Today is that day.
It's been six long years since Jan Van Breda Kolff's 1997 team, led by Pax Whitehead and Howard Pride, slipped into the NCAA Tournament with a 19-11 record. In the five intervening seasons, every SEC team except Vanderbilt has made it to the NCAA's at least once-- the Commodores thrice have been relegated to the NIT, and twice shut out of postseason play altogether. (Oh yeah, there was "The Snub" of 2000, but we'll not discuss that today.)
With two exhibition games behind them, with the opener looming Friday night against Southeastern Louisiana (7:00 p.m. CST), there seems little question that the Commodores will be improved over the past two years. There's more athleticism, more depth than any Vanderbilt team has possessed in recent memory. The incoming freshman class looks like Stallings' best yet.
But the relevant question is... just how far can that relative improvement take this team? Vanderbilt has no scholarship seniors on the squad. Three of the top four scorers from 2001-02 are gone.
The Commodores still live and play in the cutthroat SEC. And that non-conference schedule, with Connecticut, Indiana, Michigan and Notre Dame, is by far the toughest yet of the Stallings era. But Stallings says the tough early-season schedule has worked as a motivating factor.
"What I like is that our guys have looked at that schedule and said, guess what? We had better be ready, or we're gonna get our butts kicked," said Coach Kevin Stallings. "That has been a motivating force for them, to get themselves ready."
As for Stallings himself, he seems noticeably looser, more comfortable, and more at ease than in any of his previous three years at Vanderbilt. He speaks confidently, at times even with a cautious brashness, about his young team's ability to "cause problems" for some other teams in the league.
"We just feel like we're just going to have more ammunition, more ways to consistently hurt people," says Stallings. "We'll see if I'm right. I've never been confused with being optimistic, but... we'll be able to guard better, we'll generate more offense from defense, and we'll rebound better... I think we should be better."
The 2002-03 Commodores should be a lot less reliant on outside shooting, and a lot more reliant on defense and rebounding, says Stallings.
"All of a sudden we're not the team that has all of the physical mismatches. Every team in this league has shooters... Well, we weren't any better shooters than anybody else... that was just what we could do.
"Well now, we've got a couple of guys who can defend... we've got a couple of guys we can throw it to on the post who we can expect a result when we throw it there. We still have some guys who can shoot, albeit maybe not like some of those other guys. But, maybe more simply put, our strengths have a chance to be consistent strengths."
Junior forward Matt Freije says the team's goal is clear-- making the Big Dance.
"We realize that in order for us to do that, it starts on the practice court," says Freije. "Coach has done a great job of getting that message to us."
Can they make it? Let's look at the opposition and try to find out. Here goes nothing...
Non-conference schedule: The Commodores, my crystal ball says, will open up by going 6-2 in their first eight games-- they'll lose at home to UConn, and winning at national runner-up Indiana's place doesn't quite seem realistic. They'll easily win the others, including Tulane (to whom some major payback is due for last year).
Then comes a critical three-game holiday stretch that will have a lot to say about Vandy's ultimate season success-- at Michigan, at Notre Dame, at home vs. College of Charleston. All three are winnable, but all three will be easily losable if the team is not in the right frame of mind.
I'm picking the Dores to win two of those three games, and finish non-conference competition with an 8-3 record by New Year's Eve. (Note: If they win all three of those last three, watch out... it's a great omen for postseason play. If they go 0-3 or 1-2 on this stretch... oh-oh, it's probably NIT, baybee.) (8-3)
Vs. SEC West: Let's see, Alabama, Ole Miss and Arkansas must come to Memorial, and the Commodores must travel to Auburn, Starkville and Baton Rouge. I think LSU will be the surprise team in the West, and I don't see Vandy winning there, or in Starkville. Meanwhile Alabama is playing like a Final Four team right now. Let's optimistically assume we split vs. the West, with wins coming over Ole Miss and Arkansas at home, and Auburn on t