Just a few days after Brad Tinsley recorded the first triple-double in Vanderbilt history, head coach Kevin Stallings was quick to point out his point guard had many doubters.
“Everybody had big questions about us going into the season; about, well can Brad Tinsley handle the point?” Stallings said then. “My comment about that all along has been not only can he handle it but I think that will be a strength for us. So far it has proven to be a strength.”
Still, it was early. Tinsley achieved the feat in Vanderbilt’s season opener back in November against Presbyterian College, a school that won just five games last year and had moved up to Division I only mere seasons ago. So, at that point, it might have been hard to gauge how Tinsley would perform when he jumped into Southeastern Conference play.
Nearly four months later, his play continues to back up his coach’s high praise. Heading into No. 21 Vanderbilt’s regular-season and home finale Saturday against No. 14 Florida (5 p.m., ESPN), the junior leads the SEC with 131 assists, a 4.5 per game average. His 2.2 assist-to-turnover ratio is the second best mark in the league.
In the last five games, he dished out 23 assists and committed just three turnovers. He capped off that stretch with a nine assist, zero turnover performance Tuesday at Kentucky in front of 24,275 at Rupp Arena.
“He was really good. To go up there, in that environment, have nine assists and no turnovers, I don’t care who you are. That is a great effort,” Stallings said before practice Thursday. “Brad has really been playing well for us. Hopefully that will continue. But he has really been locked in and doing the things he needs to do to help us win.”
Tinsley left Oregon City, Ore., ranked as the fourth-highest scorer in Oregon prep basketball history. Point guard was his natural position but he spent his first two years at Vanderbilt mainly as a shooting guard, with Jermaine Beal at point. When Beal graduated last year, there was skepticism about how Tinsley would adjust to running the offense.
“I wouldn’t say I had something to prove. I knew I had big shoes to fill,” Tinsley said. “It is just a different feeling within the game just because you have the ball in your hands more. It is just a different mentality than playing the two-guard spot. ... I guess I have surprised myself a little bit because I just wasn’t sure how the transition would be. From high school to college is such a big jump, especially being a point guard on a high-level team in a high-level conference.”
The 6-foot-3, 210-pounder has eased into the role, learning from mistakes along the way. Early in the season, he committed a season-high five turnovers in consecutive games. He turned the ball over four times in an 85-82 overtime loss at Missouri on Dec. 8. His biggest mistake came late, when he threw an ill-advised pass that was intercepted by the Tigers’ Marcus Denmon, who raced in for an easy layup and the go-ahead score with five seconds left in overtime.
Since then he hasn’t committed more than three turnovers in any contest, and just three weeks after that loss, he stepped up in a big way against another elite opponent. He had eight assists and only one turnover against Marquette. Plus his pass to Andre Walker set up the game-winning layup with 4.1 seconds remaining.
“It is short-term memory,” Tinsley said of the turnovers. “It is kind of like a shooter. If you miss a shot, you just got to keep shooting.”
Tinsley has done that, too. Opposing teams might view him as Vanderbilt’s fourth scoring option behind John Jenkins, Jeffery Taylor and Festus Ezeli, but he has shown the ability to hit big baskets — from the outside and on the drive.
He dropped a season-high 18 points against St. Mary’s on Jan. 19 and is averaging 10.8 points, while shooting 45.2 percent from the field. In addition, he has been clutch at the free-throw line in big games and his percentage (82.5) ranks sixth in the conference.
“There might be some doubt because he is not the typical point guard in the SEC,” Jenkins said. “He may not be the fastest and the quickest but he gets the job done. There are a lot of things people might doubt about him, but no one on our team doubts him at all.”
• Vanderbilt will honor its two seniors — Joe Duffy and Chris Meriwether — after Saturday’s game. Both came to the school as walk-ons who have played sparingly throughout their careers. Duffy, a 6-foot-8, 240-pound forward from Charlotte, N.C., has actually been on scholarship the last three seasons. He has averaged 4.3 minutes in 51 games, scoring a career-best 25 points this season.
Meriwether is a product of Father Ryan and has averaged two minutes in 24 career games during three years on the team. He stayed on the team this year after his mother, Curline, died suddenly of a heart attack on Jan. 24.
“Senior day is always emotional and I’m sure this one will be no different,” Stallings said. “Chris and Joe are two wonderful guys and have meant a lot to our program. They have really done what they could do to make this program better and make our teams better. That is all you can ask. They have played their roles as well as anybody in the program.”
• Florida (23-6, 12-3) enters its last regular-season game with the best record in the conference and has already locked up the East division crown. The Gators can win the overall conference title with a win on Saturday or an Alabama loss.
Depending on Saturday’s outcome — along with other league games — Vanderbilt (21-8, 9-6) could end up anywhere from a SEC East No. 2 seed to a No. 5 seed for next week’s conference tournament in Atlanta. If Vanderbilt beats Florida, it can do worse than a No. 3 seed. If the Commodores lose, however, they could fall back all the way to the fifth seed if Tennessee defeats Kentucky and Georgia beats Alabama.
The top two teams in each division receive a first-round bye and will not play until Friday.