| MESSAGE BOARD
RECORD: 26 - 8
REGION: Midwest SEED: 2
COACH: Melanie Balcolmb CONFERENCE: SEC
Road to the Final Four ...................................................................................
The cupboard was hardly bare when Melanie Balcomb took over after Jim Foster left for Ohio State. But winning the SEC tournament in your second season is a tremendous accomplishment, and Balcomb's excellent freshmen class -- which accounts for 33 percent of the team's offense -- has made an immediate impact. Still, despite her injuries, Jenni Benningfield's presence might be most important. She really benefited from a productive summer with USA Basketball, and is very important to Vandy's hopes of making an extended stay.
|PLAYER TO WATCH|
This was supposed to be Jenni Benningfield's team this season. But when the talented senior All-American candidate went down with a stress fracture in December, Thomas stepped up. Though Benningfield deserves a good send-off in her final tournament appearance, Thomas can't be overlooked. The 6-foot-3 freshman center led the Commodores in scoring (14.1 points) in league play and ranked second in rebounding (6.1) while shooting 59.5 percent from the field. And in the biggest game of her career, Thomas' third double-double of the season -- 22 points and 11 rebounds -- helped Vandy rally from 18 points down to win the SEC championship. Thomas also was named tournament MVP, becoming the first freshman to win the award since Mississippi State's four-time Kodak All-American LaToya Thomas won it in 2000.
ANALYSIS BY ESPN'S STACEY DALES-SCHUMAN
For a brief second, it appeared that Vanderbilt might be a "bubble team" for this year's tournament. But as SEC play continued, so evolved the Commodores.
After hitting a dry spell mid-SEC season, Vandy found resilience and toughness to bounce back with huge wins at both LSU and Auburn, and then ultimately, capture the SEC tournament championship -- no easy cakewalk.
Vanderbilt doesn't necessarily have the most athletic bodies, but the Commodores utilize good rebounding technique and smart team defense, thereby allowing them to compete in a brutally physical conference like the SEC. With six freshmen, two key injured standouts, and an early suspension to marathon shooter Abi Ramsey, it's no shock that the Commodores have ascended with somewhat of a vengeance.
Since coach Melanie Balcomb's arrival two years ago, Vanderbilt has steadfastly preferred to push the tempo and exhibit complete offensive aggression. In fact, a big key to Vandy's recent success has been using this aggression to start games off with offensive punch. Speaking of offense, Vanderbilt has shot the long ball particularly well this season to average nearly 40 percent accuracy from downtown.
It's no secret that senior forward Jenni Benningfield is Vanderbilt's driving force. She has the skill to hit 3s or hold court in the paint. She has been especially impressive because she has been forced to battle through a nagging stress fracture for the duration of the season. Consequently, others have really had to step up. One of those players is senior guard/forward Hillary Hager. She has earned tremendous respect throughout the SEC because of her toughness, perimeter point production and defensive dexterity.
Throughout Balcomb's coaching career, she has had good fortune in acquiring productive point guards, and freshman Dee Davis, also recruited by the likes of UConn, is yet another. With excellent ball-handling proficiency, Davis has a knack at penetrating and cuing up her teammates for easy buckets. But if need be, she can score, too. It will be interesting to see how Davis manages her first NCAA Tournament appearance.
We would be remiss if we didn't recognize junior "sixth-woman" Ashley Early in all of this discussion. Early leads the team in boards and does her fair share of scoring while coming off the bench.
Vanderbilt is carrying a truck load of energy, momentum and confidence into the NCAA Tournament, especially since the Commodores' six freshmen have matured substantially. They must be smarter than their opponent, and they must enforce the solid scoring defense they've enjoyed all year to ultimately win games.
Keep your eye on Vandy's ability to stroke the ball from range -- it tends to impress.