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March 16, 2013

Stallings surprises with win No. 400

NASHVILLE -- For the fourth straight year, Vanderbilt has played its way into the weekend pool of the Southeastern Conference Tournament. That one fact is remarkable under any circumstances, but much moreso when one considers how long a road this Commodore team had to walk to get here.

It wasn't long ago that Vanderbilt looked like it might battle to the bottom of the conference. The first month of the season, with new faces everywhere, the Commodores were...well...pick your own adjective.




They'd all fit, and then some. A Vanderbilt team that last year led the SEC in scoring and shooting percentage was dead last in both categories. They started the season 1-4, that included a 50-33 loss to Marist. For the record, Marist is now 10-21, and 6-13 in the MEAC.

After that loss, VU's RPI was in the mid-200's. Now, it's climbed to 107, the highest of their season.

Everyone knew this would be a season of growing pains for a program that lost its top six players, three to the NBA. But it appeared this might be a year in which Stallings may meet his coaching match.

Instead, it has become the season that has proven what most everyone already knew. Kevin Stallings may come from, and live in, the Old School, but the guy can coach basketball. I dare say, if any other SEC coach had his roster this year, they'd have shut down this season months ago. Stallings has found the exact right mix of players and plays to make this team -- arguably -- the toughest out of his entire head coaching career.

With their 64-48 domination of Kentucky last night, a game in which VU once led by 20 and basically were never really threatened, it is now clear that Vanderbilt has slowly but surely evolved into a very good basketball team.

Credit to CKS

UK came to Nashville as a likely just-under-the-bubble NCAA Tournament invitee, with at least 10,000 blue-clad fans in tow. The few times in which Kentucky looked like they were ready to make a run, the crowd rose into a deafening Wildcat roar. But John Calipari and his Cat pack -- which included Alex Poythress, who spurned Stallings' scholarship offer to sign with Kentucky last fall -- left Bridgestone Arena with their tail between their legs, quite likely now out of the Field of 68.

There's no doubt UK had far more "talent." But VU clearly had infinitely more heart.

That started on the bench. Stallings is always among the most vocal and boisterous coaches in college basketball. His thunderous tirades, with foot stomps, whistles, and more-than-the-occasional F-bombs are a side show worth buying a ticket to observe. He is often as hard on his players as he is on the officials -- and that's saying something.

Last night, though, Stallings was a different Stallings. Yes he was still screaming and yelling, but he was cheering his team on as I've rarely seen him. It was almost as if he wanted to put on a uniform and go out there and claw the Cats with them. At time-outs he'd often run out on the court and high-five his players with the passion of a young coach on the verge of his first big win.

Most notably, Stallings was also watching Kentucky's bench. Whenever John Calipari would call a play, Stallings would quickly relay the play -- using Calipari's hand signals -- to his own players. And immediately, Vanderbilt would switch into a defensive alignment obviously drawn up just for that exact set.

At one point, Calipari called a play, making a "V" with his hands. Stallings immediately made the same "V" hand signal. Calipari looked down the sidelines at him with an exasperated look that said it all: You're ready, and we're not.

"They played great today," remarked Calipari after the game, "and to be honest with you, they played great the last year. They did. My hat is off to Kev. He's done a great. They've got a young team, too. I
can't say we're young. They're just as young as we are. They shot the ball and played well and did their thing.

"'ll tell you: I don't want to take anything away from Vandy. They played great."

"I think the most satisfying thing you can have as a coach is to get your team to play as close to their potential as they possibly possess, "said Stallings, "and I felt like tonight we came very close to playing to our very fullest potential. I don't care if it's a veteran team, an experienced team, an extremely talented team or a young team or what, your job as the coach is to try to make them as good as they can be and help them become as good as they can be. And tonight we got really close to that, I thought, and I couldn't be any more proud of this group, and this was a terrific night and, like I said, they deserve every ounce of the credit."

Vanderbilt, which had to fight its way out of playing in the tournament's first day, is now within striking distance of the school's first ever back-to-back SEC Tournament titles. And (though I realize the jinx may be on), if that happens, VU would be playing next week in the NCAA Tournament, with an 18-16 record.

"I think every season we begin by saying we would like to be playing our best basketball at the end of the year, and I think it's safe to say this team is doing that right now," said Stallings in last night's post-game press conference. "And I couldn't be any more proud of our players, because we were not a very good team two, three months ago, and that team that I watched play tonight looked like a pretty doggone good team to me.

