Vanderbilt adopts Rodney Dangerfield role

ORLANDO, Fla.-- As Vanderbilt prepares to face Western Michigan Friday in the NCAA Tournament first round, the Commodores should have at least one thing working to their advantage-- the tournament experience of head coach Kevin Stallings. This will be the 14th time Stallings has been part of the NCAA Tournament, either as a player, coach or assistant coach.

ORLANDO, Fla.-- Three years ago, when Vanderbilt's women's tennis team suddenly found itself playing for a national championship, Coach Geoff MacDonald sought out someone to give a pre-game speech to his team that had had experience competing and coaching in a national championship environment.

The person he sought out was men's basketball coach Kevin Stallings.

When Vanderbilt meets Western Michigan here Friday at the T.D. Waterhouse Centre, it will mark the first time any player on either team has played in an NCAA Tournament game. Vanderbilt hasn't been part of the Big Dance since 1997, Western Michigan since 1998.

Nonetheless, Vanderbilt should have at least one thing working to its advantage-- the tournament experience of Head Coach Kevin Stallings. This will be the 14th time Stallings has been part of the NCAA Tournament, either as a player, coach or assistant coach.

Until you've been part of the pressure-cooker environment of an NCAA Tournament, nothing can adequately prepare you for it. The media lights are white-hot, the demands on one's time enormous. The eyes of the nation focus squarely on each outcome. Teams inadequately prepared to face all this often find themselves headed for home much more quickly than they'd like.

Despite Vandy's 6-seed and WMU's 11, Friday's matchup is one that has plenty of Commodore fans on edge. Las Vegas oddsmakers have installed the Broncos are a 1-point favorite, and WMU is a popular first-round upset choice of various hoops wags from around the nation. Consider the MAC's past history in the NCAA's, and factor in the SEC's shaky start in the NIT and NCAA-- and you've got the recipe for a classic mid-major-over-power-conference Cinderella story.

At Thursday's press conference, however, Stallings seemed to be relishing the Rodney Dangerfield role.

"We realize we're an extreme underdog," Stallings said, with tongue planted firmly in cheek. "We'll do our best to overcome the odds and try to somehow pull out a victory.

"They couldn't even get off the selection show before they declared we were in trouble. So, I guess Western Michigan has done a lot this year to generate credibility with the experts. You have to give them credit for putting themselves in a position where people have made them the favorite."

Western Michigan first-year coach Steve Hawkins, a longtime head coach at Quincy University but a newcomer to the NCAA Division 1 Tournament, also seemed to shun the favorite's role.

"I don't feel like we are the favorite," Hawkins said Thursday. "We're the 11th-seed. Las Vegas is a messed-up city anyway. You can't trust those guys out there.

"It's nice to see that some people feel we can win. All this stuff piles up in the Vanderbilt locker room, though. Nothing matters."

Vanderbilt senior guard Scott Hundley said the team is used to getting little respect, even in its own conference.

"It's a lot of the same we hear in the SEC," said Hundley. "We hear it every night we go out there. Most people think we're last in the conference. There is not a lot of respect for us.

"Our women's team is always very good, but the men's team usually isn't. This is our opportunity to prove ourselves."

Stallings has certainly been on the other side of this equation-- his 1997 Illinois State team made the tournament for the first time as an 11-seed. His Redbirds were paired against Iowa State, a heavily favored 6-seed from the Big XII.

"At game time they [Iowa State] thought they were going to blow us out," recalled Stallings. "At the first media timeout we were ahead, 16-4.

"We ended up losing but we played with them. When you are a Western Michigan or an Illinois State, you always feel like you have a chance."

The Western Michigan-Vanderbilt winner meets the Louisiana-Lafayette-vs.-North Carolina State winner Sunday at approximately 2:45 p.m. Should the Commodores survive the first two rounds in Orlando, they would be headed to Phoenix for the Sweet 16, March 25 and 27.


Stallings expressed disappointment Thursday over the fact that Auburn had fired head coach Cliff Ellis earlier in the day.

"Cliff's a good guy," he said. "It's hard to believe you can go to the Sweet 16 one year and be fired the next."

Ellis was released by Auburn Thursday after guiding the Tigers to a 14-14 season. One year earlier, Auburn had reached the Sweet 16, where it had lost 79-78 to eventual national champion Syracuse.


Photos by Bryan Hufalar, copyright 2004 for Top Stories