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Freije delivering nightly for Vandy

Matt Freije didn't come to college to polish his face-up game for the pros. He's not here to make connections with an agent or major in eligibility.

Not at Vanderbilt. Not this guy.

Freije is a senior Economics major. He's on track to graduate in the spring and has a life plan outside of basketball. He'd like to open his own pizzeria someday. Seriously.

As a teenager growing up in Overland Park, Kan., Freije was the world's tallest dough tosser at a local joint called The Pizza Shop. Someday he'd like to try it from the proprietor's side.

But hold the anchovies. The accidental pro prospect might have more hoops in his future after this season -- especially if he can sustain his current powerful start.

Through three games, the 6-foot-10, 240-pound Freije is averaging 21.7 points and nine rebounds for the undefeated Commodores, who are No. 12 nationally in the admittedly early Sagarin Ratings. He's an all-court matchup problem -- from the low block to the three-point line, off the dribble or cutting off teammates' screens.

He was the preseason SEC player of the year, but that was based on last year. Good as the junior Freije was, so far the senior Freije is a major improvement.

He's simply a bigger man. Bigger muscles, bigger mouth, bigger presence.

A guy who averaged just four foul shots per game last year shot 18 of them against Indiana -- and made every one. A guy with two double-digit rebound performances in 88 college games, who pulled down just 4.4 boards per game last year, had 14 against the Hoosiers and has at least seven in every game. A guy who used to be too reserved to holler at his teammates -- "I was pretty shy, never really opened my mouth" -- will now speak up when he has to.

"Every night we go on the floor, he has a real good chance to be the best player out there," Vandy coach Kevin Stallings said.

That's saying something for a player who went unrecruited out of Shawnee Mission West High School by the nearby Kansas Jayhawks, his favorite team growing up. For Freije, the final choices were Northwestern, Utah, Iowa State and Vanderbilt, where he became a member of Stallings' first recruiting class.

Now that senior class might have to solidify their coach's job.

Vanderbilt hasn't been to the NCAA Tournament since 1997, and hasn't won a game there since Eddie Fogler's bunch went to the Sweet 16 in '93. But last year was the first time since 1985 that the Commodores truly failed to compete in the Southeastern Conference.

The bottom fell out in the now-famous second half at home against Kentucky, when Vandy went from eight up to 22 down. The Wildcats morphed into national title contenders and the Commodores shrank into league pushovers. Vandy lost 12 of its last 14 regular-season games to finish 11-18, just 3-13 in SEC play. The nadir was a 62-point annihilation in the rematch against Kentucky in Rupp Arena on March 5.

This was culture shock to the coach. Stallings had never, ever had a losing season in college basketball until last year. Not as a player at Belleville Junior College or Purdue. Not as an assistant with the Boilermakers or Kansas. Not as a head coach in six years at Illinois State or three years at Vandy.

But now the problems from last season have been converted into motivational fuel for this season.

"Everyone had a sour taste in our mouth, how we underachieved," Freije said. "Guys never came together. We weren't really a team."

Team-building began in the weight room and accelerated on a 10-day, six-game trip to Spain in August.

"Nobody spoke much Spanish, so we just hung together," Freije said. "We became teammates."

That's carried over to the regular season. Those teammates have given leading-man Freije ample support, showing a physical and mental toughness that was absent much of last year. Vanderbilt hasn't allowed an opponent to shoot better than 35 percent from the field so far and has rebounded the ball tenaciously. Senior Scott Hundley is averaging 10 points and five rebounds in only 18 minutes of playing time per game. Center David Przybyszewski, previously just a mouthful, is now becoming a handful, averaging 7.7 points and 5.3 rebounds. Sophomore point guard Mario Moore is handing out five assists per game.

If those numbers keep up, Vandy has a chance to enter SEC play with some serious momentum. The 'Dores don't leave the city of Nashville until the New Year, and the once-raucous crowds are returning to Memorial Coliseum after the school cut ticket prices for this season -- a stunning move in these greedy times.

Vandy must get by dangerous underdog IUPUI on Wednesday night, but the 'Dores could possibly hit 2004 10-0, with a couple of nice skins on the wall. They've already beaten Indiana handily (though that looks less impressive after the demolition Wake Forest put on the Hoosiers this week) and can go for the Big Ten double dip Saturday when Michigan visits.

After that run at home comes a league that looks nowhere near as forbidding as last year's alley fight. Kentucky and Florida both look very impressive, but no other SEC teams are even ranked at present.

"After you get past those two (the Cats and Gators), you can take the other 10 and, truthfully, anything can happen," Stallings said.

With so much star power gone around the league, why not Vanderbilt? Why not now?

"Why not?" said Stallings, then laughed. "Let's hope."

Murray racing under Cronin
Murray State rookie head coach Mick Cronin is the latest Rick Pitino protégé to take over a program and make a quick impact -- maybe even a quicker impact than anyone expected. Murray is 4-0, having just beaten Conference USA's Southern Mississippi by 40. The Racers have won their four games by an average of 29 points and are putting up 90 points per night.

Cronin credited Murray's six seniors -- Cuthbert Victor, Antione Whelchel, Kevin Paschel, Chris Shumate, Rick Jones and Andi Hornig -- with welcoming the coaching change and attendant change in playing style.

