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March 21, 2007

Early struggles long forgotten at Vanderbilt

NASHVILLE Vanderbilt's season soared to improbable heights only after beginning with an unimaginable low.

The Commodores dropped three of their first four games in an early-season slide that culminated with a 70-62 home loss to Furman, a team that went on to finish below .500 in the Southern Conference.

Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings was on at least a warm seat that kept getting warmer with each loss. Derrick Byars was shooting 35.4 percent. Shan Foster had made just four of his first 23 shots from 3-point range.

The Commodores already were being counted out five weeks before they played their first Southeastern Conference game. Yet they didn't count themselves out.

"They never gave up on themselves," said Stallings, who was chosen by his peers as the SEC Coach of the Year. "They never lost faith in their teammates. They never lost faith in their coaches. Because of that, we're standing here getting ready to go to the Sweet 16."

Vanderbilt (22-11) faces Georgetown (28-6) in a Friday night East Regional semifinal between teams that know each other very well. Vanderbilt won at Georgetown last year and opened this season with an 86-70 home loss to the Hoyas.

But it might not be entirely accurate to call this game a rematch.

"We're a totally different team both defensively and offensively since then," Foster said.

In the third game of the season, senior guard Dan Cage and junior guard Alex Gordon replaced junior forward Alan Metcalfe and freshman guard Jermaine Beal in the starting lineup. The change in the lineup helped a little. A change in attitude helped a whole lot more.

That came Nov. 29 when the Commodores watched the game film of the loss to Furman that had taken place one day earlier.

"I think it was a matter of survival at that time,'' Stallings said. "We asked the players to hang in there with us and we told them we'd hang in there with them, and we'd get through it if we all stuck together.''

The players agreed to give it a try.

"At that point we were just trying to survive and do what we can to enjoy the season and not let it slip away," Byars said.

The results speak for themselves.

Vanderbilt outperformed all preseason expectations except their own by finishing second in the SEC Eastern Division. The sixth-seeded Commodores continued beating the odds Saturday by upsetting No. 3 seed Washington State 78-74 in a double-overtime marathon.

"We're not surprised at all," Foster said. "We set goals for ourselves at the beginning of the season. We knew how good we could be if we stayed together and played the kind of basketball our coaches wanted us to play. It's paying dividends now."

Byars and Foster have developed into arguably the best pair of swingmen in the nation. Their relationship indicates one of the major reasons behind the Commodores' surprising success.

Foster led Vanderbilt in scoring last year and earned preseason all-conference honors, but Byars emerged as the Commodores' go-to guy over the last two months and was selected by SEC coaches as the conference's player of the year.

This gradual shift occurred without a word of complaint from either player. The total lack of ego clash between Vanderbilt's two star performers reflects the improved atmosphere surrounding this program.

Vanderbilt followed a 12-2 start last year by going 6-11 the remainder of the season and settling for an NIT berth. Vanderbilt's players and coaches blamed the slide in part on a lack of chemistry and spent this preseason discussing their efforts to improve in that regard. Stallings emphasized the need for each player to depend on his teammates. Foster noted that the players held more offseason cookouts and other activities in an effort to build team unity.

Senior center Ted Skuchas now downplays the team's chemistry problems from last season, but there's no denying the improved results on the court.

"Teams are always around each other so much that there's always chemistry," Skuchas said. "There's good chemistry, and (then) there's even better chemistry. Our teams have always had good chemistry. It's just that sometimes things just really start clicking and everything starts working. That's really what's happened for us."

And that has allowed the Commodores to respond to every setback they've faced this season.

They followed the embarrassing loss to Furman by winning seven consecutive games. Vanderbilt was in danger of dropping to 0-2 in league play after losing its SEC opener to Auburn and falling behind Tennessee four days later. The Commodores avoided that fate by rallying to beat the Volunteers 82-81 on Foster's buzzer-beating tip-in.

After Vanderbilt entered the NCAA Tournament with back-to-back losses to Arkansas, the Commodores promptly blew out George Washington 77-44 in their opening-round game.

"We haven't given up," Foster said. "We knew we were going to face some adversity. But we've been able to fight through it by staying together."

Vanderbilt figures to face even more adversity Friday.

The Commodores' perimeter-oriented lineup could have trouble matching up with a Georgetown frontcourt that features 7-foot-2 center Roy Hibbert and 6-9 forward Jeff Green, the Big East Player of the Year. Foster failed to make a basket and the Commodores shot 41.5 percent overall in that season-opening loss to Georgetown.

Oddsmakers have installed Georgetown as a 7 1/2-point favorite to end the Commdores' season.

Then again, Vanderbilt overcame longer odds just by making it this far.

"We've stayed together," Foster said. "That's been the story of our season."

It's a story the Commodores don't want to end anytime soon.

Steve Megargee is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at smegargee@rivals.com.

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