Remember the concerns late in non-conference play that Vanderbilt was destined to be one of the country's biggest busts? Don't look now but Kevin Stallings' Commodores won their eighth straight game on Thursday night, beating Alabama 69-59 in Tuscaloosa to remain tied atop the SEC with Kentucky (4-0). Alabama shot 26.5% from the field in the first half and trailed 26-19 at the half, and a 17-4 run over a five-minute stretch pushed the Vanderbilt lead out to 23 points at 58-35 with 8:12 remaining.
John Jenkins scored 20 points and grabbed eight rebounds to lead the way for Vanderbilt, which is looking like the SEC title contender that many expected to see at the beginning of the season, and Jeffery Taylor added 17 and six boards. One reason for the turnaround was the return of center Festus Ezeli, who accounted for 12 points and ten rebounds as he outplayed Alabama's JaMychal Green (six points, eight rebounds in 31 minutes of action). Ezeli's presence, despite the fact that he's not a great shot-blocker by any stretch of the imagination, gives the other Vandy defenders a safety blanket that wasn't there when he was out of the lineup.
"Our guys are very physical in there. It's nice to have big strong bodies to throw out there," said Stallings of his frontcourt's play against Green. "I thought our front court play offensively, actually more so defensively, was the key of the game for us. Our bigs really stepped up and played well."
Vanderbilt's big men played well against the high-flying Tony Mitchell as well, as he missed all eight of his field goal attempts and failed to score a single point. Trevor Releford scored 14 points to lead Alabama but without their big men being able to get going offensively and a 48-35 deficit on the glass, it was going to be tough for Anthony Grant's team to grab the victory.
If there is a concern for Vandy to come out of the win it would have to be the turnovers, as they had difficulty dealing with the Alabama pressure late in the second half (17 turnovers for the game). Get that cleaned up and the Commodores can definitely make good on the promise many believed them to have before the season began.
"Well in the middle 30 minutes of the game it was very effective," remarked Stallings about his team's ball-handling. "The first five and last five it was not very effective at all. That's ok though. That's the second time we've had a game close like that. When you have it that far out of reach, I guess that's a good thing."
Other Notable Happenings
1. A starting lineup change lights two fires as Duke beats Wake Forest.
Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski made the decision before the Blue Devils' game against Wake Forest to replace freshman guard Austin Rivers in the starting lineup with junior sharpshooter Andre Dawkins. And whatever the reasoning was for the move, be it for motivation or the fact that Rivers wasn't playing his best, the move worked out best for the Blue Devils in their 91-73 victory. Dawkins came out of the gates hot and finished with a team-high 21 points (7-12 3PT) while Rivers added 20 points in his most efficient offensive performance in ACC play.
Add in another 20 from Ryan Kelly and Duke simply had too much for the young Demon Deacons, but it's just as important to figure out what this means for Duke as they look to win an ACC title and a national title as well. Rivers is a phenomenal talent, but if he's not making things happen while being efficient the other weapons can suffer. Florida State will provide a stiffer test on Saturday, so it will be interesting to see if Duke can build on this against an outstanding defense.
2. North Carolina gets back on track but Strickland goes down with a knee injury.
After getting their heads handed to them in Tallahassee on Saturday, North Carolina needed to bounce back with a win at Virginia Tech but with the game being in Blacksburg that was going to be a tough task. It certainly worked out that way in the first half, as the Hokies were hot from the perimeter and took a 39-34 lead into the half. What really needed to be seen was not an emphatic UNC victory but rather the Tar Heels showing the ability to respond to getting popped in the mouth, and Roy Williams' team did just that in their 82-68 win. Harrison Barnes scored a game-high 27 points, scoring nine of those points during an 18-0 second half run that essentially put the game away.
Forwards John Henson (16 points, 16 rebounds) and Tyler Zeller (14 points, 11 rebounds) both posted double-doubles for North Carolina as well. But the victory wasn't without concern as shooting guard Dexter Strickland went down with a knee injury in the second half (still no report on the severity of the injury). If Carolina were to lose Strickland for an extended period of time they would be without their best perimeter defender, and it's difficult to point out who would be best capable of assuming that responsibility. Hopefully it isn't a serious injury, because this would be a big loss for North Carolina if it were..
