Bryce Drew finished his first season at Vanderbilt with a 17-14 overall record and 10-8 mark in the SEC. His team won 7 of their last 10 and have a lot of momentum heading into the SEC Tournament where they will play Texas A&M tonight at 6 CT/7 ET at Bridgestone Arena in Nashville. The game will be televised by the SEC Network.
A&M has a formidable front court, so Luke and Jeff Roberson will have to really step up big time. The whole team will need to play well. We have defeated A&M twice this season, @ College Station, 68-54, on January 31st, and @ Memorial on February 16th, 72-67. It's always tough to beat a team 3 times in a season as Auburn found out last night against Missouri as the Missouri Tigers sank a 3 pointer at the buzzer in overtime to claim the first round victory. But it's certainly doable. Bryce and the players believe they can do it. Here's what Bryce had to say.
DW: Quite a finish to the season the last 10 games. What do you think turned the corner for this team?
Bryce: It's was kind of a process throughout the year. At the beginning of the year, we had injuries. Luke Kornet was coming off an injury and wasn't himself until after Christmas really. And obviously, he's a big part of what we do. Our unity became a lot better as the year developed and the chemistry between the team was really important to us. And just getting more familiar with the defensive system, and the things we were trying to do on the offensive end. We really try to give our guys a lot of freedom on offense, but there are restrictions within that freedom. It's been a process and I've been really proud of how the guys have played the last few weeks.
DW: I was up at practice in early February and the players looked like they loved playing. Do you see that in them?
Bryce: When you win a few games it definitely helps morale. And they've been fun to be around. We enjoy practicing together and the games have been exciting. I think they're really in a good place now. They enjoy playing with each other also. They're really having fun out there. We have a lot of guys scoring in double figures the last several games, a lot of the guys shooting the ball well. And it's just a really good team effort out there.
DW: You don't always rely on the 3 any more. It's more Nolan going to the hole, Joe going to the hole, Luke going inside. Riley even doing that. Has that been a fundamental change in your team? Is that something you've emphasized more?
Bryce: Well, we've really tried to open up the lane more, so a lot those drives and Luke spotting up for 3's is spacing the floor and Luke is a big part of that because they have to guard him on the 3 point line. And then that allows our guards to get to the rim. I think our guards have gotten a lot better at that throughout the year. If they switch a ball screen our guards have gotten a lot better at getting into the paint and being able to finish. That's something we work on in practice, trying to get by your guy and being able to score. It's fun when we're shooting the ball well and making a lot of 3's, but if you want to win you've got to find other ways to score than just shoot 3's.
DW: The defense and rebounding have been such an improvement. How has that happened?
Bryce: We were losing a lot of games early with second chance points from the other team. We would play defense and they would get a rebound and put it back in. We've really focused a lot on rebounding drills and really try to make it a priority in our program. We have to rebound the ball. And to our guys' credit, there have been several games where we've been undersized, and we've played a good rebounding team and out-rebounded them. And if we want to continue our season, that's an area we're going to have to keep doing well.
DW: How confident are you in this team heading into the SEC Tournament?
Bryce: I think we're playing our best basketball right now, and they're really excited to get out there and play games. After we have a few practice days, they're ready to go play and that's a great sign. So hopefully we can keep the same energy level come Thursday.
DW: You've beaten A&M twice. The old saying is, and it could be trite, it's hard to beat a team 3 times. I know you don't want to believe that for this game, but is that a thing that is a problem for teams?
Bryce: I've been part of that as a player and a coach where it works both ways. You've won those games and you've lost those game. it's hard, it's a different dynamic going in. I think something that helps is that both of our games were close. They made a run at us in the first game and were in control in the second one in what they did. So we can play much better than we played them last time. We can shoot better and I think that gives us extra motivation going into the game. We want to prove that we're better than some of the stuff we did the last time we played'em.
DW: Finally, what are the keys to victory against A&M?
Bryce: Rebounding is going to be huge. They out-rebounded their opponents by 5 (on average this season) and the first half that we played them last game they pretty much dominated. They out-rebounded us by 10 in the first half and that can't happen. Then their inside players are very good. So under the basket we're going to hopefully be able to limit them a little bit. And they've got a lot of guards that can make threes, so we'll have to defend that. Defensively, we have our work cut out for us, and then offensively, hopefully we can shoot the ball well at Bridgestone.
DW: How big a deal is it playing in Nashville? Is that a good thing for you?
Bryce: We sure hope so. We'd much rather be in our home city in front of our home fans, so hopefully we're going to get a lot of Dores fans out Thursday to cheer us on.
Baseball takes second game from Central Arkansas
The baseball team scored 5 runs in the first on their way to a 9-1 victory over Central Arkansas. First baseman Julian Infante, left fielder Stephen Scott, right fielder Harrison Ray and shortstop Connor Kaiser each had two hits. Jason Delay had a 2 run single in the first and Ray, in his first career start in right field, followed him up with an RBI single scoring Delay.
Chandler Day got the start and the victory, as he moved to 1-0 on the season. Chandler went 5 innings, gave up 5 hits, 1 earned, with 2 walks and a career high 8 strikeouts. Lefty Paxton Stover worked the sixth and struck out 3 of the 4 batters he faced. Michael Sandborn, Jackson Gillis, and Penn Murfee each pitched scoreless frames to finish off the game.
The Commodores moved to 9-5 on the season. Central Arkansas dropped to 6-8.
The team hosts Saint Mary's (California) this weekend with Friday's first pitch at 4 PM CT, Saturday's at 2 PM CT and Sunday's at 1 PM CT. All three games will be broadcast by SEC Network+.