With seven straight wins, VU looks like a Top 25 team again

Wednesday, January 18, 2012 at 8:29pm

Stunned. Surprised. Upset.

Those were the emotions taking hold of the Vanderbilt men’s basketball team after letting a victory slip away at home in a loss to Indiana State on Dec. 17.

Having dropped four of their first 10 games, the Commodores didn’t want things to snowball. So they called a team meeting.

“We all decided that we were going to start a new season and we were going to have a new attitude,” senior center Festus Ezeli said. “There is more of a killer instinct.”

A month later, Vanderbilt is looking more like the team that was ranked seventh in the preseason in both national polls.

The Commodores have rattled off seven straight wins since that loss to Indiana State. It is their longest winning streak since 10 in a row two seasons ago and it has put them on the cusp of cracking the Top 25 again. In both the Associated Press and USA Today/ESPN Coaches polls, they sit one spot away from being ranked.

Their winning streak and Top 25 status will be put to the test over the next three days.

Vanderbilt (13-4, 3-0 SEC) travels to Alabama (13-4, 2-1) on Thursday (6 p.m., ESPN2). Forty-eight hours later, they return to Nashville to host No. 18 Mississippi State (15-3, 2-1) on Saturday (6 p.m., ESPN or ESPN2).

“I guess the rubber starts meeting the road here a little bit,” Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings said. “But we feel good about our team.”

With a newfound emphasis on defense, the Commodores are smothering their opponents.

During the seven-game stretch, they’re allowing just 58 points a game. In that span, only Longwood scored more than 70 points and four teams failed to muster 60 points. That’s significant improvement from their first 10 games when they allowed 70.5 points a game.

Offense, on the other hand, hasn’t been the problem over the last couple seasons and that isn’t the case this winter either.

Vanderbilt ranks fourth in the conference in scoring offense (74.9 points per game), second in 3-point field-goal percentage (39.6 percent) and third in field-goal percentage (47.1 percent).

Junior guard John Jenkins leads with 19.8 points per game. Forward Jeffery Taylor is not far behind, averaging 16.9 points for third-best in the league. In fact, four Commodores (Jenkins, Taylor, Brad Tinsley and Lance Goulbourne) are averaging at least 10 points and shooting around 50 percent.

That high-scoring offense and stellar shooting percentage will be challenged on Thursday.

Alabama leads the league and ranks eighth nationally in scoring defense (55.7 ppg). They also sit atop the conference in 3-point field goal percentage defense (25.7 percent). That mark ranks second nationally.

“They are very good defensively,” Stallings said. “They’ll get you in the full-court. They’ll get you in the half-court — both man and zone. They rebound the ball well. They do a great job of getting to shooters and contesting shots. We are going to have to be real sharp offensively, take care of the ball and hopefully have very productive possessions.

“But I wouldn’t be surprised if it were a low-scoring game.”

Early on, during that opening 10-game stretch, the Commodores seemed susceptible to the close game. They let teams hang around as three of their wins — North Carolina State, Oregon State and Davidson —were decided by less than 10 points.

On Saturday, Georgia pushed the Commodores and didn’t fade until late in a 77-66 Vanderbilt win. But only once since the Indiana State loss — against Miami-Ohio in a 69-62 decision — has the margin of victory been less than 10 points.

“You don’t want to give a team any hope,” guard Dai-Jon Parker said. “When you have them down, just put your foot on their necks and let it go from there.”

Parker is one of three freshmen on the team who took a crash course in Division I basketball.

Relying on reserves and throwing out different starting lineups as Ezeli, Jenkins and forward Steve Tchiengang all missed games due to injury or illness, the Commodores buckled under the pressure. In three of their four losses — two to ranked teams — they let second-half leads disappear.

“We were just moving too fast at the moment. We didn’t let the game come to us at that time,” Parker said. “At the beginning, we were all balls to the wall doing helter skelter type stuff. ...  The focus, the mindset that we had coming out the beginning of the year we were just rushing everything.”

That’s when the upperclassmen, specifically the team’s five seniors, started to step up and speak out.

“It has been a lot of accountability, trying to hold each other accountable for different things,” Ezeli said. “Just trying to stay consistent every day and coming in and bringing it every day.

"We preach about it in practice.”

The message hit home with the younger players.

“You can relate to it more because the coaches they’ve been doing it for a while, and they have pretty much different players and different people coming through and they have to change some things,” Parker said. “But the players always stay the same. They’ve been here for a couple years, and they know what they’re going through and they know what coach is going through. So you’re pretty much in tune with what coach is saying sometimes, but what the players are saying, you take it to heart.”