As Vanderbilt coaches watched film of last year’s game against Ole Miss in preparation for Thursday’s contest at Oxford Miss. (6 p.m., ESPNU), assistant King Rice was amazed at what he saw.
“He said ‘It’s amazing how skinny Jeff (Taylor) looked,’” coach Kevin Stallings recounted earlier this week. “These guys have gotten a year more mature. I think that’s a real significant thing. Just the year of experience and physicality makes a difference.”
The players, particularly last season’s sizable freshman group, which included Taylor, are not the only things that bulked up in 2009-10.
Stung by being left out of the NCAA and NIT postseason events, Stallings and his staff set out to strengthen the caliber of competition during the non-conference season. As it turned out, they succeeded.
With three weeks remaining in the regular season the Commodores are 19-5 overall, 8-2 in conference and ranked among the top 20 in the two major polls (17th in Associated Press and 19th in ESPN/USA Today).
Vanderbilt’s RPI is 15, according to collegerpi.com. That is second in the SEC only to Kentucky (5) and slightly better than Tennessee (21), which it defeated twice. Its strength of schedule is 26th, which is due in part to five non-conference games against teams currently in the top 100.
“We certainly took on as much as we thought we could reasonably handle,” Stallings said. “Even if our schedule turned out to be no so good, I don’t really think you could blame us because we tried.”
The non-conference slate included a victory on the road against St. Mary’s and one at home against Missouri, Nos. 44 and 46, respectively. At the EA Sports Maui Invitational, the Commodores lost to No. 49 Cincinnati and defeated No. 86 Arizona. There also was a loss at Illinois (No. 70).
“I’m very satisfied with what our schedule has done for us,” Stallings said. “The teams that we’ve played … most of them have gone on and done well. That’s certainly helped us.”
Ole Miss (17-7, 5-5) has the top RPI among teams in the SEC’s Western Division, but at No. 48 is in a precarious position in terms of postseason events.
A victory against the Commodores undoubtedly would strengthen their numbers.
“We’ve become a big game, a good win for people because of what we’ve done and our RPI and things like that,” Stallings said. “… I want Ole Miss to make the NCAA tournament, but I don’t want them to make it as a result of beating us.”
A year ago, such a victory would not have had that kind of impact.