Vandy wins with international flavor

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This is the way it works with Southeastern Conference basketball: When Kentucky is mediocre, the world shrugs at the entire league. When Kentucky is good, the Wildcats suck all the air from the room.

The Wildcats have been dazzling this season, so distribute the oxygen masks and take a closer look at the intriguing and thoroughly international team Kevin Stallings has built at surging Vanderbilt.

The Commodores have earned your attention. There's a center from Australia, a forward from Sweden, back-up frontcourt help from Cameroon and Nigeria and a roster filled out with guys from Texas, Oregon, Chicago and Brooklyn.

Don't bother looking for McDonald's All-Americans. Stallings simply has guys who shoot like their scholarship money depends upon it.

Oh, and the Commodores have also won 12 of their last 14, dominating Bruce Pearl's Tennessee team twice by a combined 28 points.

"We've got great chemistry going," said Jeffery Taylor, who came to Vandy via hoops hot spots like Sweden and Hobbs, N.M. "It's an interesting group. We learn about basketball and other cultures. We get some laughs out of that."

Vandy's status as the SEC's second-best team is no laughing matter. The Commodores (18-5, 7-2 in the league) get a Louisiana State team that has lost all 10 of its league games in Nashville Saturday and visit Mississippi Thursday.

Then, on Feb. 20, they will welcome John Calipari's Kentucky team to boisterous Memorial Gymnasium. Imagine: Jay Cutler on one end of the gym, Ashley Judd on the other. Oh, don't forget that Vandy has beaten Kentucky four straight in Nashville.

"I really like my team," Stallings said. "I enjoyed watching our offense (in a 90-71 beatdown of Tennessee Tuesday) as much as I have in a long time. The way we moved the ball, the way we shared it, the way we didn't give in to good defense.

"I don't know where we really fit (on the national stage), but I do know we deserve to be ranked."

Ranked -- and respected. Stallings said that he did not intend to construct a team with such a powerful international flavor. But with Vanderbilt's rigorous academic requirements, Stallings cannot survive on a local or even regional recruiting base, so his staff is ready to go anywhere to find players.

Center A.J. Ogilvy, the face of the program the last three seasons, arrived from Sydney, Australia. Taylor, a 6-7 sophomore, played soccer, hockey and hoops in Norrkoping, Sweden before finishing high school in Hobbs, N.M.

One frontcourt reserve is Festus Ezeli, a biology major who was 14 when he graduated from secondary school in Nigeria. Vandy students wave a Cameroon flag for Steve Tchiengang, a back-up power forward.

"It wasn't like we set out to do this (recruit internationally)," Stallings said. "Three of these kids (all but Ogilvy) were actually playing over here when we started recruiting them. But I enjoy the cultural differences and diversity it brings to our team."

Don't forget Jermaine Beal, the team's senior guard. "Dolla" Beal not only has Vandy's best nickname, he's also got the team's best scoring average (14.7) with a solid 2-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio.

Beal and Ogilvy are veterans, guys who played on Vandy's 2008 NCAA tournament team. Guys like Taylor and freshman John Jenkins, a 3-point specialist, explain the growth in this team and why the Commodores sit as high as a No. 4 seed in several mock NCAA tournament brackets.

Taylor's father, also named Jeffery, is a former Texas Tech star who played parts of two seasons in the NBA before settling in the Swedish pro leagues. That's where Taylor played until he was 17 1/2. "If I wanted to continue my career, I had to go to the U.S. or turn pro," Taylor said. "I wasn't ready to go pro."

Taylor moved in with his grandparents in Hobbs, N.M. He didn't play AAU basketball and didn't have a huge national profile, although he eventually turned down offers from Gonzaga and UCLA. Taylor is building a profile now. Ask Bruce Pearl.

Taylor buried the Vols with 26 points, his career high, Tuesday. The only thing foreign about Taylor's game is that he is not obsessed with finger rolls. He understands angles and the importance of a fundamentally correct shooting stroke.

He made all 12 of his free throws against Tennessee. Every Vandy starter is shooting better than 72 percent from the line. Vandy ranks 14th nationally in field-goal percentage, making nearly 49 percent of its shots.

Considering how well Vandy has played in the SEC, it's a wonder the Commodores haven't pulled out the "No Respect" card

"We don't think that way," Taylor said. "We don't like that. We want to go on the court and do things that speak for themselves."

In any language, of course.

Rick Bozich is a sports columnist for The Courier-Journal. Check out his blog here .