A Foul Mood for Vanderbilt

The Vanderbilt Commodores are beginning to look like a team that Casey Stengel could appreciate. Even though the Ol' Perfesser coached baseball and not hoops, the longtime New York Yankee skipper would have easily been able to describe the nature of the 2009 SEC season that's unfolding in Nashville.

Stengel, you see, had a brief run as the first manager of the New York Mets following his departure from the Bronx. After many fruitful years in charge of baseball's most successful franchise, Stengel was chosen to oversee the National League expansion team that came to the Big Apple to replace the old Giants franchise that departed for San Francisco in 1958. Far removed from the greatness of DiMaggio, Berra and Mantle, the worldly-wise Stengel inherited a ragtag collection of players who existed at the other, less glamorous end of baseball's food chain. As the first Met team stumbled through its inaugural season in 1962, their exasperated manager came up with the kind of quote that added to the legend of the bespectacled grandfather figure. Speaking of his ballclub, Stengel said, "(I've) Been in this game one-hundred years, but I see new ways to lose 'em I never knew existed before."

That, sports fans, is the vibe being projected by Vandy's hoopsters. As the weeks and games go by, the Dores are finding new ways to lose, new ways to deny themselves the sunshine side of a collegiate cage match.

It's really quite remarkable, so absurd that it's hard to feel stomach-punched or depressed at this point. Losing normal basketball games is disappointing. Being cleanly outworked in an old-fashioned lunch-pail slugfest is hard to take, but there's a cleanliness about it all, an honesty that enables a group of young men to rally 'round the flag the next time on the hardwood.

But when screwy, nutty, wacky events take a team down in back-to-back games, it's hard to think that a season is unfolding on a level playing field. After two tremendous seasons of basketball in Music City U.S.A., it seems as though the fickle finger of fate is... well... giving Vandy the finger. If the Florida game didn't feel like enough of an injury, Wednesday's game at South Carolina had to make the Dores--up and down their bench--stand up and say, "Okay, okay, we get it! We're not going to get any outside help, any neutral breaks or bounces this season! Point taken, Lady Luck! You're not on our side anymore! Move on!"

Yes, after seeing Florida go absolutely unconscious from three-point land on Jan. 25 (to the tune of 15-of-25 shooting, led by Chandler Parsons' sick and illegal 7-of-8 demonstration beyond the arc), VU found an entirely new way to lose a game at the defensive end of the floor. Whereas their inability to find hot shooters killed them in a finesse-oriented game against the Gators, the Dores' 86-76 loss in Columbia stemmed from a distinctly different problem: guarding and hounding ballhandlers too closely.

In a terribly and torturously twisted turnabout, Vanderbilt went from the lack of physicality against Florida to an excess of ruggedness against the Gamecocks. One night's fast-motion shooting barrage turned into a slow-motion free-throw fiasco in the Colonial Center, as South Carolina marched to the charity stripe for 49 attempts. Despite missing 17 of them, Carolina still netted 32 points from the foul line, the key ingredient in a 10-point triumph that left Kevin Stallings wondering what would come next in this trail of tears.

Collegiate basketball teams (Florida) just don't hit 60 percent of their threes while attempting a minimum of 25 shots. Collegiate basketball teams just don't have three players foul out in a non-overtime game, either, but that's what happened to Vandy in the latest installment of a Murphy's Law season that the 1962 New York Mets would know a lot about.

How, then, can this team proceed and put the past in the rearview mirror? While a part of each Vandy player and coach has to be secretly fearing the next bizarro-world occurrence that will sink the Dores' already-sagging ship, the only proper response to the past week's calamitous events is to roll up the sleeves and become junkyard dogs at the defensive end. When all else fails in the basketball business, the only thing a team can fall back on is its hunger... its hunger to defend well, its hunger to be fundamentally sound, its hunger to become better, its hunger to know the satisfaction of a full-tilt effort that can never cause any regrets. This season's only shot at an NCAA Tournament berth will come from getting A.J. Ogilvy healthy and then trying to win four SEC Tournament games the way Georgia did last year. As a result, the only thing the Dores can honestly do at this point is to defend as though their lives are on the line. Jim Nantz won't be calling a Vanderbilt game in mid-March, and Dick Vitale won't visit Memorial Gym this season, but the mark of a noble athlete--and, for that matter, a noble human being--is to work hard and do the right things even when nobody's watching, even when glory and fame aren't available or attainable.

What is attainable right now for the Vanderbilt basketball team? The satisfaction of honoring a sport that requires nothing other than vigorous exertion and pronounced effort on every single possession. One defensive stop at a time, one small act of maturity at a time, this team can turn away from its nagging propensity to discover new ways of losing.

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