Most seasons, a loss to the No. 3 team in the nation-- like Vandy's 95-85 loss to powerful Florida last Saturday-- wouldn't be much cause for concern.
But this year, most Vanderbilt fans I know are suddenly deeply troubled about their basketball team. And perhaps rightfully so.
Used to be, when you talked about "The Streak" and Vandy basketball, you were talking about a string of consecutive games in which the Commodores have nailed a 3-pointer. These days, "The Streak" refers to something much more ominous-- an ugly SEC losing streak which now stands at 11 games dating back into last season.
Holy smokes, indeed. Vanderbilt last won an SEC game on January 31, 2001, when they defeated Alabama at home, 68-62. The Commodores, if you recall, got blown out in Knoxville three days later, and haven't been able to cobble together a conference win since.
Heck, the football team has only lost nine SEC games in a row-- that kind of puts it in perspective, doesn't it? Even Jan van Breda Kolff, Kevin Stallings' oft-reviled predecessor, never had more than four consecutive league losses.
Commodore fans, normally a patient lot, are starting to get a little antsy. The timing is certainly bad, especially with the football team's poor performance the last two seasons. The same cynical pundits who periodically suggest that Vandy hasn't kept up with the times on the SEC gridiron are being furnished with fresh, unfamiliar fodder. In old times you could always count on Vandy's boys in shorts to bail out the athletic program-- now, even hoops, Vandy's last bastion of respectability, has fallen upon hard times.
So what gives? Has the ever-improving SEC left Vanderbilt in the dust in yet another sport? Are the Commodores suddenly out of their league in sport in which they've been competitive for years? Has Kevin Stallings suddenly become a bad coach?
No, no, and no. In the world of SEC basketball most things (outside of the fact that Kentucky's always good) are predictably cyclical. Wasn't it only four years ago, for instance, that Billy Donovan's Florida club lost 8 out of its last 10 to close the season? And wasn't it only two years ago that Jim Harrick's Georgia squad went 3-13 in the conference? Today they're 14-2 and atop the SEC East.
No, what seems abundantly clear is that our beloved warriors, under Stallings' more-than-competent leadership, will eventually climb back out of the SEC abyss. But meanwhile what everyone is wondering is... how soon?
In the preseason the media picked Vandy sixth out of six in the East... and that's about what they look like right now. The Commodores have shooters a-plenty, and have an odd collection of adequate role players, but have obvious problems at the crucial positions of point guard and center. Accordingly, they appear destined to struggle against teams which (A) press the length of the floor, and/or (B) utilize dominant, physical post players.
Stallings has publicly pronounced his team the most un-athletic team in the league-- and after three SEC contests it's hard to disagree. The SEC, it seems, is filled with experienced widebodies like Udonis Haslem, Erwin Dudley and Steve Thomas, players capable of schooling Vandy's young inside players. It also seems as though running and pressing is in fashion, with most teams capable of pressuring Vandy (sans Russell Lakey) into high numbers of turnovers.
In past years the best Vandy teams were able to overcome a disadvantage in athleticism with smarts, teamwork and great free throw shooting. But in these latter days, when referees seem to allow a much more physical game, those days may indeed be past. The game today goes to the swift and the strong.
With only two seniors logging significant minutes and no juniors on the squad, the Commodores are also suffering from a leadership and experience gap. They are reaping the whirlwind from the final two years of Van Breda Kolff's tenure when, with his job status uncertain, VBK was unable to recruit to any meaningful degree. (Recall that Sam Howard actually committed before VBK's next-to-last year; and that Chuck Moore transferred from Seton Hall after VBK had already left.)
Compounding the problem is the fact that of the six players in Stallings' heralded first recruiting class, three (Martin Schnedlitz, Billy Richmond and now Lakey) have been unable to contribute to the squad this year. Commodore fans grow weary of hearing the "youth" excuse, but when seven of your nine players are underclassmen and four of those seven are freshmen... it's just a given that your team is going to take some lumps in the rugged SEC.
At any other SEC school, Stallings might have been able to address the blatant gaps on his team with junior college players... but not at Vandy. Asked at Media Days if he found that disadvantage hard to live with, Stallings downplayed the issue. "The only difference," he replied, "is that it doesn't allow you to fix the problem as quickly. For instance, last year I wouldn't have had five freshmen on my team-- I'd have gotten a couple of junior college kids that could have alleviated the loss of experience more."
Instead, Stallings was forced to do things the old-fashioned way-- by scouring the high schools for four-year players. "There are no quick fixes at a place like Vanderbilt," says Stallings. "And that's OK, because hopefully over time we'll stabilize things, and we'll continue to keep it stable."
I can certainly understand and sympathize with fans who are down after the 0-3 start. But there is still a lot of hoops to be played, and at this point, two things give me hope that this season is still salvageable.
Number one is Stallings-- his passion and intensity are just too strong to keep him and his team down for very long.
Number two is the defensive energy I witnessed in the second half against Florida on Saturday in Memorial Gym. Sparked by talented freshmen Jason Holwerda and Brian Thornton, the Dores mounted an inspired second-half comeback. It wasn't enough to overtake No. 3 Florida, mind you, but would have been more than enough to beat plenty of other teams. It was thrilling to see the magic return, albeit briefly. Hopefully it's a portent of things to come.
Rest assured, these Commodores will not finish 0-16 in the conference... though at this point it certainly appears they will struggle to match last year's 4-14. In conference play every game is a bloody, sweaty war. Consequently, long-suffering Commodore fans are going to have to grit their teeth in preparation for another rocky schedule of league play... and pray that Vandy's young players do a lot of maturing in the next few weeks.