By Russell Vannozzi
When the Vanderbilt Commodore basketball team suffered a twenty-point loss at Missouri on Feb. 11, it appeared their season was all but over. The Tigers entered the contest 1-10 in SEC play, having also suffered non-conference losses to teams like Davidson, North Carolina Central, Eastern Illinois and Lipscomb.
However, Vanderbilt has since rebounded to reel off three consecutive victories. The Commodores topped Texas A&M and No. 21 South Carolina last week and then defeated Tennessee 67-56 on Wednesday night in Knoxville.
“I think we’ve had good spurts of basketball, but the last couple of games were indications that we weren’t playing our best basketball, but yet we found ways to grind it out and win,” Vanderbilt head coach Bryce Drew said during a recent press conference.
The turnaround began on Jan. 21 when Vanderbilt pulled an upset of the Florida Gators in Gainesville. After a crushing one-point loss to Arkansas on Jan. 24, Vanderbilt has managed to win six of its last eight games.
“We’ve grown a lot in terms of finishing games,” guard Nolan Cressler said. “I think that’s been a huge difference for us.”
Commodore seniors Cressler and Luke Kornet have each played large roles in the team’s resurgence. Over the last eight games, Cressler (11.13 points per game) and Kornet (12 points per game) have each stepped up their performance.
“(Nolan and I) realize that it’s our last time through, so we’re just excited to be able to come out and play every day,” Kornet said earlier this month. “We all share the ball well, and we want to go out playing unselfish basketball.”
The senior duo has helped bridge the gap during the team’s transition to Drew, who has ushered in a new playing style and coaching staff. Long-time head coach Kevin Stallings resigned last March to take the same job at Pittsburgh.
“None of us were expecting to be in this position with a new coaching staff this year,” Cressler said during team media availability. “But things happen, and we’ve come together (as a team) and embraced everything that this year has brought.”
Vanderbilt (15-13, 8-7 SEC) still has an outside shot of snagging an NCAA tournament bid, although the road will be tough. The team’s final two regular-season games include match-ups with Kentucky and Florida, currently the top two teams in the SEC.
A large reason Vanderbilt remains in the tournament mix is that it ranks second in strength of schedule, according to CBSSports.com bracketologist Jerry Palm.
“With what we’ve done lately, we have some great opportunities to hopefully put ourselves into the tournament,” Drew said. “We’ve been looking (at the schedule) one game at a time.”
The Commodores will attempt to extend their winning streak on Saturday when they play host to Mississippi State. Tip-off is set for 3 p.m. at Memorial Gymnasium.