Vanderbilt started its trip West with a victory, but things should get even more difficult as the week progresses.
The No. 24 Commodores open play in the Maui Invitational on Monday when they meet Cincinnati in the first round.
Vanderbilt (2-0) began a four-game trip away from home with a 72-70 victory at Saint Mary’s on Friday before heading to Hawaii. The Commodores built a 14-point second-half lead and escaped with the win after the Gaels missed a 3-pointer at the buzzer.
“We knew better than to overlook this team,” coach Kevin Stallings said. “We knew Saint Mary’s was extremely good. They played very well.”
That was only the third loss in the last 35 home games for Saint Mary’s, and the Maui Invitational should provide more challenges for Vanderbilt. The winner will play No. 21 Maryland or host school Chaminade in Tuesday’s semifinals, with the other side of the bracket featuring Gonzaga, Arizona, Wisconsin and Colorado.
Stallings is 0-3 against Cincinnati (2-0), which leads the all-time series 5-1. The Bearcats won 92-83 in the last meeting Dec. 10, 2006.
Jeffery Taylor has led Vanderbilt in scoring in the first two games. Taylor had 19 points on Friday after the Swedish guard averaged 12.2 points in 2008-09 to earn All-SEC freshman honors.
“We don’t win this game if not for Jeff Taylor,” Stallings said. “He was our best player.”
The Commodores have been outrebounded in both games this season, including 44-35 on Friday.
“Our rebounding has to be better,” Stallings said. “They had too many flurries in the second half.”
This is Vanderbilt’s fourth appearance in Maui. The Commodores won the 1986 event and are 6-3 all-time in the tournament.
Cincinnati opened with a 69-62 win over Prairie View A&M on Nov. 16 and a 92-68 rout of Toledo last Monday. Deonta Vaughn and Rashad Bishop are each averaging 14.0 points to lead the Bearcats.
A third player averaging in double figures, freshman Lance Stephenson, has drawn most of the attention, though. Stephenson, averaging 11.5 points, is a McDonald’s All-American who has been named preseason Big East rookie of the year.
Stephenson and Cashmere Wright have become first-year starters for Cincinnati.
“We have some new pieces,” coach Mick Cronin said. “Because we’re subbing and using a deep rotation, you don’t have the cohesiveness defensively. It’s something they’re going to have to get used to over time as we change lineups.”
With the two freshmen in the lineup, Bishop has been relegated to coming off the bench after starting the past two seasons. He excelled last Monday with a team-high 20 points.
“He and I had a lot of talks in the off-season about trying to motivate him,” Cronin said. “He has logged two years of 22-plus minutes in the Big East. I don’t care how talented the young guys are, they don’t have the experience come January.”