Improving health deepens bench, lifts VU's postseason hopes

Monday, February 28, 2011 at 7:48pm

Andre Walker is still limping around on a sprained right ankle and Lance Goulbourne’s left one is only 90 percent healed.

Even so, the Vanderbilt men’s basketball team’s bench is as deep as it has been all season, which is good news for the Commodores, especially with postseason play around the corner.

Vanderbilt, ranked 21st, plays at No. 20 Kentucky on Tuesday (8 p.m., ESPN) and then hosts No. 14 Florida on Saturday to wrap up the regular season. The Commodores (21-7, 9-5 Southeastern Conference) then will travel to Atlanta for the SEC Tournament next week.

At that point, they hope their nine-player rotation is at 100 percent — which would be the first time since early December.

“It will be great for us and it is good timing,” Vanderbilt forward Jeffery Taylor said.

Of the nine players who regularly log minutes, just three — Walker, Goulbourne and John Jenkins — have missed games this season. Thus, the team has been able to count on at least eight every game.

Still, on several occasions, Vanderbilt has had guys play through the pain.

Along with Walker and Goulbourne, guard Brad Tinsley and forward Steve Tchiengang have battled sprained ankles, center Festus Ezeli has had tendonitis in his knee and Taylor has been playing with a bruised wrist.

The injuries have been a factor in practice and games, but Vanderbilt says the constant carousel can’t impact team chemistry.

“Everybody knows their roles on the team,” Taylor said. “It is just about doing what you have been coached to do.”

The Commodores have actually played the last three games with at least nine guys, as Walker was reinserted in the lineup against Auburn on Feb. 19. He had missed the previous 13 because of a high ankle sprain he suffered in practice in late December. He also missed four prior to that due to mononucleosis.

The 6-foot-7 forward started eight games before the ankle injury but has come off the bench since returning. He played 11 minutes against Auburn. He looked better the next game out against Tennessee, logging 20 minutes, grabbing four rebounds and dishing out three assists but also committing three fouls. He wasn’t much of a factor at all on Saturday against LSU, playing just three minutes.

Before practice on Monday, Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings hinted that Walker’s return is still a work in progress.

“He just hasn’t had much practice time,” Stallings said. “I just feel like the other guys are more ready to play.”

Goulbourne, on the other hand, took a step in the right direction on Saturday as he scored 16 points and grabbed 17 rebounds, which is a career-high and the most in Stallings’ 12 years at Vanderbilt.

“A lot of the coaches had been getting on me because it had been eight games since I really played well,” Goulbourne said. “My ankle was hurting for a good portion of that but it is time to forget about it, get it right, overcome it. I wanted to prove to myself and my team that I am still capable of doing the things I was doing before.”

 The 6-foot-8 forward leads the team with 7.1 rebounds a game but had been relatively quiet since spraining his ankle on Jan. 29 against Arkansas. In the three previous games before the injury, he recorded a total of 38 points and 38 rebounds. In the next eight games, he had just 14 points and 28 rebounds.

“It makes the entire difference for our team,” Stallings said of Goulbourne’s play. “If Lance and Jeff [Taylor] are productive, we tend to be very good.”

If they can stay consistent — and healthy — the Commodores could be very good down the stretch, with all their weapons at the ready.

“It is giving us a lot more confidence that we have a more options,” Goulbourne said. “It will give us a deeper bench obviously. Instead of two, three guys coming off the bench, now we have four. It is definitely a boost to our confidence and it helps us out in the long run.”

Briefly

• Kentucky has won 32 straight home games at Rupp Arena in two seasons with John Calipari as head coach. The Wildcats (20-8, 8-6) are 7-0 at home this season in conference games, while they are just 1-6 on the road in league contests.

Vanderbilt is 19-79 in Lexington, and just 2-9 at Rupp under Stallings.

“If you are not a real confident player, it can be unnerving,” Stallings said. “It is a tough place to play. Any team that has ever gone in there has been unnerved. ... We got beat in there by 62 points one night [by a score of 106-44 in 2003].”

• If Vanderbilt wins on Tuesday, it will clinch the No. 2 seed in the SEC East and assure itself a first-round bye in the conference tournament.

The top two teams in each division receive byes, but if the Commodores lose they would have six league defeats, tied with Kentucky and Georgia. Plus, they would be in a crowded four-team fight — Tennessee is 7-7 in SEC play and owns the tiebreaker as it swept the series against Vanderbilt — for second place and that valuable bye.

“It is a huge deal,” Taylor said. “It gives you an extra day to prepare, obviously an extra day of rest as well. I don’t know; second place just feels better than third place.”

1 Comment on this post:

By: richgoose on 3/1/11 at 8:41

Of course every little bit helps I suppose.