"That can go either way," Cronin said. "But they've embraced the new staff. We're playing nine or 10 guys, the bench is up and cheering and everyone's making the extra pass. It's really great to see."
Junior-college transfer Kelvin Brown is the leading man right now, averaging 18 points and 5.5 rebounds, and is complemented by the athletic Victor's 15.3 points and 9.5 boards. Cronin also is benefitting from a couple of SEC refugees. Former Kentucky point guard Adam Chiles is averaging 13.8 points and leads the team in assists, while Jones is a former Vanderbilt guard who is averaging 10.5 points as the team's top 3-point specialist.

When Cronin arrived, Murray had only four out of 16 players with less than 10 percent body fat. Now they're all there, and have been running teams into the ground in the second half. The leader of Murray's pressing defense has been Chiles, who is tied for fifth nationally with four steals per game. He's also been productive playing the point, with 26 assists in four games.

"We go as he goes, so to speak," Cronin said.

Life gets tougher this week, as Murray hits the road for the first time. The Racers are at Texas Christian on Wednesday night and old rival Western Kentucky on Saturday. An opening-round game against Florida State in the Pittsburgh Holiday Classic is on tap for Dec. 20, and Cronin faces old boss Pitino in Freedom Hall (Jan. 3). Then it's into Ohio Valley Conference play, where the Racers should challenge preseason favorite and defending champion Austin Peay.

With the schedule difficulty increasing, Cronin knows that this blissful early run will eventually come to an end.

"I'm real aware we're not going to go undefeated," he said. "After we beat Wagner (in the season opener) I said I was going to retire, 1-0 at 32 years old."

Around the South

  • Matt Walsh is off to another torrid start for Florida, scoring 27 clutch points in the win over Arizona, while averaging 20 points an outing so far for the No. 2 Gators. Last year, Walsh was similarly productive out of the gate as a freshman, averaging 21 points his first five games, but wore down as the season went along. He scored 20 or more points five times in his first 12 college games, then didn't get 20 again. In fact, he scored in single digits nine times in Florida's final 16 games. "I don't think Matt Walsh or Anthony Roberson had any idea how long the season is," Billy Donovan said. Walsh, however admitted last week after beating Arizona that he played his freshman year with a broken foot. This year, Donovan is optimistic that improved conditioning and increased strength will help keep both Walsh and Roberson operating at peak levels all the way into March.

  • Gerald Fitch has quickly answered the question about who will pick up Keith Bogans' scoring slack at Kentucky. Fitch is averaging 24 points a game for the 3-0 Wildcats and is shooting the lights out. He's shooting 41.7 percent from 3-point range and 55.3 percent from two-point territory -- a preposterous number for a guard. But Kentucky's problem heading into a sensational run of Saturday games (at UCLA, at Michigan State, vs. Indiana in Indianapolis, Louisville, UNC) is depth. So far Tubby Smith has only six reliable players, with the 14 feet of freshman center -- Lukasz Obrzut and Shagari Alleyne -- offering nothing inside. Unless the bench develops, Kentucky is one injury away from serious trouble.

  • You think Louisville misses power forward and ace rebounder Ellis Myles, who is redshirting after a serious knee injury last season? Check the stats from the Cardinals' season-opening loss to Iowa. Centers Otis George and Kendall Dartez combined for zero rebounds and zero points -- while both fouled out -- in 27 minutes of play. Louisville also misses 6-10 JUCO transfer Nouha Diakite, another of the Barton County Community College graduates whose eligibility is on hold. No word on when Diakite will be back, but the Cards needed him last week.

  • Charlotte guard Brendan Plavich out McNamara'd Gerry McNamara in the Carrier Dome last week. The Vanderbilt transfer hit 10 threes, evoking the shooting display Syracuse's McNamara put on in the national championship game last April. Plavich's eruption refuted Charlotte's preseason assertion that it was going to abandon past precedent and be an inside-out offensive team this year. But the bottom line is that it worked. That was a huge win for the 49ers, all but erasing a season-opening loss to George Washington.

  • Marquette got its revenge upon Notre Dame this week, throwing a 22-5 haymaker out of the gate at the team that pasted the Golden Eagles by 21 last year in South Bend. After hosting Grambling on Friday, Marquette should be 6-0 heading to Tucson to play Arizona (Dec. 13).

  • Weird Schedule of the Week: LSU is in the midst of a 17-day break from games. The Tigers last played on Nov. 29 against Louisiana-Monroe and don't play again until Dec. 16 against Utah. John Brady's Tigers don't leave the state until a Dec. 30 game at Houston.

  • Mississippi State and Auburn both lost key players from last year's NCAA Tournament teams, but keep an eye on both. They're undefeated against decent competition and playing well. State ended Western Kentucky's 39-game home winning streak last Saturday and is enjoying the late addition of Baylor transfer Lawrence Roberts. Auburn ripped 2003 NCAA tourney team Colorado State to go 5-0, despite missing two key contributors: guard Lewis Monroe (out with a broken foot for at least a couple more weeks) and freshman center Dwayne Curtis (out until Dec. 17).

  • Pity Arkansas-Pine Bluff. Not only did it lose by 70 at Arkansas, 94-24, but it might only get worse. Pine Bluff doesn't play a home game until Jan. 17.

    Quote to Note
    "That's a ridiculous lineup for major-college basketball."
    -- Rick Pitino, after foul problems and woeful center play forced Louisville to go much of its season opener against Iowa with 6-6 Luke Whitehead playing center and three-point specialist Nate Daniels playing power forward.

    Pat Forde of the Louisville Courier-Journal is a regular contributor to ESPN.com