively (13 points, 10 boards, five blocks).
When Vandy gets performances like that from their big three, they’re dangerous.
They’re who we thought they would be entering the season.
As far as Stallings is concerned, a quick explanation: He’s a very well-respected coach among his peers. Ask people that have worked for him, played for him or competed against him and they’ll tell you he’s good for a couple reasons: He really understands x’s-and-o’s offensively, and he’s able to win at a school where he has to deal with a higher academic standard than most anyone else at that level.
But in recent years, he hasn’t had as much success as you would expect from someone with his reputation. He missed the NIT two of the last three seasons as he tried to rebuild from a team that had three NBA player on the roster. Prior to that, he had a four year stretch were he was upset in the opening round of the NCAA tournament by a double-digit seed three times.