3. Penn State knocks off Illinois in Happy Valley.
Said it before and will say it again: a lot can be learned about teams in watching how they deal with prosperity, just as a lot can be learned in watching how teams deal with adversity. That was the case for Illinois on the heels of their win over Ohio State nine days prior to their game at Penn State, and apparently that was too much time in between games for Bruce Weber's team as they fell 54-52. Tim Frazier's floater with 8.3 seconds remaining proved to be the difference but the Fighting Illini didn't help themselves by turning the ball over 14 times or shooting 34.4% from the field either.
Brandon Paul, who lit up the Buckeyes for 43 points, hit the game-tying three with 39.3 seconds to go and finished with 20 points while Meyers Leonard added 15. But the other three starters, most notably D.J. Richardson (2-for-11, six points), accounted for just ten points combined and the Illini spent way too much time on the perimeter. Twenty-two of their 49 field goal attempts were three-pointers, and Illinois scored 40.4% of their points from deep compared to 38.5% from two. Illinois is at their best when they can get things going inside of the arc, with either Leonard or Paul, Richardson and Joseph Bertrand being able to get opportunities at the rim or in the mid-range game. Penn State deserves some credit for this, but Illinois needs to be more assertive in getting the best looks for themselves if they're to remain a contender in the Big Ten.
1. While they still have seven conference games left to play, it may be time to pencil in Davidson as the Southern Conference's regular season champ. Bob McKillop's Wildcats were too much for Charleston, out-rebounding the Cougars 44-31 in the 87-69 win. Jake Cohen (29 points, 14 rebounds) led the way and De'Mon Brooks scored 15 points in 17 foul-plagued minutes. No other team in the SoCon has fewer than three league losses.
2. A big development in the Pac-12 was the play of California walk-on Robert Thurman in the Golden Bears' 69-66 win at Washington. Thurman scored 16 points and grabbed seven rebounds in 21 minutes off the bench and Allen Crabbe accounted for 16 and ten rebounds. If Thurman can be a solid contributor with Richard Solomon finished for the year, Mike Montgomery's team could have enough inside to still win the conference.
3. In a matchup of 5-1 teams it was Wagner who came out on top, beating St. Francis (NY) 73-61 in Brooklyn to remain a game behind LIU Brooklyn in the NEC. Tyler Murray scored 19 points while Kenneth Ortiz and Jonathon Williams scored 11 apiece for the Seahawks, who at 15-3 are off to their best start in school history. That sets up a huge meeting with the first-place Blackbirds on Saturday afternoon.
4. Charleston Southern landed an important blow in the Big South race as they beat first-place UNC Asheville 93-88 in Asheville. Arion Harper led the Buccaneers with a career-high 28 points, Saah Nimley added 20 and Kelvin Martin was all over the box score with 17 points, 12 rebounds, four assists and three steals (seventh double-double of the year).
5. For all the talk about the inconsistent (when they weren't completely healthy) nature of Loyola Marymount, fact is they're two close home defeats to Gonzaga and BYU away from being in first place in the WCC. Anthony Ireland scored 27 points in addition to five assists and five steals for the Lions, who avenged that seven-point loss to BYU with an 82-68 win in Provo.
6. One team in the Horizon League that isn't receiving much press as a contender for the league crown is Valparaiso. Bryce Drew's Crusaders moved to 6-2 in league play with a 68-49 win at Loyola (IL) on Thursday night, limiting the Ramblers to 22 first-half points. Jay Harris led the way with 18 points and five assists off the bench and three starters reached double figures. One thing that needs improvement: free throw shooting, as the Crusaders shot 3-for-8 from the charity stripe.
7. North Carolina wasn't the only team to wake up on Friday hoping for good news on the injury front. NC State was without forward C.J. Williams the final nine minutes of their 76-62 win over Boston College due to a shoulder injury, and if he's out for an extended period of time Mark Gottfried will have some shuffling to do with his rotation. That would be a tough blow for a team that's improved a great deal since last season.
Three Notable Performances
1. F Jake Cohen (Davidson)
29 points and 14 rebounds in the Wildcats' 87-69 win over College of Charleston.
2. G Faisal Aden (Washington State)
33 points and five rebounds in the Cougars' 81-69 win over Stanford.
3. G Charlie Westbrook (South Dakota)
32 points, six rebounds, six assists, four steals and two blocks in the Coyotes' 88-78 win over IUPUI.