Vanderbilt, which won 11 games all of the 2002-03 season, has bolted out of the gates to win that many by Jan. 3. The turnaround has been beyond sensational.
But of course, the season doesn't end today... in fact, in many ways, the season begins today. Regrettably, there are no more Lehighs, Appalachian States or even IUPUI's left on the docket. The non-conference home wins over Indiana and Michigan were certainly welcome, and fueled the fans' enthusiasm for what's to come; yet they'll quickly be forgotten should the Commodores come crashing back to earth in the next few days.
That's not to say that what Stallings' men have accomplished isn't remarkable. It's certainly worth noting that the last time a Vanderbilt team won its first ten games (1973-74), it won an SEC championship. The last time a team won its first 11 (1960-61), Stallings was in diapers.
The last time a Vandy team won its first 12 games? Hasn't been done. Fans attending Wednesday's SEC home opener vs. Auburn (7 p.m. CT, Jefferson-Pilot TV, 650 WSM-AM) have a chance to witness history.
No, perfection through 11 non-conference games is nothing at which to blow one's nose; nor is the average margin of victory, which is hovering around 20 points.
The great paradox is that Stallings seems to be getting more out of his team by coaching them less. Ask him, and he'll tell you that the leadership of his four seniors has relieved him from having to crack the whip in practices. "Take care of the process," he says, "and the results will take care of themselves."
Make no mistake, Vandy fans around the country are starting to catch on to this team's enormous potential. If my E-mail is any indication, Commodore fans are as geeked for this conference season as any since... probably 1994, when Vandy was coming off a regular-season SEC championship and bringing back the reigning SEC Player of the Year in Billy McCaffrey.
Even the omnipresent yapper Dick Vitale has chimed in multiple times to bestow props. "I've spoken to a number of coaches who have told me that Vanderbilt is for real," the ESPN commentator hyperventilated earlier this week. "Last weekend's 35-point win at TCU sent a real message."
The Commodores moved up to No. 20 Monday in the AP poll, No. 21 in the ESPN/Coaches. So what's not to like?
Only the fact that to obtain true respect, a college basketball team must excel in its conference. RPI be damned; at this point in the season, no one is really sure how good anyone else is. Conference play helps sort all that out.
Rival fans around the conference, UK fans in particular, are sniping at the Commodores' soft schedule and lofty ranking-- and they have a point. No way can anyone say Vanderbilt has played a world-class schedule. For the most part it has feasted on cupcake; it's only left the city limits once, for Pete's sake. Conference games, particularly road games in the conference, have a way of chewing up and spitting out teams that aren't prepared.
Will this Vanderbilt team, which hasn't yet been tested, know what to do when it gets into an overtime game? Will it crumble when adversity strikes, as it inevitably will?
Kentucky, which has been duking it out with the Louisvilles, North Carolinas, Michigan States, etc., is far better prepared for the upcoming SEC wars than Vanderbilt, detractors insist. And they're probably right.
But let 'em snipe. They haven't seen what we've seen. They've not seen how this bunch of Commodores has been able to overwhelm the opposition even on nights when their best player isn't on top of his game. They've not seen the seniors' poise and maturity. They've not seen how Stallings can empty his bench and raise the level of play.
Let 'em snipe. For once, all the stars seem to be aligned. The Commodores appear to have assembled one of their best teams ever in a year in which the SEC is down overall. The team's chemistry is beyond splendid, and there've been no significant injuries nor unexpected departures (knock on wood). At last, Stallings is at peace with his team and with himself.
It says here this bunch of Commodores ought to be good enough for 10 or 11 SEC wins-- which should be plenty good enough to scratch a seven-year NCAA itch. Accomplish that, and the season is deemed wildly successful.
November and December served as a beguiling warm-up act; but the conference season is the great equalizer. It all begins tonight.