Right from the start, scoring was an apparent weakness for Vanderbilt.
So the Commodores have focused on forging defense into their greatest strength.
While they have struggled to put points on the board, they have managed to limit their opponents' ability to do the same. They've also managed to get better at both, which has kept an inconsistent season from getting out of control.
“It might have been born out of necessity,” coach Kevin Stallings said. “We had to become a good defensive team because we couldn’t score enough points, especially early on, to win games.”
Statistically, Vanderbilt is on the verge of its best defensive season in more than 60 years.
With just four regular-season games left, the Commodores are allowing only 59.7 points a game, which is the third-best mark in the Southeastern Conference. If that holds up it would be the fewest points allowed by a Vanderbilt team since the 1949-50 squad gave up 48.6 points a game. Furthermore, opponents have shot just 40.9 percent from the field, the lowest clip since 1964-65.
“We’ve done some good really things and we seem to have gotten better as the season has gone along,” Stallings said. “Our numbers early in the season defensively were atrocious. We’ve had to battle way back to get them to where they’re at right now. From where we started to where we’re at, we feel good about it.”
Scoring-challenged Vanderbilt (11-15, 5-9) has only lost three games by more than 20 points. Six of the nine conference losses have been by fewer than 10 points.
Stallings noted the obvious, though, pointing out how scoring is down across the country this season.
Saturday’s game against Mississippi State was a perfect example. Vanderbilt whipped the Bulldogs 72-31 – the fewest points scored by opponent since 1949. Yet, these were the same Commodores who mustered just 33 points twice earlier in the season.
Heading into a home game against Georgia on Wednesday (8 p.m., Fox Sports Network), the Commodores have scored 70 points or more in back-to-back games for the first time. Even so, they average 60 points, the third-lowest mark in the SEC. They’re in jeopardy of becoming the first Vanderbilt team to average less than 60 points in a season since that 1949-50 team scored 58.6 points a game.
“You can’t win the game with just offense or just defense,” sophomore guard Dai-Jon Parker said. “We’re trying to just put them together. But I can surely say defense has been our cup of tea this year.”
The Commodores don’t wreak havoc with deflections, turnovers or blocks. They rank in the bottom three in the conference in forced turnovers, steals and blocked shots. But, playing an overwhelming majority of man-to-man defense, they’ve been able to clamp down.
Stallings says the collective effort begins with three solid defenders – guards Kevin Bright and Parker and forward Rod Odom. With the tone set by that trio, Stallings says the rest of the team is buying into the team defense concept.
And the hope, on most nights, is that it will be enough to bail the offense out.
“We go and fall with our defense,” Bright said. “If you got a good offensive game it is OK if your defense is not as strong. With our team, we need our defense to be top notch.”