By Ron Wynn
With their entire starting five returning and expectations for a big finish high, Vanderbilt University won’t be sneaking up on anyone this winter. But they discovered Sunday that unless they come ready to play every night they may well be surprised by their opponents. Cleveland State isn’t ranked in anyone’s Top 20, let alone Top 10. But they caught the Commodores, sitting at number seven in most national polls, well off their game. The resulting 71-58 loss ended Vanderbilt’s 20-game home winning streak against nonconference opponents. It also served as a reminder that despite their experience and reputation, they can’t overlook any opponent they face, whether at home or on the road.
“I don’t think they listened to me when I told them how good this team was that we were playing,” Coach Larry Stallings said on both radio and ESPNU after the game. “You don’t just fall off a turnip truck and win 27 games. I would expect us to play harder and with more execution (In our next game).” Cleveland State was the Horizon League regular-season champion last year.
They were led by D’Aundry Brown, who had 18 points. Cleveland State had a 13-point halftime lead, then stayed even with Vandy the rest of the game. “They outplayed us from start to finish,” Stallings added, very disappointed and disgusted with his team’s efforts. Cleveland State opened with an 11-4 run, jumping on the Commodores before a lot of people even made it into Memorial Gymnasium. Vanderbilt had an ugly 13 turnovers in the first half, and didn’t function smoothly most of the game.
Cleveland State was prepared for Vandy’s perimeter game, and put special emphasis on not letting John Jenkins roam free for open three-pointers. He made only two of the eight three-point shots he attempted, and the Commodores only made four of 17. Cleveland State extended them so far outside the misses were often bad ones, shots clanging off the basket or bouncing out of bounds. Jenkins still had 17 points, but got little help from his teammates. Besides missing a host of layups, only Lance Goulbourne provided Jenkins any offensive assistance. He had 11 points.
Yet Vanderbilt did back into the contest early in the second half. They outscored Cleveland State 14-2, and narrowed the gap to 41-38. But after a timeout, Cleveland State ran off a 9-2 spurt to get the margin back into double digits. They didn’t seem nearly as quick, either to the basket or the ball, as Cleveland State. Steve Tchiengang led the Commodores with 10 rebounds. This game also reaffirmed the importance of Festus Ezeli, currently on suspension. He gives Vanderbilt shot blocking and a defensive presence. He’s also a gifted big man who forces double teams and can find open shooters out of double teams. Tchiengang took only five shots and made just one, while hitting all three of his free throws for five points. Jenkins sub-par outside shooting (only five for 14) was balanced by solid work at the free throw line (five of seven).
The final rebounding margin was close, Cleveland State winning by 36-35. But they also had 13 assists, while Vanderbilt had only six, raising fresh concerns about the lack of a true point guard. Stalling said Brad Tinsley’s hand injury has become an issue. He had two assists and seven points.
The Sunday loss took some luster off Vanderbilt’s opening win over Oregon Friday night. That game they looked like the SEC and NCAA title contender they are supposed to be, posting a 78-64 win. Their defense also forced 20 turnovers while they only committed eight. Jeffery Taylor had 21 points and five steals, as the Commodores had 11 steals and continually pressured Oregon into bad shots and careless passes. Brad Tinsley, an Oregon native, had 13 points. But it was John Jenkins, who led the SEC in scoring last year, that fueled the Commodores offense.
Jenkins had 24 points, and overcame a slow start that saw him miss his first four three-point shots. He eventually hit seven from behind the arc. It was his long-range shooting that keyed the Vanderbilt run which broke the game open. Oregon had controlled the tempo much of the first half, and was leading 29-26 with three minutes to go. Then over a five-minute period that included two minutes of the second half, the Commodores outscored them 18-0, building a 44-29 lead.
They increased it to 20 at 55-35, thanks to a Jenkins three-pointer and a tip-in from freshman Josh Henderson. But Oregon answered by scoring 14 straight points and making it 55-49. They got it down to five again at 62-57 with five minutes left. Then Taylor and Jenkins took over. Taylor scored back-to-back baskets, grabbed a rebound and Jenkins hit another three-pointer to make it 70-57.
Jenkins and Taylor’s offensive heroics helped Vanderbilt overcome 40.9% shooting from the floor. Oregon hit 49.1%, but the combination of turnovers and key three-pointers eventually defeated them. In perhaps a harbinger to the Cleveland State game, Stallings said afterwards that “I did not like how we attacked that zone.”
Now that some of the preseason hype has worn off, Vanderbilt will get down to serious business. They faced Bucknell Tuesday in another pre-conference game at Memorial Gym that continues the Legends Classic. Hopefully they now realize other teams don’t care about national rankings once the game begins.