NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) Junior center Damian Jones has put together his best back-to-back games at Vanderbilt since coach Kevin Stallings publicly criticized both his Commodores and himself.
Maybe Stallings should have spoken up sooner.
Jones is playing with much more emotion, and has produced both a career-high in rebounds and a career-high in points in two big wins that have helped revive Vanderbilt's hopes of the program's first NCAA Tournament berth since 2012. Now the Commodores host No. 16 Kentucky on Saturday tied for fourth in the Southeastern Conference with three games left.
''Just trying to make the tournament,'' Jones said Thursday before practice. ''Been my dream forever and just trying to make it happen.''
With a pair of 7-footers in Jones and Luke Kornet, this squad was expected to end Vanderbilt's NCAA drought after the Commodores finished last season strong with a quartet who played so well as freshmen. The Commodores found themselves ranked No. 16 at the end of November only to lose six of eight games to fall out of the top 25.
Stallings spoke out Feb. 18 after watching his Commodores blow a 17-point lead losing at Mississippi State, the fifth time Vanderbilt had failed to protect a double-digit lead this season.
His Commodores responded first by beating Georgia on Feb. 20 with Jones turning in a double-double with a career-best 16 rebounds, then topping Florida 87-74 on Tuesday night with Jones knocking down 12 of 13 shots for a career-high 27 points. Stallings said Jones simply dominated that game.
''We're a different basketball team when he plays that way,'' Stallings said. ''If there's anything that I hope for going forward, it's that Damian continues with that kind of effort and that kind of aggressiveness, that kind of emotion because again we're a much, much better team when he produces like that.''
The Commodores (17-11, 9-6) now are tied for fourth in the SEC with LSU and just two games back of Kentucky (21-7, 11-4) for the top of the conference standings. A win Saturday before a sellout crowd at Memorial Gym not only could help Vanderbilt clinch an NCAA Tournament berth but make a move for the regular season title and the top seed for the tournament next month.
Kentucky beat Vanderbilt 76-57 on Jan. 23 at Rupp Arena, and the Wildcats haven't visited Memorial Gym since January 2014 when Jones was a freshman.
Sophomore guard Wade Baldwin IV, Vandy's leading scorer with 14.4 points per game, said the Commodores know what Saturday's game means for a team trying to get to the tournament.
''There's definitely a sense of urgency, especially with all the expectations coming into the season where we should be,'' Baldwin said. ''We've let it slip a little bit, but you know we're here and opportunity's right ahead of us.''
Stallings sees his Commodores' confidence growing having won five of seven. The Commodores rank fourth in the SEC - just behind Kentucky - scoring 77.3 points per game. The Commodores also rank second knocking down 39.1 percent of their 3-pointers.
''You want to play your best basketball at this time of year, so hopefully that's what's occurring for us,'' Stallings said. ''I'll probably be able to let you know in two-three weeks if that really was the case. We're hopeful of that. ... If we're getting to the point of playing our best basketball, that would make me very happy.''
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