published Tuesday, January 28th, 2014

Vanderbilt staying scrappy with seven scholarship players

Kevin Stallings
Kevin Stallings
Photo by Associated Press /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

Vanderbilt's basketball program can relate to the early scenes of "Hoosiers," when simply finding enough players to practice was challenge enough.

The Commodores have competed against fellow Southeastern Conference teams this month with only seven scholarship players. They had nine at the start of December, but junior center Josh Henderson tore an ACL against Marshall and sophomore guard Eric McClellan was dismissed from the team for violating academic policy.

Coach Kevin Stallings is having to balance the demands of practice with a desire to preserve the remaining roster.

"If we're going 5-on-5, that means everyone in uniform in the gym is in play," Stallings said Monday on the SEC teleconference. "We've got 10 guys, and one of those is a manager [Rob Cross] who has been converted to a player. If we're going 5-on-5, nobody's resting."

Vanderbilt was struggling in SEC play before winning 66-55 this past Saturday at Texas A&M to improve to 10-8 overall and 2-4 within the league. Junior forward James Siakam, who averaged 2.0 points a game last season and was averaging 7.1 entering last weekend, collected 22 points and 10 rebounds.

"He had one of his worst practices of his life the day before the game," Stallings said. "It wasn't exactly something we saw coming, but James has been really good for us recently, and he was just able to get the ball around the rim and make some plays. That's what we need him to do, and when he comes through like that, we're an entirely different-looking team."

The Commodores on Wednesday will play at Georgia, which has won eight consecutive home games and six straight home games against SEC opposition dating back to last season.

Losses mounting

South Carolina struggled to a 4-14 SEC finish last year in Frank Martin's debut season, and it's been more of the same for the Gamecocks this year with their 0-6 start in league play.

"I can't put winning games above winning people," Martin said, "and right now, we've got to continue to make our guys understand that we're trying to win people. If we can figure out a way to keep our kids excited and connected with who we are and the fact we're not that far off rather than solely focusing on winning and losing games, then that will happen. When you win one, then your kids feel better.

"Everyone who reaches out to them in social media is probably discouraged that we're not winning, so my job is to make sure our guys continue to stay encouraged."

Combine the 2-14 league mark Darrin Horn suffered in his final season, and the Gamecocks have lost 34 of their last 40 SEC games.

Opportunity tonight

LSU has not earned an NCAA tournament invitation since 2009, and the Tigers haven't done enough this time around with their 12-6 record and 3-3 league mark. Their biggest opportunity to turn some heads to this point takes place tonight, when the Tigers host No. 11 Kentucky.

"To play a team with the magnitude of Kentucky, who a lot of people have predicted to have the opportunity to cut down nets in April, says a lot," LSU coach Johnny Jones said, "and if you can knock off someone like that, it certainly increases your chances."

Apology accepted

In the closing seconds of Mississippi State's loss at Ole Miss on Saturday, an irritated Bulldogs coach Rick Ray was seen talking to Rebels guard Marshall Henderson. Ray has since apologized to Henderson as well as Rebels coach Andy Kennedy.

"Both of those guys were really gracious and appreciated the fact that I reached out to them," Ray said. "It's over with."

Ole Miss and Mississippi State are already finished with their scheduled head-to-head matchups this season, with the two rivals having split.

Odds and ends

Alabama and Auburn were a combined 21-1 when they met in football last November, but they're only 17-19 entering Wednesday night's game in Auburn. ... Florida (9th) and Kentucky (12th) continue to be well ahead of the rest of the SEC in the RPI rankings, with Tennessee (51st), Missouri (56th), LSU (61st) and Ole Miss (63rd) next in line.

Contact David Paschall at dpaschall@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6524.

about David Paschall...

David Paschall is a sports writer for the Times Free Press. He started at the Chattanooga Free Press in 1990 and was part of the Times Free Press when the paper started in 1999. David covers University of Georgia football, as well as SEC football recruiting, SEC basketball, Chattanooga Lookouts baseball and other sports stories. He is a Chattanooga native and graduate of the Baylor School and Auburn University. David has received numerous honors for ...

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