February Clarity

Vanderbilt closed out the month of February with a resounding win at home against South Carolina, just three days after a wrenching setback at Georgia. Do these results suggest that the Dores are impossible to figure out? Anything but.

At first glance, it might seem impossible to get a proper reading of Kevin Stallings's team in light of the week that was. The transformation from tentative, offensively-challenged loser to thermonuclear juggernaut--accomplished on the journey from Athens back to Nashville--made the Georgia-South Carolina swing a study in schizophrenia. When a patient receives that kind of diagnosis, bafflement is usually the only logical response.

But in the world of sports--as is the case in the rest of life--there has to be an allowance for exceptions. The 2008-'09 Commodores just happen to be one of them.

When a sports team proves to be schizophrenic, there are a few situations in which that characteristic is reflective of predictability, and not chaos. One such scenario is when a team--particularly a young one--wins a lot at home but then loses a lot on the road. That's your simple but undeniable bottom-line verdict on this year of Vandy hoops.

Look at VU's 14-game SEC slate, which has produced a slightly disappointing but altogether respectable 6-8 mark. In only three contests has Vandy avoided the win-at-home, lose-away pattern: versus Tennessee (Jan. 20), versus Florida (Jan. 25), and at Auburn (Jan. 31). Throughout February, VU didn't win a single conference roadie or drop a solitary showdown at Memorial Gym. With a team that's among the very youngest in the United States at the Division I-A level, we shouldn't be that surprised.

As shown in Saturday's 96-83 rout of the SEC-East leading Gamecocks, VU clearly possesses a great deal of talent. Teams with a lot of high-grade equipment in their toolbox of skills will be able to display their capabilities in the comfy confines of home, especially Memorial Gym, with its unique bench layout. Nashville's a tough place for opposing teams to not only play, but communicate, so it makes sense that Vandy's relative youth would not be a terribly primary factor at home. Yes, VU's inexperience emerged in the early part of the SEC slate, but once this team found its footing, the home losses came to an abrupt end. With Arkansas the remaining home opponent for the Dores, the Memorial Gym mojo doesn't figure to go away before the close of this season.

On the other hand...

...A green roster without the battle-tested toughness of VU's past two NCAA Tournament teams will indeed find it a challenge to deliver the goods on the road. That's been the reason why the Dores haven't been able to compile a better season in 2009. A more mature outfit (and let it be said, that maturity will come; this is not meant as a knock on the VU hoopsters as much as it is a reflection of the team they are at this point in their development) would have maintained cohesion and consistency at the offensive end of the floor, and avoided that nagging 61-57 loss at Georgia on Wednesday night. A more seasoned squad would have been able to prevent South Carolina from shooting almost 50 free throws in Columbia; it wasn't too hard for VU, after all, to limit the Gamecocks to just 7 charity pitches Saturday night in Nashville. And, just to complete the picture, a more confident club might not have beaten Florida in Gainesville, but certainly would have been able to play the Gators a lot more competitively than in the blowout loss suffered in Memorial Gym.

If this line of analysis seems tempting to you, but feels a little suspicious, it's important to duck in a note about the teams Vandy's been playing over the past two months, particularly in the SEC East. The good teams Vandy split with--Kentucky and South Carolina--have been up and down this season. With Kentucky, it's obvious: Wildcat coach Billy Gillispie has gone on record as saying that he doesn't know what team he's going to get from game to game. As for the Gamecocks, it might be true that the division's most pleasant surprise has won consistently, but that doesn't mean new coach Darrin Horn's team has played the same way from game to game and week to week. If not for heartstopping last-second or overtime escapes against the likes of Arkansas, Alabama, Florida (remember that last-second baseball pass off a missed Gator free throw?), Kentucky, and Baylor, there's no way Cocky would be a likely NCAA Tournament team. Losses in just two of those five contests would have USC on the bad side of the bubble, so it's not as though South Carolina has shown the same persona in its own games this season.

Switching gears a bit, the two teams to sweep Vandy head-to-head--Tennessee and Florida--are the more veteran teams in the conference. The Gators and Vols went to Memorial Gym relatively early in the season, and took advantage of playing the Dores at a time before Kevin Stallings managed to turn the corner with his kids. Later in the season, Vandy got a second shot at these two experienced rivals, but on the road. With UF and UT playing for their NCAA Tournament lives, it's not surprising that VU wasn't able to turn the tables and split the season series.

All in all, Vandy's SEC season--just two games from being over, and then giving way to the SEC Tournament on March 12--exhibits signs of a clear personality split, not a confusing one. By winning regularly at home and losing consistently on the road, the Dores have shown that the only thing they need to fear is... fear itself, at least when road games are the issue. Next year, one would have to expect the sons of Stallings to snare games at South Carolina and Georgia, and build a better SEC portfolio. For this season, however, it just has to be accepted--without shame or any deep sense of regret--that VU has simply had to work with a younger roster and engage in a rebuilding process. If the Dores win at LSU or lose at home against Arkansas, call this columnist surprised.

In the meantime, the biggest thing this team needs to work on the coming week is to develop both a mentality--and the fresh legs--that will put VU in position to compete in the SEC tourney. A neutral court is the very stage where Vandy will be able to tell the rest of the conference how much this regular season has meant. No, the stakes aren't absurdly high the way they've been in previous seasons spent on the bubble or in pursuit of a conference championship; just the same, however, the Commodore cagers will want to show that the SEC's hard knocks have paid off... and will give this team a chance of messing up some brackets in mid-March.

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