It was a greeting that caught Kevin Stallings off guard. But one he quickly understood and that still resonates 12 years later.
Prior to his first Southeastern Conference game in his first year as Vanderbilt’s head coach back during the 1999-2000 season, he walked over to shake the hand of the opposing coach, Florida’s Billy Donovan.
“He said, ‘Are you ready for nine weeks of hell?’ ” Stallings recalled. “I didn’t know what he meant but after those next nine weeks I sure did.”
Ready or not, the 2012 version of the grueling slate begins on Saturday when Auburn comes to Memorial Gymnasium for a 12:30 p.m. tip-off (SEC Network).
The timing might not be better for Vanderbilt (10-4). After an up-and-down non-conference schedule that featured stunning losses to Cleveland State and Indiana State and near misses against Xavier and Louisville, the Commodores are riding a four-game winning streak.
Last week, they dismantled then-No. 14 on Marquette on the road but four days later held on at home against Miami (Ohio).
“We definitely feel good about where we’re at right now,” senior forward Jeffery Taylor said. “We had a lot of confidence-building games that we won. So the pieces that were missing earlier in the season are definitely starting to fall into place.”
The return of 6-foot-11 center Festus Ezeli has aided the Commodores, who are 3-1 with the senior on the floor. After missing the first eight games of the season due to knee injuries, Ezeli is averaging 7.3 points and 6.0 rebounds — fifth- and second-most on the team. He had a season-high four blocks against Miami, giving him 159 for his career and propelling him past Will Perdue for most blocked shots in school history.
Ezeli’s presence should help Vanderbilt’s defense.
In each of the last six games, opponents have shot a better percentage and scored more points in the second half than in the first 20 minutes. For example, Miami scored just 24 points on 37 percent shooting in the first half. After halftime, they scored 38 points on 57.1 percent shooting.
Stallings said he has addressed the issue with his team and repeatedly watched film. While saying it might be as simple as concentrating better, he added that at Memorial Gymnasium, with the benches along the baselines, his players can get comfortable with their coaches hollering at them where to position themselves. But when they switch to the other end of the court, that safety net isn’t there.
“Whatever it is, if we can do it with these numbers in the first half then we’ve got to be a lot closer to these numbers in the second half than we are,” Stallings said. “We have to play defense for 40 minutes. Our defense has been significantly better in the first half than it has been in the second half of games. We need to get that remedied and play defense for 40 minutes.”
Auburn is 10-4 and is led by Kenny Gabriel (12.6 ppg, 8.1 rpg), who is one of four players averaging at least 10 points.
The Tigers are coming off an 85-56 blowout loss at Florida State on Wednesday. According to RealTimeRPI.com, the Tigers hold an RPI of 194 and their strength of schedule ranks 332nd.
By comparison, Vanderbilt has an RPI of 45 and a strength of schedule of 21.
“We’re all contenders at this point. You can’t write anybody off,” Stallings said. “As I’ve told the guys, the opponents are nameless and faceless. They are all good. They are good teams. It is a matter of us playing up to our potential and playing to our capabilities and not worrying about who the appointed is or whether they are a contender or whether they are supposed to be [in the] top half or bottom half.”