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December 23, 2013

Monday morning thoughts

As always, VandySports.com's Chris Lee shares his Monday morning thoughts. This week, it's about VU senior point guard Kyle Fuller and also, the fallout from a conversation with Vanderbilt athletics director David Williams from the previous week.


Fuller saving his best for last?

It seems like forever that Kyle Fuller was the 133rd-rated high school senior in Rivals.com's Class of 2010 rankings. Many have probably forgotten, but the Moreno Valley (Calif.) native had offers from prestigious programs like Marquette and UCLA before he committed to Vanderbilt in June of 2009.

Fuller averaged 14.7 minutes per game as a freshman with a respectable 55/34 assist-to-turnover ratio, but was all-but forgotten the next season when the more-heralded Kedren Johnson signed with VU before Fuller's sophomore season. Fuller played just 18 games in 2011-12, averaging just 6.9 minutes, and maybe more importantly was nowhere to be found in big games: he played just 24 total Southeastern Conference minutes in eight games.

Fuller got those minutes back last year, and then some, when most of VU's team from the previous season departed. He played in every game and averaged 26.2 minutes, but his effectiveness -- 38.7 percent shooting, 65 assists to 47 turnovers -- didn't paint the picture of a player who was improving. With the transfer of Eric McClellan from Tulsa to back Johnson up at the point, it sure looked like Fuller would be the guy who'd get squeezed out.

When Johnson got suspended for this year, that opened the door for Fuller, but it was hard to be optimistic. So far, his stats are just marginally better than last season's -- he's shooting 39.7 percent from the field vs. 38.7 last year, 76.9 from the line vs. 70.2, and 1.42 assists-to-turnovers vs. 1.36 -- but it's been interesting to note that Fuller, not McClellan, has been the guy with the ball in his hands down the stretch of the last two games. Obviously, that has a lot to do with McClellan's ineffectiveness, but give Fuller his due.

The contributions from the charity stripe have been the key. The Commodores are a horrible free-throw shooting team at 62.2 percent, but Vandy has helped minimize the damage during crunch time by making sure Fuller has the ball. Over the last three games, he's responded by knocking down 11-of-14 from the line, a lot of those coming in the final moments.

Fuller has his limitations. He's never been much of an outside shooter, and his 30 percent mark from 3 this season is a career-best. Although Fuller is good at finding openings in the defense and taking it to the hole, he often has trouble finishing. He's sometimes careless with the ball. Fuller referenced a long talk with assistant coach Tom Richardson before Saturday's game regarding the senior's weaknesses that helped him, and my guess is that those things were mentioned.

The senior responded by playing one of his career-best games on Saturday, knocking down 4-of-7 shots from the field and passing out five assists to two turnovers.

Let's suppose Vandy's caught lightning in a bottle. If so, Fuller has to be the point guard going forward while the more-talented McClellan -- who, to his credit, had three assists and one turnover on Saturday -- gets his game under control. Ideally, you'd like Fuller shooting less, and perhaps dishing more off the drive when he doesn't have a clear look at the rim.

The story of Saturday's game was a team that played within its limitations and responded with its best basketball of the season, and nobody did that better than Kyle Fuller. Here's hoping this is a sign that a likable guy who's had a rough career -- his father passed away in the summer before last season -- is ending things on a better note.

Facilities still concern fans

When Mike Rapp and I came on for our weekly Saturday morning VandySports.com Radio (sponsored by Currey Ingram Academy) broadcast, I commented to Mike that we probably wouldn't get many calls. A bowl game was still two weeks away. Even though a hoops game with Georgia Tech was coming up shortly, people haven't much wanted to talk about a struggling program. It was also the last shopping Saturday before Christmas.

Boy, was I wrong. We fielded about a half-dozen calls on Saturday and every single caller wanted to talk about the same two topics: football facilities and ticket sales. Evidently, a lot of people had listened to our hour-long interview with David Williams the week before.

On the first, VU fans are quite worried that the school won't do enough in the way of improvements, or won't do them fast enough, to keep football coach James Franklin. Several fans weren't happy that VU's going to renovate the stadium rather than tear it down and build a new one.

To the second, there's still a lot of ill will towards how VU assigned seating at the baseball Super Regional, and a concern that the priority for high-dollar donors will supersede Vandy's commitment to its longtime fans who perhaps can't afford to write big checks to the university.

VU is in a tough spot here. Vanderbilt needs big donors to make the things that the fans want happen. However, most of the fans who complain most bitterly are the ones who can't afford to pay for the these things. They're also the same people displaced from their usual seats for the people who can.

Any time these things come up, Williams inevitably gets caught in the cross-fire. That's not fundamentally unfair since he is, after all, the athletics director. It is clear, though, that there's a distrust amongst some fans that Williams will see things through.

For the most part, I think this sentiment towards Williams is mis-directed. He does bear part of the responsibility, which he'll admit, because VU sat around after the bowl season of 2008 and did little to improve the football program. But, his big-picture track record for facilities and for keeping coaches is something nobody at Vandy has come close to matching.

The problem at Vanderbilt isn't Williams, it's its athletics culture. Let me share a story that I think is applicable to VU. Once upon at a church that had been around for centuries, parishioners leaving the sanctuary each Sunday would face the back wall of the church, drop to a knee and make the sign of the cross. One day, somebody asked, "Why do we do this?" and nobody knew the answer. As it turns out, there had been a mural of Jesus painted there centuries before, but even though it had been painted over, people's habits never changed.

Vanderbilt is still kneeling before a blank wall. That's how it has always functioned, and nobody over there has time to ask, "Why?" I haven't done a comparison, but I'd bet its sports information and athletics staffs are easily the smallest in the league. Its football press box is small and ugly. The PA system in Memorial Gym has been hit-and-miss over the last few years, and the building still lacks air conditioning as many noticed on Saturday. The rotating billboard on the basketball scoreboard for WNSR advertises the station as "ESPN Radio." That's the station that broadcasts VU's games, and it hasn't been affiliated with ESPN for over a decade now.

These are just a few of the things an outsider can easily spot, and there's a lot more beneath the surface.

The nation's best athletics programs are always a step ahead. VU, on the other hand, is so far behind that it can only be reactionary -- "We'd better fix this fast or else we'll lose a coach!" -- that it doesn't even notice a lot of its own warts. If you want a textbook case study of management by crisis, there are few better examples.

Here's my point: fans need to be respectful of Williams and realize the treasure they have in many ways. They need to know that he does care about what concerns them, and they also need to know that because of VU's gigantic game of catch-up, he may not be aware of them.

Coaches Tim Corbin and James Franklin figured out quickly that the squeaky wheel gets the grease. Corbin was a master at knowing just how far to push the envelope on facilities and other concessions every time another program came calling. Franklin is equally shrewd. Next time fans come out and demand that their football coach swear a blood oath to Vanderbilt for life, it might be wise to contrast the present era of facilities with the last and recognize why that's so. Deep down, that's probably why Williams appreciates both so much. They've pushed VU a lot harder than VU has pushed itself.

In other words, be respectful, but keep the chorus of concerns coming. History proves that's been the only way that much has been resolved at Vanderbilt.


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