Jermaine Beal still can hear the voice of former Kentucky coach Billy Gillespie.
In one matchup against Gillespie’s Wildcats, every time Beal touched the ball the coach hollered, “Driver!” It was a clear indication that UK did not respect or fear the possibility of a jumpshot at those moments.
Beal transformed his game over the years and became one of the Commodores’ most feared perimeter scorers. But one thing has remained constant — victories.
When Beal takes to the floor at Memorial Gymnasium on Saturday against South Carolina [1 p.m., ESPN2] for the final regular season game of his college career, he will do so as the winningest Vanderbilt player in history. He has been a part of 90 victories and two NCAA tournament teams, with a third invitation pending at the conclusion of next weekend’s SEC tournament.
“It feels like I have a lot more to do, but this (game) is sort of icing on the cake, I guess you could say, for my succes here and the whole program — how it was when I wasn’t here and what’s happened since I got here,” Beal said. “I wanted to have a stamp on the program, and I feel like I did that.”
With what coach Kevin Stallings described as a “legendary” offseason training regimen Beal has improved his offense every season — from 3.8 points per game as a freshman to his current team-leading average of 14.5. His 63 three-point shots this season not only are a team-high, they also are a long way from the 10 he made in his first season.
“I would say he’s exceeded my expectations,” Stallings said. “He’s exceeded them from a work ethic standpoint, although I knew he was a hard worker when we got him. He’s exceeded them from just what a wonderful young man he’s been and certainly exceeded them this year on the court.”
While his role has changed over the years, Beal rarely has been a role player.
He has started all but two games over the last three seasons. As a sophomore he was third in the nation in assist-to-turnover ratio as he facilitated the offensive brilliance of Shan Foster, the SEC Player of the Year. This season, he has scored enough to become the 40th VU player to reach 1,000 career points, but he also has continued to distribute the ball well enough that he became just the sixth with at least 400 career assists.
“I can’t say, ‘I wish,’ or ‘I shoulda, coulda,’” Beal said. “At the end of the day, I’m happy how everything turned out.”
Beal estimates he will have approximately 20 family members in town for the game, which will make it a little something different for him. His hope, though, is that the outcome will be just like so many of the others.
“It’s my final home game, so I’m just going to go out and have fun and smile and have a good time,” he said. “I’m going to enjoy the 40 minutes when I can.”
• From the conference standpoint, there is nothing at stake for the Commodores on Saturday. They have guaranteed themselves second place in the Eastern Division and — consequently — a first-round bye in next week’s SEC tournament at the Bridgestone Arena.
Vanderbilt will play the last game (8:45 p.m.) on March 12.
“Obviously our players have earned that and deserve that,” Stallings said. “Hopefully we can take advantage of it. We have a lot of confidence right now, I think, in our ability to play and play anyplace and succeed in any environment.”
South Carolina can finish either fifth or sixth.