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Vanderbilt upbeat as it opens NCAA Tournament at Times Forum

As seniors, Vanderbilt guards Shan Foster and Alex Gordon had their hearts set on winning an SEC tournament title last week.

Over the past four years, the two have been a vital part of the Commodores' most successful class, picking up 85 wins and a combined 2,999 points. But this was their last shot at an SEC tournament title.

So when Vandy was ousted for the second straight year in the second round, the players were disappointed, yet optimistic. An early-round exit last season gave the Commodores valuable time to correct lingering issues and get ready for a deep run in the NCAA Tournament.

"Last year we had an early loss and we went back an corrected some things," said Foster, the SEC player of the year. "We've got some things to work on this year."

Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings was equally disappointed in the tournament loss, but Monday morning he could already see the positives as Vandy prepared to play Siena at 7:20 Friday at the St. Pete Times Forum.

"We didn't fare as well in the conference tournament as we would have hoped, but if you're not going to win it, I'm not so sure that an earlier exit is not better than a later exit," Stallings said. "I think that when you get exposed, and we were exposed in our game down in the tournament, that gives us a great deal of focus as we go into this week.

"I think this week is great in terms of the opportunity to prepare and get back to some basics that you feel like are important for tournament play.''

Recent history bears that out. After last season's loss, the Commodores went home and adjusted, then advanced to the Sweet 16, losing 66-65 to eventual Final Four team Georgetown.

In last week's loss to Arkansas, Vanderbilt was outrebounded 45-24 and outscored 50-20 in the paint.

"We obviously have got some work to do as far as our defense," Gordon said. "But we're not going to lose any confidence. We're a good team. Like last year, we've just got to go back to the drawing board (this week)."

While the approach to the NCAA Tournament is similar, this is a vastly different Vanderbilt team from last season. Then, it was four perimeter players and a center. This year, it's more, led by Foster and Gordon at guard, A.J. Ogilvy, the SEC's top scoring freshman at center, Jermaine Beal at point and last year's center Ross Neltner at forward.

While Stallings said it's the complement of players that has made this team successful, he won't downplay the importance of Foster, who led the SEC in scoring (20.5) and 3-pointers (133 for 47.3 percent).

"Shan has been our leader, best player and the league's best player," he said. "He's had a great year and if we're going to be effective this week, then Shan will obviously have to continue to play the way he has this season. … Everybody is going to have to play, as we say, on high, for us to be successful in this tournament."

Vanderbilt enters having lost three of its last five, but the players are looking at it differently: They won nine of their last 12. At this point in the season, it's all about what you believe.

"We just continue to believe in each other," Foster said. "Obviously we didn't want to lose that game (last year) or this year, but it's just one game. Fortunately for us, we have a chance to right the ship for the NCAA Tournament, just like last year."

Antonya English can be reached at english@sptimes.com.

Vanderbilt upbeat as it opens NCAA Tournament at Times Forum 03/18/08 [Last modified: Wednesday, March 19, 2008 6:24pm]

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