- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Derrick Byars paused after last season, the fourth in his two-school sojourn through college basketball, and realized a lot of work was in front of him.

He hadn’t matured into nearly the player he and others envisioned he might become. More importantly, Byars hadn’t reached the NCAA tournament either at Virginia or Vanderbilt, and just one chance remained.

Something had to change. And it did.

Byars blossomed into one of the SEC’s top players, leading sixth-seeded Vanderbilt (22-11) to its first NCAA tournament berth since 2004 and an East Region semifinal date with No. 2 Georgetown (28-6) on Friday in East Rutherford, N.J.

“I think the most important thing is I haven’t taken a day off in practice,” Byars said. “Practice is highly indicative of how you play in games, and there were some occasions in my junior year on the court when I approached it and took the day off. I didn’t do that this year, and it has allowed me to have more consistency on the floor.”

Indeed, inconsistency was a knock on Byars even at Virginia. He found the prospect of a program that cracked the top 10 in 2001 and 2002 alluring, not to mention the possibility of immediate playing time with Roger Mason Jr.’s decision to turn pro and the departures of seniors Adam Hall and Chris Williams.

Byars committed to Virginia soon after visiting the school (he was supposed to visit Vanderbilt the next week). But after two seasons as a part-time starter on a mediocre team and disagreements with then-coach Pete Gillen, Byars wanted out.

“It came around as a tough decision,” Byars said. “Anytime you commit to something, you want to stick with it as long as you can. When there were no positive signs down the road, I kind of decided during the season that was the direction I would take. I didn’t want to cause any distractions, so I kept it fairly confidential.”

Enter a second chance with Vanderbilt, a program coming off a Sweet 16 appearance in 2004. Byars was forced to sit out a season because of NCAA transfer guidelines and used the year to undergo shoulder surgery and begin to remake his body.

The results were remarkable. He was listed as a wiry 6-foot-7, 205-pounder in his sophomore season at Virginia. Now, he’s up to 230 pounds, a slasher who can both tangle for rebounds and slip slick passes to his teammates.

But it didn’t make him a great player as a junior, just a solid contributor. So he holed up in the gym last summer, hour after hour, day after day, for three months. Byars estimates he hoisted more than 20,000 shots and lifted four times a week in addition to daily conditioning, agility drills and regular pickup games.

A breakout season didn’t seem forthcoming as the Commodores stumbled to a 1-3 start, including an opening loss to Georgetown and a home setback against Furman. But Vanderbilt and Byars both recovered, and the senior set career-highs in points (17.0), rebounds (5.0) and assists (3.4).

“Derrick’s talent has always been obvious,” Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings said. “The light sort of went on for him really starting with our conference season. When it did come on, he went from being a guy that was great on occasion and somewhat unnoticeable at other times to being a guy who was great pretty frequently and when he wasn’t great he was still really good.”

Byars, who ranks fourth in the SEC in scoring, earned conference player of the year honors in a poll of the league’s coaches and finished second in a media vote to Tennessee’s Chris Lofton after earning little acclaim in the preseason.

He’s earned a lot more attention in the last week. He was superb in the second half of the Commodores’ 78-74 double-overtime victory against third-seeded Washington State in the second round Saturday. He overcame a sluggish first half to score 27 points — 19 after the break, including five 3-pointers — and extend his college career by at least a game.

“One of the things he has that the big names don’t have is his versatility and how well-rounded he is,” Vanderbilt guard Dan Cage said. “He’s good on the offensive end; he’s good on the defensive end. He can guard the other team’s point guard; he can guard the other team’s power forward. He can guard the dribble, and he’s great on the drive. … I think people are starting to see now in the NCAAs he truly is one of the best. He saved his best for the big stage.”

And that makes Byars’ offseason change worth savoring even more.

“You can look at it from a playing time perspective or a look at it as my personal inconsistency. Whatever it was, I was battling inconsistency, and I wanted to change that because this was my last stab at it,” Byars said. “… It’s what you work for, and I’m glad we had a chance to make an NCAA appearance. I’m taking it all in and enjoying every minute.”

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