VU: Nothing to lose

Thursday, March 8, 2001 at 1:00am

The Vanderbilt Commodores have rolled a seven going into the Southeastern Conference basketball tournament, but that number has been anything but lucky for them.

Heading into tonight's first round SEC tournament game against Alabama (20-9) at 6:30 at Gaylord Entertainment Center, the Commodores (15-14) have a string of seven straight losses. They have had their fill of playing teams close with nothing to show for it in the win column.

One of the few bright spots for the Commodores in the last few weeks was a 68-62 defeat of the Crimson Tide in Memorial Gym, their last SEC victory Jan. 31.

"We made some outside shots which was a real benefit," Stallings said of the Alabama game. "At the start of the second half we made three or four 3s. Our zone defense was good late in the game. I think those were the two things that we probably benefited from. I thought for the most part we played well defensively in that particular game."

Despite the series of losses Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings is seeing some improvements in his team, especially in the last three regular season games.

"Other than the last 10 minutes of the Auburn game I think we have taken real good care of the basketball," Stallings said. "We haven't had a large number of turnovers. We have played a little better defensively in the last couple of games.

"Our progress has at times come quickly and at other times it has come slowly. You don't feel like you are making much progress when the result is not a victory. It has been so long since we have won. Whether we are making true progress or not is camouflaged by the fact we have lost."

Stallings thinks the young players are finally understanding the fine points of the offense.

"I think our team, particularly some of the younger guys, have a better grasp of what we are trying to do offensively," Stallings said. "When you talk about a cut here or a screen there or a pass here or a post feed there, what they should see and what they do see for a long time as freshmen are different things. Now they are starting to see things they should see ... when guys are going to be open, where they are going to be open, how they are going to get open and what we can do to help certain guys get open."

The Commodores blew a 12-point lead at Auburn and lost 69-66 to finish the regular season. Senior forward Anthony Williams thinks the team has recovered from that blow.

"We have worked hard in practice," Williams said. "I think psychologically we have done what we can to come out of that. We're trying not to think about what happened at Auburn and thinking about what is happening in Nashville."

Freshman Matt Freije, the best of the five newcomers to the Commodores this season, thinks the team is feeling little pressure because there are no expectations for success from fans or the media.

"No. 1, we're playing to win," Freije said. "No. 2, we want to play in the NIT tournament and we aren't an automatic for that. We probably need to win a couple of games here.

"We've got nothing to lose. No one expects us to do anything. We don't have any pressure on us."

The Commodores will have the services of senior center Greg LaPointe who has struggled the past two seasons with back problems. Alabama forward Erwin Dudley admits the Commodores are a different and better team with LaPointe playing.

"He adds a more inside approach to their game," Dudley said.

Some coaches have suggested that the fact the tournament is in Vanderbilt's backyard may favor them as a potential spoiler. Stallings doesn't put much stock in that theory.

"It wasn't an advantage to us being in Memorial Gym during the month of February," Stallings said. "I don't know how it is going to be an advantage to us coming Downtown. I don't think a team is going to win or lose a tournament based on the fact it is in their town. It would be a much more distinctive advantage if we were playing it in Memorial Gym and the tickets were held by our season ticket holders."

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