Reminders tend to be helpful.
They come in all forms, too: a Post-It note, a day planner, a calendar, a nagging loved one or even an animated coach.
The Vanderbilt men’s basketball team knows the last one well – maybe too well.
At last weekend’s Puerto Rico Tip-Off, the Commodores won two out of three games capped by a victory over then-No. 8 North Carolina in the third-place game on Sunday. They slipped up though the game before when they allowed more than 70 points for the first time in the young season and lost to West Virginia 74-71.
Despite the defeat, Vanderbilt twice rallied from double-digit deficits to tie the game and shored up their defense efforts during their comebacks. A helpful reminder or two from head coach Kevin Stallings didn’t hurt things, either.
“I think sometimes we have to be told to play defense and that shouldn’t be the case,” sophomore guard John Jenkins said. “I think whenever Coach gets into it, it seems like ‘Yeah, it has got to be done.’ So now we realize it has to be done every single game so it has helped us out a lot.”
Strong defense has always been a big part of Stallings’ coaching philosophy and this year is no different.
Heading into a home game against Grambling State at 7 p.m. Wednesday, the Commodores (3-1) are holding opponents to just 58.8 points a game. They kept their first two opfoesponents – Presbyterian and Nebraska – to under 50 points and North Carolina scored just 65.
Jenkins, however, said the team at times over the weekend fell into a lull where it took motivation to spark the defensive pressure.
“When we want to defend, we can defend really well,” he said.
Stallings said as a whole the Commodores “didn’t play anywhere close to our best basketball.”
“As a matter of fact, I’m not even sure we played well down there,” he said. “We played hard, though. I really respected our team’s effort and our team’s toughness and the effort they gave in those games. In terms of playing well, I can’t say that we played well and maybe that is a good thing. Maybe to go down and have some success and not play your best is OK.”
The Commodores will try to shore up a few areas this week when they host Grambling and then Appalachian State (1 p.m. Saturday). Grambling State is 0-4, with blowout losses to Baylor and Rice. Appalachian State, however, might not be a sure win.
The Mountaineers (2-1) almost knocked off Mississippi State last week, leading the Bulldogs by nine with two minutes left. Mississippi State recovered and won 76-74.
But Appalachian State did enough to get Stallings’ attention.
“I have been in this league for 11 years and I can never say I had (Mississippi State) down by nine probably ever (in Starkville), let alone with two minutes to play,” Stallings said. “Even though they don’t have the names of North Carolina and West Virginia, we have very formidable opponents coming up and very good teams. We know that and we’ll be ready for that.”
He’ll be sure to remind his team, too.
• Four games into the season Jenkins doesn’t think he is playing his best basketball. The Station Camp product is leading the team in scoring with 18.8 points a game and is 27-of-30 from the free-throw line.
His outside shot, however, hasn’t been as automatic as it was last year when he made 48.3 percent from 3-point range. He is just 8-for-29 beyond the arc this year and has made just 35.7 percent ((20-of-56) of his field goals.
He scored a career-high 27 points against West Virginia despite 6-of-19 shooting, making just 5-of-11 3-pointers. “The shooting was a little bit off,” Jenkins said. “But if I can get 27 points on a bad shooting night then there is no telling what I can do on a good shooting night. It is really not about that, it is about winning games.”
• While Jenkins has been colder than usual from 3-point range, forward Jeffery Taylor has turned up the heat from the outside.
The junior said before the season that he planned on taking – and making – more 3-pointers and he hasn’t disappointed. He is 7-of-12 from 3-point range, already having attempted more 3-pointers than he did all of last season. As a sophomore, he was just 1-of-11 from beyond the 3-point line.
“We are all encouraged by that,” Stallings said. “That just makes it very difficult to guard him because you obviously need to get to him when he is on the 3-point line and he is probably as good as anybody in the league in taking the ball to the basket.”