The more things change, the more they stay the sa

At the halfway point of league play, SEC basketball looks, cooks and smells the same... with Vanderbilt looking to the future (though with legitimate reason for optimism).

Vanderbilt head basketball coach Kevin Stallings could easily be forgiven if he looked at the scene in Athens, Georgia, and cursed under his breath. Heck, he might be forgiven if he chose to curse out loud.

In the 2000 season, his first in Nashville, Stallings watched as his Commodores won 19 games, won their first-round SEC Tournament game, and didn't reach the NCAA Tournament.

In 2001, Georgia--surprising the league under Jim Harrick, another coach who came to the SEC at the same time Stallings did--won just 16 games, lost a first-round SEC Tournament game to cellar-dweller LSU, and still made the Big Dance.

This year, at the halfway point of SEC league play, Stallings and Vandy own a win over Georgia, but the Dawgs have everything else going for them: health, for one thing; the SEC East lead; wins over Kentucky and Florida; the promise of an NCAA berth; and significant upward momentum as a program. If Vandy hadn't been jobbed in 2000 by the selection committee, the Dores--given the exposure and positive publicity that accompany an appearance in the NCAAs--might have had that extra measure of depth and quality that would have Vandy on the right side of the NCAA Tournament bubble, if not better.

As it is, the Dores can legitimately hope for the NCAAs: that's the good news. The bad news is that, halfway through this year's SEC campaign, Stallings and his charges will have to look to next year for that special ticket to a very popular Dance.

An NCAA berth won't be on the horizon for this year's Vandy team because the Dores haven't attained the depth that Kentucky and Florida currently possess, and which Georgia is in the process of attaining. This lack of depth has left Vandy susceptible to injuries, which have had a nasty way of cropping up smack dab in the middle of the conference chase the last few years, ever since Stallings came to Nashville.

Starting point guard Russell Lakey? Boom--stress fracture in his foot.

Freshman center David Przybyszewski? A stress reaction in his right foot.

"Stress reaction" sounds like the sensation Stallings must be having right now."

Starters Brendan Plavich and Brian Thornton? 'Tis the season for the flu.

In addition to the injury/depth issue, the quality of Vandy's best players--combined with the makeup of this year's roster--offers a mix that is just short of a perfect roster configuration... but short nevertheless.

Here are a few examples: first, the Dores' Matt Freije had scored in double figures in every SEC game until this Saturday's two-point loss against Tennessee. Yet, for all of that consistency, Freije--who is certainly having an excellent sophomore season--will not be confused with Dan Langhi, a 22-point-per-game stud who gave Vandy a real-deal meal-ticket scorer in the 2000 season.

Hypothetically--hey, at Vandy, the "what if" game is a sad but very real tradition--if Langhi (or someone like him) had been available as a #1 scoring option, with Freije being a second option, such a fit would be perfect. As it is, Freije is not yet at Langhi's level, though his junior and senior years could definitely bring forth Langhi-level numbers. Until Freije--who is currently averaging 16 points a game--takes his game to the next level, Vandy will lack an ideal combination of scorers and role players.

With Chuck Moore, Brendan Plavich and Sam Howard scoring from 11-13 points a game from the backcourt and the wings, the Dores don't have enough of an inside-outside mix, and Freije doesn't yet offer the Langhi-like dominance to draw even more attention from defenses--enough attention to significantly free up Vandy's perimeter shooters on an even more consistent basis.

Another missing piece in this almost-but-not-quite Vanderbilt puzzle is the limited playing time of Przybyszewski. As a space-eater in the middle, Przybyszewski would offer a good complementary component to Vanderbilt's offense. As it is, his inability to factor into the Dores' attack in January has left Stallings without a big inside presence on a perimeter-based club. Forward Brian Thornton, playing at the 4 position, has given Vandy some muscle. Just imagine, though, if Thornton had the chance to log more minutes on the court in tandem with an effective and healthy Przybyszewski.

Once again, forgive Coach Stallings if he feels like mumbling under his breath...

And oh, one more example of Vanderbilt's lucklessly limited lineup, while we're at it. Notice that a freshman point guard, Maurice Williams, is leading Alabama to a number six ranking and top status in the SEC at the midway point of the league season. Why is Williams doing so well in the most pressurized position on the floor? Well, Bama has the meal-ticket scorer--Rod Grizzard--and superlative inside force--Erwin Dudley--that Vandy lacks. Williams has represented a perfect complementary player who doesn't have to carry the scoring or rebounding load for the Tide, instead concentrating on being a great floor leader.

Bama's perfect chemistry points out Vandy's limitations, but it also shows why Vandy freshman Jason Holwerda's emergence as a player has not provided the same dividends that Williams has given to Mark Gottfried in Tuscaloosa. If Holwerda--lauded by Stallings as the role player who does the little things better than any other Commodore--had a Langhi or a Grizzard as a scorer, and a center to combine with Thornton for a very formidable rebounding presence underneath, his team-oriented game would be reaping even more impressive results. As it is, Vandy is just outside the candy store looking in, because if Kevin Stallings and the Vandy program didn't have good luck, they wouldn't have any luck at all.

"Wait 'til next year" is an inappropriate war whoop for this team, because an NIT bid, which would bring with it extra practices and beneficial tournament experience for a very young squad, is very much within reach THIS YEAR. A revenge win against Tennessee in Knoxville would be a big step; a sweep of South Carolina would be a vital second step; and a home upset of Kentucky, if combined with the first two steps, would just about seal up a bid if the Dores win their other winnable games. If Vandy does get an NIT bid, this season can be labeled a success... and next year will look really, really good. Top Stories