EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. - After three somewhat disappointing seasons, Vanderbilt's Derrick Byars set his alarm clock for 5:30 a.m. in the offseason and went to work.
Putting aside two frustrating seasons at Virginia and a so-so first year back home with the Commodores, the relatively unknown swingman took 20,000 shots, added 15 pounds of muscles and increased his bench press by 50 pounds.
The work didn't make him a household name such as Texas' Kevin Durant or Ohio State's Greg Oden.
Byars, however, is the coaches' pick as the Southeastern Conference player of the year and the major reason why sixth-seeded Vanderbilt (22-11) is playing second-seeded Georgetown (28-6) in the semifinals of the East Regional at the Continental Airlines Arena on Friday night.
"After last year, I said: ‘You can't do this again, in two or three months it's going to be over with, so try to get this thing right and go out the way you want to,'" Byars said Thursday.
Byars would arrive at the gym by 7 a.m. and stay for 12 hours. Some nights he would come back around 11 p.m. or midnight to continue working on his game.
A Memphis native who returned to his home state after leaving Virginia, Byars also has developed a flair for stepping up big situations.
In the 78-74 double-overtime win over No. 3 seed Washington State last weekend, Byars scored 19 of his 27 points in the second half, hitting five 3-pointers. He also had 24 in a win over then No. 1 and defending champion Florida on Feb. 17, and 26 in a win over Kentucky eight days later.
Doing it against Georgetown will be a challenge.
Byars has faced the Hoyas twice in the last two years. He scored seven points in a 68-61 Vanderbilt win early last season and he had 14 in a rather one-sided 86-70 Georgetown win at the start of this season.
Tonight will be the rubber match, with the winner moving within a game of reaching the Final Four in Atlanta.
Byars is at somewhat of a loss to explain his late development. Coming out of high school, he felt he could be all-ACC at Virginia. However, his relationship with then-coach Pete Gillen soured after two seasons, and he said leaving was the low point of his college career.
"When you can't trust your coach any more, that's the time you need to leave," said Byars, who sat out the 2004-05 season and then averaged 12.4 points with the Commodores last season.
Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings always saw the potential in Byars. What was missing was consistency.
"I think that the more he worked on his game the more confident he became, and I think that confidence transferred into consistency because Derrick has always shown flashes of brilliance as a player at Vanderbilt," Stallings said. "The thing that was missing was the consistency piece and I think that this season he's been a very consistent player and consistently played at a high level."
The concern for Vanderbilt heading into the game has to be Georgetown's big front line of Hibbert (7-foot-2), Big East Conference player of the year Jeff Green (6-9) and DaJuan Summers (6-8). Not only is the line big, but it is mobile.
Vanderbilt, which switched to virtually a four-guard offense after an injury to Alan Metcalfe in the second game, doesn't have a player bigger than 6-9 in its starting lineup.
"These aren't two big slow guys down in the post that you have to try and just front," Cage said. "These guys get out on the 3-point line. They pass the ball, they dribble the ball well, and they are extremely versatile and athletic and quick. They run the floor. So they present some unique matchup problems for us."
"... Hopefully we'll be able to figure out a way to neutralize them a little bit," Cage said.
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