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March 16, 2007

It's time to give the 'Dores their due

"Number 15, Cheyenne Moore."

That's how yesterday's first round match-up between Vanderbilt and George Washington began. Which, in retrospect, should have been a sure sign of things to come.

Moore, you see, had been out of GW's lineup with a broken leg since October. But he was in good company, as no one else from GW's team showed up, either.

This a game that several well-worn talking heads had projected as one of the first round upsets. Common territory for a Vanderbilt team that was dissed three years ago by many of the same talking heads as being "too white" to compete on the big stage. ESPN's own web site predicted DeMarre' Carroll would be VU's third leading scorer today.

He, like Moore, never showed up. Carroll transferred to Missouri a year ago.

Turns out, Vandy didn't need Carroll. And Moore would have provided no significant help for an A-10 program that, not unlike VU, came into the tournament looking for respect. The difference is, Vanderbilt checked back into its hotel last night with the tournament's most convincing first round whooping. GW, on the other hand, has to fly 3,000 miles back to D.C. and face an offseason of unanswerable questions.

For starters, how could GW coach and former UConn assistant Karl Hobbs have thought his trapping zone defense would do to Vanderbilt what No. 1 ranked Florida's defense couldn't? The Gators tried to pressure and double team VU's guards -- twice -- and had to back off into a more traditional man defense both times. Hobbs, however, went nine minutes before calling off the dogs. By that point, Vanderbilt had built a 20-point lead that was never challenged.

George Washington made just two field goals in the first 15 minutes of the game. Were it not for their impressive free throw shooting, the Colonials would not have cracked double figures until three minutes before halftime.

During the break, Nashville sports talk host George Plaster stopped by my table and asked incredulously, "Didn't this guy watch any Vandy game tape?" That's a question many a GW fan was asking as well.

Second, what happened to the vaunted guard attack of Maureece Rice and Carl Elliott? The duo came into the game as the A-10's most balleyhooed frontcourt, averaging nearly 30 points a game. They were supposed to teach the egghead Commodores how eastern hoops is played.

Instead, they proved -- among other things -- why the Southeastern Conference is the top ranked college basketball league in the land.

No doubt Rice and Elliot are good players. At times, perhaps even great players. But the fact is, the two racked up most of their stats against a schedule heavy with opponents with RPIs of over 200. Against the long arms of 6-7 Foster and 6-6 Byars, neither could even get GW into their set offense.

Vanderbilt finished the game with an eye-popping 22 assists to just 11 turnovers. GW, by contrast, went the distance with just six assists, and committed 20 turnovers.

Rice finished with just three points -- missing eight of his nine shots, and serving just a single assist. Elliott finished with a meaningless eight -- the highest total on his entire team. Four of his points came from the foul line. He had just one assist and three turnovers.

The SEC ain't No. 1 for nothing
Over the past two weeks, it had become en vogue for some in the media to look down its collective nose at Vanderbilt because they had recently lost twice to Arkansas. If VU was so good, the reasoning went, how could they lose to a team that wasn't even leading the sub-par SEC West? The answer should now be clear: The SEC West, even when it's down, deserves a lot more props than most eastern media elite are willing to give it. With all due respect, Rice and Elliott -- fine players -- are not Patrick Beverley and Sonny Weems.

The A-10 is a proud basketball conference. At least this year, it clearly is not in the same hoops universe as the SEC.

So, is Vanderbilt this good, or is George Washington just this bad? Perhaps it's a lot of both. The fact is, in the SEC, there really are no off nights. In the A-10, for every Xavier there are five St. Bonaventures.

In contrast, Auburn, the SEC's lowest rated team, has a higher RPI than George Washington's. VU opened its SEC season in January with a road loss to the Tigers. Auburn is one of just three SEC teams that was not invited to either the NCAA or NIT.

To be sure, not every SEC team is a heavyweight. But if you aren't good, and I mean really good, you have no chance to play in the postseason. Exhibit A: LSU, a team that was in the Final Four last year. Even with NBA lottery pick Glen Davis, the Tigers were one of just three SEC teams to not even make the NIT. How big of an impact would Davis have in the A-10?

East not all beast
Coach Hobbs expected to be the team that got into Vandy's grill and cause them discomfort. But very quickly, it was obvious that Stallings was three moves ahead of him in every conceivable way. The first five minutes of the game looked like a clinic on how to beat a zone trap. Vanderbilt, it seemed, was more than ready for anything and everything GW could throw at them.

"Our players felt like all they had heard about was (George Washington's) defensive pressure," remarked Stallings after the game. "I think it was important to them to play a good defensive game themselves. It paid dividends, because they were very sharp, especially in the first half."

The fact is, most A-10 teams don't have starting guards the size and length of Foster and Byars. Even 6-foot-2 reserve George Drake was able to put the defensive clamps onto Elliott. Drake also sank his own tidy collection of jumpers and layups.

For Vanderbilt, today's game proved to be another surreal moment in a surreal season that seems to get surrealer as it goes. Okay, that's not a real word, but in this conversation it may as well be. This is the same team that lost to Furman in December, and shortly thereafter boasted an RPI roughly that of Duquense's.

Still more left in the tank?
What's scary is, this was hardly a lights-out offensive performance by Vanderbilt. Byars, the SEC Player of the Year, was just 5-of-14 from the field. He didn't get his first basket until the nine minute mark, well beyond the point where the outcome of this game was in much doubt. Stallings rested Byars for much of the second half.

Too, sharp shooter Dan Cage, perhaps hampered by a sore hip he suffered earlier in the game, was just 2-for-8 from the field, all from 3. That VU didn't even need Cage -- the second best 3-point shooter in the SEC -- to beat GW by 33 points is a stunner royale.

Ross Neltner, thought perhaps to be an essential X-factor today, was hardly even present. In just 17 minutes of PT, Nelter had two points and two boards.

As a team, the Commodores shot a very average 42 percent from the field, and 38 percent from 3. VU's average is 47 percent from the field, and 38 percent is right on their average from the arc. Neither of these numbers come close to the high water mark VU has achieved many times this year.

What bodes especially well for Vanderbilt is the fact that, while this team is rightfully known for its outside shooting, they have at times become a downright nasty defensive team. GW's 44 points were its lowest offensive total of the season. They shot just 27 percent from the field, and at times seemed desperate to even get a shot off at all. By the middle of the second half, Rice seemed to simply be trying to get his box score. Even against the bottom of Vandy's bench, GW's offense looked desperate.

If the Commodores can even come close to duplicating that performance from here on out, they could reasonably look to join Florida in the Final Four. And you wouldn't find many, if any, people in Sacramento tonight who would dare to doubt it.

Today, Vanderbilt made an 11 seed in the Big Dance look downright silly. Not many who watched this carnage would dare to pick against Vanderbilt on Saturday, even going against a white hot Washington State team that is essentially playing at home.

Maybe it's time to stop talking about how surreal this season is, and start accepting that this team is for real. No matter what happens from here, Vandy fans should give their due to Stallings and his crew. Even -- and especially -- if those in the national media won't.

If the sort of spanking Stallings' team delivered today doesn't get their attention, well, what could?


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