Tough road awaits Commodores with the start of conference play

Thursday, January 6, 2011 at 11:32pm

Brad Tinsley tossed around the word like a beanbag.

Tough.

Don’t blame Vanderbilt’s junior guard for being redundant. He simply speaks from experience.

While the Commodores faced a tough non-conference schedule, Tinsley knows that from here, with the start of Southeastern Conference play on Saturday, the road only gets ... well, tougher.

“I think it takes a definite level of toughness to win on the road, especially in a tough league like this,” Tinsley said. “You just have to stick together because you are the only ones there in the arena, rooting for yourselves. I think the level of toughness and experience level also, just knowing what to expect in different scenarios [helps]. There are a lot of tough places to play on the road here.”

Right out of the gate, No. 22 Vanderbilt will see how Colonial Life Arena stacks up with other league venues as it plays the Gamecocks at 4 p.m. on Saturday, in a game that will be televised nationally on ESPN2.

It will be just the third true road game for the Commodores (11-2). They dropped an overtime thriller to Missouri last month and cruised past Middle Tennessee State two weeks ago. Their only three other contests away from the friendly confines of Memorial Gym were on a neutral floor at a tournament in Puerto Rico in November.

Road success set the stage for a 20-plus win season last year as Vanderbilt went 7-3 on the road, with its only two conference losses coming at Kentucky and at Georgia. That was a big reason why the Commodores finished with a 12-4 league record and second in the SEC East.

It was a big improvement from the 2008-09 season when Vanderbilt went 3-7 on the road and just 8-8 in SEC play. That season it dropped its first three road contests, causing an uphill climb. A year ago, the Commodores started off on the right foot with a win at Alabama.

They realize the importance of doing the same at South Carolina (9-4).

“We just have to be prepared. We have to be really together as a team in order to overcome a lot of adversity that you do face on the road,” forward Jeffery Taylor said. “It will be a good test for us. It will be a good opener.”

The last time Vanderbilt faced South Carolina, guard Devan Downey dropped 26 points and led the Gamecocks to a 77-73 victory in both teams’ final 2009-10 regular-season game.

Downey has since moved on and is playing professional basketball in Turkey. But South Carolina appears to have found a good replacement at point guard. Freshman Bruce Ellington leads the Gamecocks with 14.2 points per game and 3.9 assists a game and scored a career-high 31 points in a loss at Furman. The 5-foot-9 guard also already has been named an early candidate for the Bob Cousy Award, which recognizes the nation’s top point guard.

“[South Carolina coach] Darrin [Horn] was singing his praises at media day and I can certainly see why,” Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings said. “He is an outstanding player. Unbelievably fast and quick and can shoot the ball. He makes floaters and off-balance shots in the lane. He is really good right now and going to be a terrific player in our league. It is hard to believe they can come up with somebody so close to Devan Downey one year after Devan Downey graduates.”

In addition to Ellington, five other Gamecocks average at least 8.6 points a game. Plus, South Carolina is 8-1 at home this year. Its only home loss was to Boston College last week, and the Gamecocks’ three other defeats were to Furman, No. 2 Ohio State and No. 18 Michigan State.

So while South Carolina was picked by the media to finish fifth in the SEC East, the Commodores realize beating the Gamecocks will be — you guessed it — tough.

“Every single one of the teams in this league is capable of beating anybody,” Tinsley said. “That is what is so great about the league — home or away, anybody can beat anybody. So you can’t take anybody lightly. That is definitely not what we are doing. We are going into a tough environment and we just have to play our game.”

Briefly

• Stallings said it would be “miraculous” if forward Andre Walker played on Saturday. It has been more than a week since Walker suffered a high ankle sprain in practice, but Stallings said Walker’s injury was one of the worst sprains he has seen in his coaching career.

“He is not near ready to play yet,” Stallings said. “It was a very significant ankle sprain — a lot of swelling. He got it pretty good.”

Walker scored the game-winning basket against Marquette on Dec. 29, his first game back after missing four games due to mononucleosis. Two days later he got injured and missed Sunday’s game against Davidson. He has played in just eight games this season.

Walker, a 6-foot-7, 220-pound junior, is averaging 4.1 points and 4.4 rebounds as a starter and is second on the team with 31 assists.

• Leading scorer and sophomore guard John Jenkins says he will play Saturday after missing Sunday’s game against Davidson due to a concussion. Jenkins, who is averaging 17.8 points a game, suffered the injury in practice last Saturday when a teammate elbowed him in the jaw.

“I thought I was all right,” Jenkins said. “But I tried to continue and I got real dizzy, like I-wanted-to-throw-up-type thing. I thought I was all right but coach said ‘You got to sit down’ and they figured it was a concussion a few moments later.”

Jenkins, a Station Camp grad, was participating in his first practice since the injury on Thursday. He said he last felt symptoms of the concussion on Tuesday.

If he plays Saturday, it will be his first game since a 4-of-21 shooting performance against Marquette on Dec. 29.

“I have done work on a lot of things, not just shooting but just my overall game, watching film and all that stuff,” Jenkins said. “Just making sure I’m ready for Saturday because it is conference time now.”

Jenkins attributed part of that poor shooting night to knowing his father, John, Jr., was dealing with an illness at the same time. The elder Jenkins went into the hospital shortly after Christmas with pneumonia and a fluttering heart. He was released a few days later and Jenkins said his father was doing much better. In fact, he was back in the stands for the Davidson game.

• With the injury bug taking a big bite out of the lineup — Jenkins, Walker and reserves Chris Meriwether and Aaron Noll all have missed games — Stallings could opt to go deeper into his bench. Senior forward Darshawn McClellan (6-7), along with freshmen James Siakam (6-7) and Josh Henderson (6-11) are all redshirting this year.

Stallings, however, said he won’t lift a redshirt halfway through the season.

“I don’t think so. Not at this point,” Stallings said. “Too much of the season has gone [by]. It wouldn’t be fair to them.”

• Though they coach in the same city and work in the same profession, Stallings was more than excited for his longtime friend Rick Byrd, the Belmont men’s basketball coach who picked up his 500th victory with the Bruins on Wednesday night in a win at Stetson.

Byrd, in his 25th season at Belmont, joins Mike Krzyzrewski (Duke), Jim Boeheim (Syracuse), Jim Calhoun (Connecticut) and Dave Bike (Sacred Heart) as the only active coaches to have 500 wins at their current school.

“I couldn’t be more pleased. There is not a better guy in our profession,” said Stallings, who struck up a friendship with Byrd shortly after he came to Vanderbilt in 1999. “He combines a unique quality of being a great guy and a great coach. There are a lot of great coaches and a lot of great guys but very few are both and he is. I couldn’t be happier for him. I’m sure they do, but Belmont should really appreciate what they have because he is one of the best in our business.”