No More Excuses

That's it – after Saturday's miserably weak-kneed and timid collapse against the Tennessee Vols, there are no more excuses for the Vanderbilt Commodores. None. A team in disarray needs to grow a spine, and the coaching staff needs to work to make it happen. There's no more important task right now for the VU crew than to develop the kind of mentality that can win games on road or neutral courts.

This is an old, worn and tired refrain, but it's the only song that can be sung in the home of country music. Nashville is the cradle of sad songs about breakups, blues and bad turns in life, and so it's regrettably yet undeniably appropriate that Music City USA is home to a college basketball team that just can't handle prosperity. The Commodores don't want to lose, but like it or not, they've become subconsciously comfortable with losing; they don't hate the bitter taste of defeat with enough venom or fury. They don't know what a killer instinct looks or feels like, and until they find that place of mental mastery, they're just not going to do anything in the SEC or NCAA tournaments. It's that simple.

The facts are cold and merciless… exactly what Vanderbilt isn't: Over the past four seasons, the Commodores have not won a single NCAA Tournament game. They haven't won a single semifinal game in the SEC Tournament in that same span of time, with their last SEC Tournament championship coming in 1951. (Moreover, that '51 crown was and is VU's only SEC tourney title.) Kevin Stallings is a great guy, and he's also a brilliant X-and-O man, but off-court character and chalkboard knowledge aren't the main issues staring this program in the face at this point. There is only one concern for VU hoops, and it has to be pursued until it is eventually found: toughness. Backbone. Resilience. Competitive courage. Bill Raftery calls it "ONIONS!" Doris Burke calls it "will." Whatever word you prefer, it boils down to a mindset, a way of carrying oneself on the court.

Here's the thing to emphasize about Vandy's lack of NCAA or SEC tournament wins over the past three years, with another pair of early exits looming unless the Dores change their tune: Tournament games are not home games. The Memorial Gym mojo that carried this team to a win over Georgia, and helped the Dores in their late-December squeaker over Marquette, isn't there to mentally cushion this team in hostile or neutral environments. Away from home, athletes must call forth energy and inspiration within. Artificial or outside stimuli don't provide psychological pick-me-ups… not with the same intensity or regularity, at any rate. Playing on the road in the SEC, or playing neutral-site games in March, demand the ability to execute and perform in an unfamiliar environment. The shooting backdrops might be different and the level of crowd support might dissipate, but at the end of the day, this is still a sport with a 94-foot-long court, 10-foot-high baskets, and 3-point lines that are 20 feet and nine inches away from the basket. A game of roundball, no matter where it's played, demands the ability to protect the ball, especially when an opposing offense (Tennessee's) can't generate any scoring punch on its own. James Naismith's sport requires the ability to rebound, especially in the last minutes of a game (remember Murray State?). On Saturday against Tennessee, VU didn't grab ONE REBOUND in the final EIGHT MINUTES AND THIRTY-SIX SECONDS OF REGULATION. That fact is as unacceptable as it is shocking.


Beyond the inability to rebound or be ball-strong in half-court sets, Vanderbilt is chronically plagued by a larger mental shortcoming, that inexact but oh-so-real paralysis in the face of prosperity. So many teams across the country have established a penchant for building leads only to blow them. So many programs in college basketball (it's the same with football) play just well enough to lose, folding in crunch time after establishing a position of great command in the first 20 to 25 minutes of competition.

Virginia Tech grabbed a 31-15 lead over North Carolina on Thursday night in a road game at Chapel Hill. The Hokies asserted themselves and showed just how superior they were… or at least, how superior they could be when locked in and focused. Then, as sure as the sun rises in the east, the Hokies let their feet off the gas pedal. They allowed Carolina to make a late run to pull within seven points, 31-24, at the intermission. The second half involved a seesaw game that Carolina quite predictably pulled out at the end by three points, 64-61. Virginia Tech is another program that hasn't won an NCAA Tournament or an ACC Tournament semifinal in recent years. That collapse against Carolina was basically replicated by Vanderbilt on Saturday in Knoxville. Stallings and Virginia Tech coach Seth Greenberg (two men who both have a measure of baldness, evidently for very understandable reasons) know the pain that other coaches feel: Their teams hit a mental wall and tighten up like skinny jeans in the washing machine when the going gets tough.

When teams unravel down the stretch of a slugfest, the anatomy of a downward spiral is always the same on a general level: Rebounds are lost. Decisions in halfcourt sets become panic-ridden and misguided. Shot selection becomes atrocious. Success is desperately hoped for, but not pursued with relentless energy or steady determination. Vandy and Virginia Tech weren't the only teams on Saturday who hit that mental wall in the final 10 minutes of regulation. Maryland experienced the same fate against Villanova. Northwestern hit that wall against Michigan State (the Wildcats annually hit that wall in big games). Marquette hit that wall with five minutes left at Louisville. You can distinguish the upper-tier teams from the middle-tier teams in college basketball by measuring their poise in meaningful moments, and by any stretch of the imagination, Vanderbilt is a program that falls squarely into the middle-tier category. The Dores showed flashes of toughness in Puerto Rico and dug out a big win over Marquette, but after squandering sizeable second-half leads on the road in both Columbia (last Saturday) and in Knoxville, there can be no debate: This is a mentally weak team, a psychologically soft team. It has pretty players (John Jenkins and Jeffery Taylor are elegant and exquisitely skilled hoopsters who are fun to watch), but not tough players. Not at this stage in the Dores' evolution.

We can talk about many plays or sequences against Tennessee, but the only one that matters is that with the game on the line, the smallest Vol – Melvin Goins – outworked two bigger Vandy players for the game's biggest rebound with 18 seconds left and Tennessee leading by one point at 65-64. As long as Vanderbilt fails to get one rebound in the final 8:36 of any contentious road game, be it within or beyond the SEC, this team can forget about doing anything in the SEC or NCAA postseason.

Kevin Stallings needs to consult Tom Izzo or retired coach Eddie Sutton. Both men are noted for putting their teams through punishing rebounding drills designed to instill toughness into a roster. Vanderbilt can run set plays and shoot the ball, but until the Dores develop more mental might and the grit to outfight opponents for loose balls in the final minutes of an even-steven donnybrook, Xs and Os won't matter at all. Vanderbilt will eventually need its 3-point-shooting attack as the season continues, but in all candor, the next two to three weeks should be spent eschewing the long ball and focusing solely on pile-driving the ball to the hoop. Vanderbilt needs to war in the paint, and players like Steve Tchiengang – who can face up to the basket and launch threes but can't play with their backs to the basket on the low block – need to develop this thing called a low-post game. Unless or until Vanderbilt becomes comfortable playing rugged, lunch-pail basketball and gets used to playing without fear or hesitation in the final minutes of close road games, any other discussion is just a waste of breath.

It's time for Vanderbilt to become physically and mentally tough. It's time for a soft team to stop putting up with a comfortable mediocrity that produces one unacceptable SEC road loss after another. If the Dores don't start getting angry about all their failures, they'll just drift into irrelevance and throw away the immense basketball talent they possess. That's not how life is meant to be tackled in any field of endeavor. It's time for an attitude shift in Nashville… at least, if the sad country songs are to stop flowing from the Vanderbilt basketball locker room. Top Stories