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January 25, 2007

Notebook: Byars leading Vandy resurgence

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Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings looked each of his players in the eye after a 68-65 loss at Auburn earlier this month and asked who was playing to their potential.

Nobody raised their hand. None of them could.

That's not the case anymore. Several Commodores have raised their level of play, none more than senior wing Derrick Byars.

The versatile Byars carried Vandy to upsets over Tennessee, Alabama, Kentucky and LSU in four of the Commodores' last five games. Byars is averaging 20.8 points and 6.5 rebounds a game and shooting 54 percent (17 of 31) from 3-point range during that stretch.

Those numbers have carried the Vanderbilt (14-6, 4-2) into a tie for second place in the SEC East with Kentucky and Georgia.

"It's probably the best I've played for a four-game stretch," Byars told Rivals.com prior to the win over LSU. "It's just been about laying it all out on the line and not cheating the team."

Byars' teammates felt he was doing just that for most of the first half of the season. Nobody pulled the 6-foot-7, 220-pound veteran aside and lectured him, but he could sense they wanted him to be more assertive - especially on offense.

"My teammates implicitly called me out in a way," said Byars, who spent two weeks this past summer playing with a traveling team in Brazil. "It wasn't straightforward, but they would give certain looks that said, 'You should have taken that shot' or 'You could have beaten that man off the dribble.' Seniors are supposed to step up and I've being trying to respond."

The Commodores are more than satisfied with Byars' response. Entering their 63-54 triumph over the Tigers on Wednesday night, Byars ranked second among all scorers in SEC games, averaging 18.8 points in league play. He was also fifth in field goal percentage (53 percent) and 3-point field goal percentage (53 percent).

"Derrick has been really, really good since the Auburn game," Stallings said. "He's been outstanding … and that is a key because he is our go-to guy along with Shan Foster."

Foster, who scored a season-high 27 points against Alabama, and Byars are both averaging 15 points a game for the season.

"We're as potent a tandem as you will find," Byars said.

If Byars keeps playing like he has over the last five games, he'll be as potent a player as you will find in the SEC.

Big East's Mr. Versatility

Providence sophomore forward Geoff McDermott has a chance to lead the Big East in rebounding and assists, something that hasn't been accomplished in the 25-year history of the conference. McDermott's average of 5.3 assists a game leads the league and his 10.2 rebounds a game rank second behind Pittsburgh's Aaron Gray (10.3 rpg).

When asked about his chances of making history, McDermott said he wasn't even aware of it.

"I had no idea about that," McDermott said. "If it helps us win that's great, but if it happens and we are losing than I wouldn't really be too happy."

McDermott, whose teammates call him "G-Mac," actually turned down a scholarship offer from Duke. Not heavily recruited until his senior year at New Rochelle (N.Y.) High, McDermott made an official visit to Duke. He wound up signing with Providence, the first school who offered him, in the late signing period. He also played quarterback and was recruited in football by Rutgers, Syracuse and Wisconsin.

"Duke was so appealing, but it was probably too far," McDermott said. "I'm really close with my family. My dad and mom come to almost all my home games. A lot of my friends are big Duke fans, but I just told them I went with heart."

The 6-foot-7, 240-pound McDermott - who put together his first triple-double versus Harvard earlier this season (12 points, 11 rebounds and 10 assists) - says his versatility comes from the combination of playing point guard early in his prep career and a three-inch growth spurt in the summer before his junior year. As a sophomore, he was 6-2.

"I developed that point guard mentality in high school and once I grew everything was a lot easier," McDermott said. "When I'm matched up with someone bigger I feel like I have the advantage and can find the open guy."

Great effort and hustle also play a large role in McDermott's mutli-dimensional game. He would rather grab a key rebound than hit a long 3-pointer or make a flashy behind-the-back pass.

"Getting a big rebound down the stretch when we really need a stop is my favorite," McDermott said. "That feels real good with the game on the line."

Trivia Question: Texas freshman Kevin Durant has already racked up 12 double-doubles. How many more does Durant need to break the record for a freshman and whose record would he break? (Answer at the bottom).

Quick hits

Wondering why your team is struggling on the road? Want to know why your favorite player isn't scoring?

Rivals.com college basketball writer Andrew Skwara answers your questions every week in his mailbag. Click here to send him a question.

  • Guard Jarrius Jackson (20.5 ppg) is Texas Tech's best player, but reserve forward Darryl Dora (5.9 ppg) might concern Red Raider opponents more. The Red Raiders have won the four games in which Dora has scored in double figures. That includes a 69-64 upset of Kansas last week when Dora scored a season-high 19 points. Dora chipped in nine points in a 70-68 upset of Texas Tech on Wednesday night. In the Red Raiders' five losses, he has averaged just 3.0 points a game.

  • Arkansas coach Stan Heath's comments at the SEC media days about how much center Steven Hill improved offensively this offseason are finally starting to make sense. Hill averaged just 5.4 points in the Razorbacks' first 17 games. But the junior who has long been labeled a shot-blocking specialist scored 15 points in a loss to Georgia and then set a new season-high with 16 points in a win over LSU in back-to-back games last week.

  • No. 4 North Carolina is one of the latest examples of how little experience can mean in college basketball. The Tar Heels freshmen have combined to make 55 starts, tops among all teams in the ACC. That number has been produced by three players who have spent most of the season in the starting lineup, power forward Brandan Wright, shooting guard Wayne Ellington and point guard Tywon Lawson.

    Answer: 11. Syracuse's Carmelo Anthony set the record with 22 double-doubles in his lone college season in 2002-03.

    Rivals.com college basketball writer Andrew Skwara answers your questions every week in his Friday Mailbag. Click here to send him a question.

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