COLUMN: Key win at LSU presents opportunity for Vanderbilt


Ziyi Liu

Ziyi Liu

Robbie Weinstein, Sports Editor

Vanderbilt’s galvanizing 96-89 win over LSU on Thursday night represents more than just a 1-0 start to SEC play.

It marks more than just the team’s first road win, too. One could have argued that an SEC road win against any team other than Missouri would have become the Commodores’ best victory this season, but that’s not all it represents.

The win does more than all of that. It gives Vanderbilt hope and a major opportunity as it begins SEC play.

Vanderbilt has gone back and forth all year between looking like a team with potential that has played tough teams like Butler and Minnesota close and looking like one lacking confidence and purpose in losses to Bucknell and Middle Tennessee. The team’s light first stretch of conference play, however, gives the ‘Dores a chance to build confidence and climb safely above .500.

The trip to Baton Rouge to play LSU was a key hurdle over the Commodores’ first five conference games. A January 10 matchup with Kentucky holds significance, but it’s more of a bonus shot; proving it can win on the road carries loads of meaning over the long haul for Vanderbilt. With looming matchups against fellow projected bottom-half SEC teams Auburn, Alabama and Tennessee, Bryce Drew’s squad has a legitimate shot to start 4-1 in conference play. None of those teams rank in the top 50 of Ken Pomeroy’s computer rankings, and the Auburn and Tennessee games come at home.

Starting with a 4-1 league record, even despite a weak schedule, can breed the type of confidence needed to post a surprisingly high finish in the league. Doing so would have the opposite effect of the dreadful 1-7 stretch in 2015, when practices and games alike were depressing and devoid of life. Having to play through that type of environment can force many teams to fold.

On top of that, the Commodores have strung together three straight decent-or-better performances following the humiliating blowout at the hands of MTSU. Vanderbilt showed incremental improvements in a narrow win over SoCon favorite Chattanooga and a competitive loss to Atlantic 10 favorite Dayton, but this performance was much more convincing — taking and holding a 20-point, second-half lead on the road in conference play is a clear step forward.

Vanderbilt finally got its turnover problems under control, despite LSU’s surprising use of a press for portions of the game. Drew’s team had only 11 turnovers, resulting in an excellent 15.5 percent turnover rate and only four LSU fastbreak points.

“Again, I thought our unity was tremendous tonight,” Drew told Joe Fisher of the Vanderbilt IMG Sports Network after the win. “… I was very pleased; 11 turnovers, and we got pressured for much of the game. It was a great step up for our guys, handling pressure.”

What’s more, the ‘Dores held onto their lead despite hot shooting performances from statistically poor outside shooters Brandon Sampson, Skylar Mays and Jalyn Patterson.

“We do a lot of statistics, and a lot of their guys have not shot this well,” Drew told Fisher. “But they were hot, they were making shots and that’s something that we need to work on and do a better job making sure we’re finding those hot shooters and contesting better.”

Winning comfortably despite the fact that multiple opposing players defied their respective scouting reports says a lot about Vanderbilt’s performance. It will take much more to beat quality conference teams such as Arkansas, South Carolina and Florida (let’s not even bring Kentucky into this right now), but the performance represented notable improvement heading into a key stretch of winnable games. That’s a credit to Drew and his staff, who have otherwise had a rough start to their first seasons.

One win over a likely SEC cellar-dweller certainly doesn’t mean everything, however, even on the road. LSU rates as only the 122nd-best team in the country by Pomeroy’s metrics. Additionally, Vanderbilt can throw away the opportunity in front of them with duds against Auburn, Alabama or Tennessee. But if the ‘Dores play like they did against LSU, they should be able to win two, or even all three, of those contests. The team has raised its level of play up from an unacceptable level to a reasonable one, but now it must stay consistent.

“Our guys have been practicing well and we’ve played significantly better the past two weeks,” Drew said. “I’m really happy for our guys to see a lot of their hard work the last couple weeks come out in this game today.”