VU must take 'late-night' route to NCAA's

ATLANTA-- If all those zany bracketologists are to be believed, the Vanderbilt men's basketball team this week finds itself in the unenviable position of having to win two and perhaps three games, in order to achieve that holiest of grails-- a bid to the NCAA Tournament.

ATLANTA-- If all those zany bracketologists are to be believed, the Vanderbilt men's basketball team this week finds itself in the unenviable position of having to win two and perhaps three games, in order to achieve that holiest of grails-- a bid to the NCAA Tournament.

According to those pundits without lives who study such things, the Commodores currently sit on the bad side of the "bubble." They still have some things to prove in order for the almighty committee is to deem them worthy on Selection Sunday.

Most fans and casual observers would concede that at 18-12, with essentially a sixth-place finish in the Southeastern Conference, Kevin Stallings' team over-achieved this year. Picked by the media in November to finish last in the SEC East, and without a consistent scorer or dominant inside game, the Commodores elevated themselves to a third-place divisional finish.

They set a new record for victories at home, and in doing so proved themselves one of the nation's best three-point shooting teams. They easily swept their cross-state arch-rival, Tennessee. They finished their season strong, playing some of their best basketball in the dog days of February and March.

Still, the 2004-05 season was marred by a disastrous road trip to Las Vegas in November and a horrific road loss to Georgia in late January (a loss that has since been dubbed "the Stinkeroo at Stegeman"). Oh, the shame of it-- had the Commodores merely put away lowly, Stukes-less Georgia that fateful afternoon, would there be any question this week about their worthiness?

In a year in which the SEC was far below its normal standard of excellence, an experienced, deep Vanderbilt team finished no better than a .500, middle-of-the-pack SEC team. As a result, the Commodores are going to have to play their way into the NCAA's this week. They badly need a couple of big wins to atone for Stegeman.

As the late John Houseman might have put it, they are going to have to earn it "the old-fashioned way."

A year ago the Commodores, led by Matt Freije, arrived here with a record of 19-8, but still not totally certain of their NCAA status. That group was able to win a pair of games and memorably play its way into the Big Dance, breaking a seven-year drought for Vandy fans.

If Vanderbilt is to repeat the feat and avoid the NIT this week, it will have overcome some staggering obstacles. For starters, it must take the late-night route into the Saturday semifinals. For the first time since the SEC expanded to 12 teams, Vanderbilt has drawn the late-night branch of the bracket. The Commodores open with Auburn Thursday at 9:45 pm ET, with the winner advancing to meet LSU Friday at the same time.

With post-game press conferences at the Georgia Dome ending well after midnight local time both nights, it poses a tremendously fatiguing test for the coaches and players (not to mention bleary-eyed members of the media who have to cover it).

Most careful observers agree Vanderbilt would probably have to do something it has not done in modern times-- advance to the Sunday's 1 pm, CBS-televised championship game-- in order to even enter the NCAA conversation. That would almost assuredly mean a Saturday win over Kentucky, a team that looks like even more of a lock for the tournament championship than usual.

Let's be honest for a moment-- I've seen a lot of these affairs, and I know a team on a mission when I see one. It's not true every year, but this year the Wildcats are a cut above every other team in the conference. They win on the road, and historically Kentucky thrives in Atlanta. Let's just say, if you're attending the tourney but are unable to stomach "My Old Kentucky Home", better unload your tickets now.

Still others feel that Vandy might have a shot if it can win two games-- IF several other teams on the bubble falter too. Could Vanderbilt knock off LSU, a team that handled Vandy with relative ease a mere six days earlier? True, Friday upsets are common occurrences in the SEC Tournament. Doable? Sure, but highly probable, no.

The only thing I know for certain, however, is that Vanderbilt had better focus on beating Auburn. Vandy's Thursday opponent is short-handed and diminutive, yes; but Jeff Lebo's Tigers are a group capable of scoring points in bunches, while Vandy is still a team prone to scoring droughts. (And remember, if Georgia can upset schizophrenic Vandy, what team can't?)

So indisputably, the Commodores face a monumental challenge as they attempt to make a "deep run" in the pressure-cooker environment of the Georgia Dome. Perhaps, as they contemplate that challenge, they can draw inspiration from an unheralded group of Arkansas Razorbacks from five years ago.

Up until 2000, no one thought any team capable of winning four SEC Tournament games in four days-- but Nolan Richardson's boys proved everyone incorrect. The Razorbacks, some will recall, took the late-night road to the SEC Championship here in Atlanta, stunning top-seeded Kentucky en route. (In doing so, you'll recall, they stole the NCAA bid most thought would have gone to Vandy.)

By doing as Arkansas did, winning four games over four days, Vanderbilt could earn its first SEC Tournament championship since the revival of the tourney in 1979. Do that, and to heck with the committee! The Commodores could spend Sunday afternoon cool, calm and free of worries.


Brent Wiseman and Bryan Hufalar will bring VandyMania readers daily reports, analysis and photos from the SEC Tournament this week in Atlanta. Top Stories