One of two juniors on a team without any seniors, Vanderbilt guard Kyle Fuller realizes he is under the microscope.
As a de facto veteran, his play and actions are constantly watched by his teammates and dissected by his coaches. When coach Kevin Stallings decided to pull Fuller from the starting lineup and bring him off the bench prior to the Ole Miss game last week, Fuller had to swallow his pride. That wasn’t easy — at first.
“Kyle had a little bit of a reaction,” Stallings said. “I wouldn’t call it bad. I just wouldn’t call it ideal.”
Whatever emotions he felt initially clearly haven’t spilled onto the court, where Fuller has embraced the new role. After starting the first 14 games, he has come off the bench in the last three and averaged 9.7 points for Vanderbilt, which plays at No. 22 Missouri on Saturday (4 p.m., ESPNU).
He led the team with 12 points at South Carolina on Saturday and scored 14 on Wednesday against Auburn in helping the Commodores (8-9, 2-3 Southeastern Conference) win both games.
“To be honest with you, it doesn’t matter if I’m starting or coming off the bench,” Fuller said. “When I was starting I was playing well. When I am coming off the bench I am still going to be playing well. It is not going to affect me. I just care about winning. I trust in coach’s decision.”
Fuller ranks second on the team with 10.8 points a game but struggled in a three-game stretch to start January. Against William & Mary, Kentucky and Arkansas, he made just seven of 25 shots (28.0 percent) and two of 10 3-pointers.
Stallings looked for a change in the backcourt after an embarrassing 56-33 loss to Arkansas two weeks ago. So he started sophomore Dai-Jon Parker and freshman Sheldon Jeter in place of Fuller and freshman Kevin Bright.
Since then, the Commodores are 2-1 and a buzzer-beater 3-pointer away from knocking off Ole Miss. After shaking off a season-low three-point performance against the Rebels, Fuller has provided stability — and scoring — off the bench. His 12 points at South Carolina marked his first double-figure scoring effort in six games. He also made four of eight free throws to help fend off the Gamecocks.
Against Auburn, he was six of seven from the line. He also grabbed five rebounds for the second straight game — earning a kudos from Stallings, who is encouraged with the recent rebounding success by his guards.
“Kyle is for the team,” Stallings said. “He played really well for us and we don’t win at South Carolina if it is not for him. He comes in and gets 14 [against Auburn] and doesn’t have any turnovers. He is being productive, which is what we need. We need the guys who play to be productive. We talk about it is about mission not position.”
Effective minutes from Fuller is essential for Vanderbilt to have a chance at upsetting the Tigers (14-4, 3-2), who are in their first year in the SEC.
Without leading scorer Laurence Bowers (16.8 points per game) the last four games, Missouri has gone 2-2 and had to climb out of a 13-point hole to edge South Carolina on Tuesday. But Bowers (knee) and guard Keion Bell (ankle) could both return on Saturday.
But their greatest weapon does most of his damage with the pass. Fuller, along with Parker, Bright and Kedren Johnson, hope to slow down point guard Phil Pressey, who leads the league with 7.2 assists per game.
While at Purdue, Stallings played against Pressey’s father, Paul, who played for Tulsa before a successful NBA career in which originated the point forward position.
“His vision with the ball to find others is really incredible,” Stallings said of Phil Pressey. “You just hope he doesn’t absolutely annihilate you. You know he is going to get some points and some assists. You just hope that he doesn’t completely get away from you to where it demoralizes your team and really gives you no chance. He is good enough to take over the game and just take it away from you.”
Of the current roster, only Fuller and fellow junior Rod Odom have played at Mizzou Arena, where the Tigers have an 11-0 record this season. Fuller and Odom were freshmen when Vanderbilt lost in overtime two seasons ago.
Fuller recalls a crazy atmosphere, one he hopes to help prepare his younger teammates for — even if that means backing them up off the bench.
“Regardless of anything you always have to perform,” Fuller said. “On top of that, you have to show them you’re not afraid of anything because you’ve been here before. If Kev looks at me for help I have to have his back. He has to know I am there for him. It is all about me knowing I’m a junior now. I’m not a senior but regardless I am a leader on this team. So I just have to show it.”