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January 29, 2007

Vandy men ranked for first time since 2004

It's been quite some time since the Vanderbilt men's basketball team was nationally ranked. And just a month ago, almost everyone who'd watched the Commodores thought it would be a long time before it happened again.

Almost everyone was wrong.

Today, Vanderbilt (15-6, 5-2) cracked the Associated Press Top 25 for the first time since the January 19, 2004 poll. Vandy, which was picked to finish fifth in the six-team SEC East in preseason polls, is ranked No. 24. Stanford (14-5, 6-3), which was picked to finish seventh in the Pac-10, entered the poll at No. 23.

Vanderbilt received 32 votes but remained unranked in the ESPN/USA Today coach's Top 25 poll. The Commodores's vote talley placed them No. 28 nationally.

"The last few weeks have been great, but we've got to keep it going," junior forward Ross Neltner said. "It's not about being ranked in the Top 25, it's about getting to the NCAA Tournament."

"I'm happy for the players," Stallings said. "They've fought through a lot of adversity this season and have focused on getting better every day. I'm happy people are noticing their success."

Just three weeks ago, a national ranking was likely the furthest thing from Stallings' mind. The Commodores, whose RPI was hovering around 200, were sitting at 10-5, including losses to Furman, Appalachian State, and on the road at hapless Auburn. Talk swirled about whether or not Vanderbilt could muster enough wins to even make the NIT Tournament.

Since then, eighth-year head coach Kevin Stallings has taken the Commodores from the outhouse to the penthouse. In the last six weeks, Vanderbilt has beaten four nationally ranked SEC opponents: Tennessee, Kentucky (at Rupp Arena), LSU and Alabama. With its 85-80 win over Ole Miss Saturday, Vanderbilt has run its winning streak to four games, its longest in the SEC since 1996-97.

What had become its achille's heel -- a vacant physical inside presence -- Stallings has turned into an advantage. With the transfer of rising junior power forward DeMarre Carroll, and a foot injury to junior center Alan Metcalfe, VU spent the first half of the season getting man-handled in the paint. Vandy had been out-rebounded in all but three games heading into the UT game.

But much as Bruce Pearl did for similar reasons last year with Dane Bradshaw at Tennessee, Stallings compensated for Vanderbilt's lack of height with foot speed and shooting. Stallings moved reserve 6-4 shooting guard Dan Cage to the power forward position, and set all five of VU's starters loose to shoot the three.

Since then, Vanderbilt's offense has become almost unstoppable, and its defense has dramatically improved. Sitting at 5-2, the Commodores sit in second place in the SEC East, behind 6-0 Florida.

On Wednesday, Vanderbilt travels to Gainesville to face the Gators. The defending national champions received 45 first-place votes out of a possible 72. Florida (19-2) is also ranked No. 1 in the ESPN/USA Today coach's poll.

The Vanderbilt women's basketball team is currently ranked No. 15 in the Associated Press poll. Vanderbilt's baseball team is ranked No. 8 in the Collegiate Baseball preseason poll.



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