There are no more regular season games. Vanderbilt hopes the same is true of he guessing games.
Coach Kevin Stallings believes some of the mystery has disappeared from his young team. Winning six of the last nine games supports his thinking.
Yet, headed into this week’s Southeastern Conference Tournament at Bridgestone Arena, the Commodores have yet to prove to their coach they’ve sustained any offensive stability.
“I have an idea of what team is going to show up,” Stallings said. “I just never know from one night to the next particularly how we’re going to function offensively. I think that I have a good idea that we’re going to play hard. We’re going to try to guard. We’re going to play unselfishly. We’re going to do a lot of the things we coach and we ask.
“But we’re pretty dependent on making shots. We need to make shots in order to have success. And you just don’t know from one night to the next how you’re going to shoot it.”
Vanderbilt’s SEC Tournament title defense hinges on offense, which is a lot to ask from the league’s worst offense (60 points a game). The Commodores, the 10th seed, open up against No. 7 seed Arkansas on Thursday (6:30 p.m., SEC Network).
The teams split the regular-season series and the games couldn’t have been more different. At Arkansas on Jan. 12, Vanderbilt tied a season-low with 33 points and shot just 25 percent. When the Razorbacks came to Memorial Gymnasium on Feb. 9, the Commodores scored 67 points and made 50 percent of their shots for just the fourth time.
Also providing a boost was the ability to get to the foul line, which had been missing in the four-game losing streak leading up to the second meeting with Arkansas (19-12, 10-8). The Commodores attempted 23 free throws – and made 16 – in their victory over the Razorbacks. They hadn’t shot more than 19 in any of the previous four games.
“Making shots is important to us and we’ve been doing a little better job getting the ball to the rim and getting to the foul line,” Stallings said. “If we can continue to do that, then that probably will help the shot making.”
In the last nine games, the Commodores (14-16, 8-10) have made at least 10 3-pointers four times. This isn’t surprising. Vanderbilt ranks second in the SEC in 3-pointers made (7.7 a game) and 43.5 percent of its attempts come from behind the arc.
There also has been more of an urgency to drive inside and draw contact even if the shots are falling. The Commodores no longer are the second-worst free throw shooting team in the country – though they are still last in the SEC. They’re shooting 63.2 percent for this season. But in their last six games, they’ve shot 71.9 percent. More opportunities are also available, averaging 20 free throw attempts a game in that span. Last weekend, they fended off South Carolina at the foul line and made 23 of 28.
“I feel like we’re going to go out there and fight regardless,” guard Kyle Fuller said. “If we’re not knocking down shots we’re going to drive. If we are knocking down shots we’re going to keep shooting. We’re a really good 3-point shooting team. Now we know that if our 3s are not going in we need to drive. We need to start getting fouls and start shooting 2s.”
With the top six scorers from last year’s prolific offensive team gone, the Commodores needed to forge a new strength. Thus, Stallings said solid defense was born out of necessity. Vanderbilt allows the third-fewest points a game (60.0), behind only Florida and Alabama.
Conversely, the offense has grown over time. As a young team without any seniors has logged more minutes, the points have, gradually, piled up. Now, they just have to score enough to keep their season alive.
“The whole year we just had to come together and become more one as a team,” sophomore center Josh Henderson said. “We hadn’t really played as much together. On top of gaining experience this year we’ve also gained experience with playing with each other. That’s pretty big. You see teams that have seniors and juniors and those are the teams that are the most together. They know how to play together. I feel like throughout this year we’ve learned how to play together and that has helped us defensively and offensively.”