"There was a point this season where we really weren't very good, and now to watch that tonight, to watch us on the defensive end, and then to watch the execution offensively and the confidence the guys have to jump up and make shots and to make plays for each other, it's very gratifying."

Nowadays, thirteen years is a long time to work at any company. It's a veritable lifetime in the head coaching world. During Stallings' stay in Nashville, Tennessee and Kentucky have had three head basketball coaches.

Last night's win was the 400th of Stallings' coaching career. While many of those wins were notched by teams with far more talent than the one that got him to 400, it's clear this was one that will remain special in his heart for a very long time. For proof, take a view of this post-game locker room video, made by VU's athletics department.

"It's been along time since I've been as proud of a team as I am this team here. I'm very, very proud of this team. I'm very proud of this season, and we're 16-16. It's the first time we've been 500 in about five months and -- but, you know what? I wish it was better than that, but very proud of them."

The "Ke" to victory

Stallings has a group of players that don't wow you with athleticism. There's probably not one sure-thing future NBA player on the roster right now. In an SEC-wide pick-up game, most of VU's starters would not get picked early. Maybe at all. That was painfully obvious early this season, when Stallings' players were still trying to remember the combination to their locker.

The "Ke" to victoryBut there is one exception: Kedren Johnson.

Johnson, perhaps the only truly elite recruit on the roster right now, could have gone almost anywhere out of Lewisburg High School. He turned down Florida, Tennessee and dozens of other high major suitors to suit up for the Black and Gold. Johnson saw considerable playing time last year as a true freshman, so Stallings knew he was capable of leading this team to whatever success it could have.

Johnson is a unique player. He's very big for a point guard, and he knows how to use his large frame to push his way into and out of almost any situation. As this season has gone forward, Johnson has figured out that getting fouled is better than getting an unconested basket, and he's now using his body to drive on anyone who guards him. He's a bully with a basketball in his hand, and he can sink driving layups that you'd swear have no chance to go in.

But Johnson is no ball hog. He's also leading the team in assists by kicking the ball out to shooters on the wing. Guys like Kevin Bright and Rod Odom, who were wandering in the basketball netherlands earlier this year, are now among the sharpest 3-point shooters in the league.

But it's Johnson's leadership that has made this team a candidate for the absolute unthinkable just a few weeks ago: A win today over Ole Miss, and another over the winner of the Florida-Alabama game tonight, and Vanderbilt will earn the SEC's automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament.

"Kedren really likes to win," continued Stallings. "He has as unselfish a spirit when it comes to playing and winning as just about anybody I've ever seen, because if I get mad and take him out and sit him over there for an extended period of time, he has the exact same personality when I put him in as if I play him for 35 minutes. And our
team sees that and they feed off of that."

It may be that Stallings' best player is also the only one who not only won't be bullied on the court, he also isn't intimidated by Stallings' fire-breathing approach from the sidelines. At times Johnson clearly exasperates Stallings. He does some "ill-advised things" as Stallings calls them, and also is just as likely to chuckle and smile as get his feeling hurt when Stallings blisters him with a profane tirade.

But Johnson also is anything but a self-centered kid. When he's on the bench, he sits on the edge of his seat, cheering on his teammates and admonishing them to do better. He's almost like a coach and a players, and it has endeared him to both parties. When Stallings sent in the end of the bench in last night's closing seconds, Johnson grinned from ear to hear, high-fiving them as they took the court.

"He just keeps playing," continued Stallings. "So, I think our team really feeds off of him and he's an innately confident kid. He's a very confident basketball player and our team has needed his confidence all season long."

On to Ole Miss

By virtue of their come-from-behind buzzer-beating win over Missouri in yesterday's nightcap, Ole Miss advances to today's semifinal game with Vanderbilt. Ole Miss came to Nashville as a team that was likely just outside of the NCAA Tournament field, but likely played their way in last night. There are four SEC teams sitting around Joe Lunadri's "Last Four Out" or "Last Five In" (UK, UT, Alabama and Ole Miss) but Ole Miss owns two wins over the Vols and now Mizzou, and one over UK. By virtue of last night's losses by fellow bubble-ees Tennessee and Kentucky, the Rebels probably slipped ahead of them and are now a likely invitee.

The game tips off at 2:30 Central down at Bridgestone Arena.

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