Vanderbilt aims to play two — at least — at this year's NCAA Tournament

Tuesday, March 15, 2011 at 6:37pm

With apologies to “Loverboy” — and 1980s rock fans everywhere — the Vanderbilt men’s basketball team is working for the weekend.

The Commodores are hoping they aren’t back in Nashville by Friday. They want to remain in Denver for Saturday's third round of the NCAA Tournament.

They open out in the Mile-High City in the Southwest Region with No. 12 seed Richmond at 3 p.m. on Thursday (TBS). With a victory, they will play the winner of the Louisville-Morehead State matchup on Saturday.

Reaching that second game, however, has been a struggle for Vanderbilt lately. After they advanced to the Sweet 16 in 2007, the Commodores have failed to get out of the first round the last two tries. In 2008, when forward Andre Walker was a freshman and center Festus Ezeli was a redshirt, Vanderbilt fell to 13th seed Siena. Last year, the Commodores again were tripped up as the No. 4 seed when they lost to Murray State on a buzzer beater.

Even before the last-second shot, though, Vanderbilt put itself in a tough position, trailing at halftime.

“There might have been a little bit of overlooking but we just didn’t play well at all during that game. We weren’t successful last year and that kind of resonates in us a little bit,” Vanderbilt guard Brad Tinsley said. “We know that we want to go farther than the first round and that is a little bit of motivation for us — what happened last year. We have worked hard all offseason and during this season to get to this point.”

Vanderbilt (23-10) is a No. 5 seed this season but once again faces a tough out in Richmond.

The Spiders (27-7) are back in the NCAA Tournament for the second straight season. They have won seven straight and swept three in the Atlantic 10 Conference Tournament to claim the championship on Sunday.

They are paced by Justin Harper (17.9 points per game) and Kevin Anderson (16.5). Harper also leads the team with seven rebounds a game and is versatile as a 6-foot-10 forward. He has made a team-high 73 3-pointers this season, shooting 46.5 percent from the arc. Vanderbilt’s 6-8 forward Lance Goulbourne is expected to defend Harper. But 6-7 Jeffery Taylor — who Commodores coach Kevin Stallings says is the team’s best defender — and others might take their turns on Harper.

“It is definitely a tough matchup. He can shoot it from outside,” Tinsley said. “He can also take it inside. He is a great all-around player. We are just going to have to hope that our [small forwards] and [power forwards] and maybe some of our [centers] can try to shut him down.”

Richmond’s offense — not just Harper — has caused problems for numerous teams this year, including outside of the Atlantic 10. Their mixture of motion, back-door cuts and constant passing helped them in big wins over Purdue and Arizona State.

“They are very different than anybody we’ve played,” Stallings said. “They are a Princeton offensive [style] team. They play matchup zone and in the truest form of Princeton style coaches, that is how they play and they play it very well. They have very good athletes, they have great size inside and they have great guard play. We would have liked a much easier opponent, I can tell you that. But there are no easy ones when you get to this time of year.”

Vanderbilt’s learned that the hard way.

This year, the Commodores hope, they can pull from those lessons and use it to their advantage this time around.

“It was a good experience for us,” Ezeli said. “I just think it made us hungrier. We got out earlier from the tournament than we wanted and expected to. ... We have to come out and prove it ourselves.”

Briefly

• The Commodores left Nashville on Tuesday morning, arrived in Denver in the afternoon and were scheduled to practice at nearby Colorado Christian University.

They hoped to get one practice Tuesday to get acclimated to the high altitude before tomorrow’s afternoon session at the Pepsi Center, home of the Denver Nuggets and where this weekend’s games will be played. Vanderbilt has never played a game in Colorado.

• Stallings issued an apology to Mississippi State on Monday, one day after comments that involved John Jenkins and his toe injury.

Jenkins had suffered turf toe a week before the Southeastern Conference Tournament and returned on Friday to score 29 points in a win against Mississippi State.

When asked about Jenkins toe injury on Sunday, Stallings said “We actually had an incident in the tournament of a player intentionally stepping on it, and being told to by his coach. I thought that was very interesting that his coach was telling him, ‘Step on his foot! Step on his foot.'"

On Monday, Stallings’ stance on the situation had changed.

“I simply misunderstood what my player told me about an incident that happened in the SEC Tournament,” Stallings said in a statement. “I have apologized to Coach [Rick] Stansbury, and I want to publicly apologize to the Mississippi State athletic department for the misunderstanding and for saying something that was erroneous.”

• Murfreesboro native and Riverdale product Kevin Smith averages four points and 4.2 rebounds for Richmond and is second on the team with 108 assists. The 6-5, 200-pound guard/forward has started in 16 games this year, including all three games of the Atlantic 10 Tournament.