Some college basketball programs just don’t fare well in conference tournaments. It’s odd when certain programs just don’t max out when playing familiar opponents they generally outplayed during the regular season, but it happens. Conference tournament games are played one day after the other, without a break. If you’re not in possession of dominant, overwhelming talent yet are assured of a place in the NCAA tournament, it’s not easy to develop the full force and fury needed to win a conference tournament. A number of Vanderbilt teams over the decades fit this basic description, so while the idea of going 61 years and 34 SEC tournaments without an SEC tournament title (the event wasn’t played for a 26-year stretch, from 1953 through 1978…) seems like an indictment of the program, it really isn’t as bad as it sounds.
That said, when Vanderbilt prepared to begin its 2012 SEC Tournament, its SEC tournament title drought was less conspicuous than an even more eye-catching fact: Not only had the Dores failed to win the SEC tournament since 1951; they had failed to even make the final of the event. You would have thought that one of C.M. Newton’s teams from the 1980s would have made the final of the tournament. (Roy Skinner’s teams from the mid-1960s and mid-1970s didn’t ever get the chance, of course – they probably would have broken through if given the opportunity.) In 1993, Eddie Fogler’s best VU crew was locked out by the powerful Kentucky-Arkansas axis, which was just beginning to flex its muscles at that point in time.
History attains its permanence when the ink of the record book dries, but the present tense offers a chance for a new set of athletes to change the course of human events. The 2012 Vanderbilt team owned a level of talent which was more than good enough to make the SEC final. Members of the 2012 Dores populate NBA rosters, both in the Southeast (John Jenkins in Atlanta, Jeffery Taylor in Charlotte) and on the West Coast (Festus Ezeli in Golden State). However, the roadside of college basketball history is littered with teams and coaching staffs that wind up lamenting what might have been. It was time for Vanderbilt to make an SEC tournament championship game, and at least give a mighty Kentucky team a good test in that final showdown in New Orleans.
The Dores went one step beyond merely testing Big Blue.
After thumping Georgia in the quarterfinals, the Dores received a bracket break in the semifinals. Ole Miss upset second-seeded Tennessee in the quarters, giving third-seeded VU a golden path to the final. The Commodores clocked the Rebels by 12 – 65-53 – to snap a 34-SEC tournament streak without an appearance in the final. Then came the opportunity of a lifetime: a chance to be remembered as SEC tournament champions… by beating Kentucky, the signature program in the conference.
We just finished a college basketball season in which Kentucky very nearly went 40-0. The 2012 Kentucky team “only” won 24 straight games entering the SEC final in the Big Easy. It’s worth noting that Anthony Davis played that very same SEC tournament in the arena he now inhabits as a pro, plying his trade for the New Orleans Pelicans of the NBA. Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist – a Jeffery Taylor teammate in Charlotte – led the Wildcats into the final game of the SEC season against VU. The Dores regularly play Kentucky closely, but they needed to show they could do so on a big stage.
On this day, the promise and potential of Vanderbilt basketball – and one of its best teams – were actualized.
What makes this supremely sweet memory in VU history more honest and real -- and less of a fairy tale than it otherwise would have been -- is that the feat was made possible not just by the big-name players who grabbed the headlines and secured a place in the lore of the program, but by those who didn’t pan out or merely stayed out of the spotlight.
Sure, the Taylor-Jenkins-Ezeli trio combined to score 52 points, leading the way at the offensive end of the floor. However, every player who took the floor for Vanderbilt – nine in all, with every reserve playing at least seven minutes – defended well. The Dores caused Kentucky to go without a field goal in the final 8:04 of regulation, 36 percent for the whole game. Davis made just four shots for the Wildcats, Kidd-Gilchrist only two. Vanderbilt turned Kentucky into a jump-shooting team. VU earned 13 more free throws (32-19) and took 10 fewer threes (18 to 28 for the Wildcats). Vanderbilt played Kentucky relatively evenly on the offensive glass (12-9, UK) and didn’t hemorrhage turnovers (only 11 for the game). The ability to play close in a number of key statistical categories was enough to win the game when the Wildcats’ threes didn’t fall. (Kentucky made only 6 of its 28 triples.)
In order to pull off that defensive performance, Vanderbilt needed the spot minutes of Steve Tchiengang, Rod Odom, and Dai-Jon Parker to spell the starters. The Dores didn’t fall off a cliff when the reserves came in, and that was one vital component of Vanderbilt’s victory.
The other part of VU’s win which has to be noted – even though it might carry a bitter aftertaste today – is that a 62-all tie was broken inside the final two minutes of regulation by Kedren Johnson. His three-point play gave Vanderbilt the lead for good. As a freshman, when his career prospects seemed the brightest, Johnson enabled his more credentialed teammates to revel in a championship celebration. His own career might have hit a roadblock, and his transfer to nearby Memphis represented a bitter pill for Commodore fans to swallow. Yet, it can at least be said that Johnson contributed to one of the seminal moments in the history of the program.
Johnson’s presence in this larger drama serves as a reminder that for most programs, the improbable successes which emerge are counterbalanced by a lot of bad luck in other seasons. This enables the 2012 season to be appreciated even more as the precious gem it was… and is… and always will be.
Vanderbilt has never made a Final Four, and when it won the SEC tournament in 1951, there was no NCAA tournament to go to. The 2012 SEC Tournament championship, won against a legendary team that went on to win the national title, is very much on the short list as one of the mountaintop moments in Vanderbilt history, surely somewhere in the top five if not the top three.