All season long, reporters and fans have been quizzing Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings about his highly-rated recruiting class. And all season long Stallings has deftly deflected most of those questions, preferring to talk about the here and now.
Rightly so. Vanderbilt's men's team had plenty to play for this season. It had three fifth-year seniors who have paid their dues and have contributed much to the program. There was a chance to play for a post-season berth, a welcome opportunity after the Commodores were shut out of the postseason a year ago.
But now that the 2001-02 season is in the books, Stallings can finally look ahead. And so can Vanderbilt basketball fans, who have now gone five long seasons without an NCAA invitation.
While this year's crop of Commodores certainly didn't overachieve at 17-15, neither did they underachieve. If one recalls that in November Vandy was a solid pick by the media for the SEC cellar-- an above-.500 record, a 6-10 finish in the SEC (tied for fifth) and an NIT berth could almost be viewed as bonuses.
Along the way Vanderbilt defeated four teams that ultimately made the NCAA Tournament field, three of whom were Top 25 teams. Vandy went 13-4 at home and pulled off two nice road wins at South Carolina and Tennessee. The 86-84 win over Georgia and the 86-73 win over Kentucky (which snapped an 18-game losing streak to the Wildcats) can be filed away with the great wins in the 50-year history of Memorial Gym.
However, for every night when the Vandy offense came out blistering the nets... you could point to another night when the Commodores seemed to come out flat and listless. There was the loss to lowly Monmouth... the back-to-back, moribund 66-43 home losses in February... the 23-turnover performance in the SEC Tournament. This was a team reliant on outside shooting, and on nights when the outside shots failed to fall, the Commodores, without a dominant post player, struggled mightily.
Twice, however, the season careened toward the brink of disaster-- but both times Stallings and his braintrust were able to pull some strings and steer the car back onto the highway.
After an 0-3 conference start, the Dores bounced back with a three-game win streak that included a stirring upset of No. 15 Georgia. And after a four-game February losing skid that included the aforementioned pair of 66-43 losses, fans wondered if the team was headed toward another February Fade, as had happened in Stallings' previous two seasons. This time The Dores gathered themselves for a two-game sweep over Tennessee and Kentucky, a one-two punch that did much to restore fans' good feelings.
In the SEC Tournament, the youthful Commodores made a disappointingly abrupt exit. Re-energized briefly by an invitation to the NIT, Vandy topped a scrappy Houston team at home before falling at Louisiana Tech. The NIT provided the young Commodores some valuable familiarity with postseason play (although, granted, neither NIT game represented anything like the pressure-cooker of an NCAA Tournament environment).
The Commodores now lose a valuable leader in Chuck Moore (13 ppg, 32 minutes), a somewhat streaky reserve in Sam Howard (9.7 ppg, 20 mpg), and a bit player in Darius Coulibaly. But next year this team, dominated this year by freshmen and sophomores, returns 69% of its scoring and 80% of its rebounding.
Next fall Stallings brings in Bryson Krueger, a 6-foot-6 long-range bomber from Tempe, Ariz.; Ted Skuchas, a 6-11, Top-10 center prospect from Fort Washington, Pa.; Mario Moore, a 5-11, lightning-quick point guard from Nashville who can both handle the ball and shoot; and Julian Terrell, a mobile, 6-9 power forward who led Nashville Ezell-Harding to the Class A state championship game the past two years.
It's a group that collectively will add almost everything the Commodores were short on this past year: ball handling, athleticism, shot-blocking capability, bulk underneath the basket, and quality depth.
Provided no one else leaves the program, the roster is set for the next two seasons. The Freije-Plavich-Lakey-Hundley class, Stallings' first, becomes juniors and team leaders next year, while the Holwerda-Smith-Thornton-Przybyszewski class, seasoned by plenty of SEC experience this year, gets another year to grow and mature.
If he so desires, Stallings should be able to take the team on a summer overseas trip in 2003, a move which could further help this young group jell into a formidable unit prior to Freije & Co.'s senior year.
It's been a while since I've sensed Vandy fans so enthused over the program's future. One gets the feeling Stallings and Vanderbilt's men's program are truly on the verge of something special. (The black and gold, don't forget, hasn't actually won an NCAA Tournament game since the Sweet Sixteen team of 1993.)
Now eliminated from the NIT, the Commodores are forced to sit home and watch on TV as this year's NCAA Tournament generates its usual litany of Cinderellas. But next year, as the program at last reaches critical mass, Stallings has a window of opportunity to forge a team worthy of a glass slipper.