Playing the underdog role, served with relish

As 6th-seed Vanderbilt prepares to pull on the black jerseys of the visiting team and lower seed in tonight's NCAA Second Round against the 3rd-seeded, fifth-ranked Xavier Musketeers, they're also slipping on a second invisible uniform – the one that reads "Underdog."

None of the Vanderbilt players and perhaps many on the coaching staff are too young to remember the cartoon series that debuted in 1964. The "humble and loveable" hound dog gained Superman-like powers including flight, super strength, and invulnerability to conventional weapons when he changed in a phone booth.

With a locker room doubling as a pseudo phone stall, the ‘Dores own the mentality that they can overcome the toughest of opponents. Confidence is key when facing obstacles.

"Its fun being an underdog," said senior leader Merideth Marsh. "You have nothing to lose; you're not expected to win. To silence a crowd of the magnitude that [Xavier] is going to bring is going to be fun. Being able to upset someone, there's no pressure. You go out and play fearless and have fun. Play like we know how to play."

Vanderbilt has faced large crowds before this season with a sellout of 9,100-plus at Notre Dame and audiences averaging from 6,000 to 8,000 at Tennessee, at home with UT and in the Southeastern Conference Tournament. Xavier's Cintas Center seats 10,250 and will be awash in the blue and gray of the Musketeers. There will also be the school's Blue Blob mascot at courtside, but the wrapping of fake fur is no Underdog.

Vanderbilt Head Coach Melanie Balcomb has recruited a team that loves their underdog status. With 10 losses this year and three to No. 4 Tennessee, the undersized and duly noted cerebral team routinely fights the misconception that they can't match up with larger, more physical teams.

"I love it," Coach Balcomb states. "This is perfect for me as a coach, I'm not like a lot of coaches--I like to be an underdog on somebody else's floor and with a big crowd. As you start recruiting kids and coaching kids, they do reflect their coach, and for us, this is a fun situation and all the pressure's off. When you play at home, you're supposed to win, and we do that a lot at Vanderbilt."

Some facts to consider for tonight's ESPNU televised match-up:

- Xavier went 14-0 in the Atlantic 10 regular conference for the school's first undefeated conference season in school history. The school won its fifth A-10 championship by a single basket over Temple, 57-55.
- Amber Harris, a 6-5 post and one of three Xavier AAU teammates of Merideth Marsh, was named the Atlantic 10 Player of the Year.
- Another former teammate, Ta'Shia Phillips, at 6-6, is among the taller players Vandy has faced this season. Others include Tennessee's 6-6 Kelley Cain, South Carolina's 6-5 Kelsey Bone and Mississippi State's 6-5 Chanel Mokango.
- Vanderbilt and Xavier had three common opponents in Austin Peay (87-41 Xavier), LSU (a Xavier 47-56 home loss) and Mississippi State (81-60 Xavier).
- Of those opponents, Vanderbilt was swept by Mississippi State 76-90 and 56-65 due to the play of Alexis Rack and Mokango, split with LSU 39-55 for a loss in Baton Rouge and edged 63-61 for an SEC quarterfinal victory. Vandy topped Austin Peay 95-51 in the 'Dores' Thanksgiving Tournament.
- Of Xavier's three losses, two were at home – to LSU on December 30 and to Michigan 72-71 on December 14. Their first loss was at Michigan State 66-53 on December 9. Xavier has not lost a game since losing to LSU and owns a 19-game winning streak.
- Vanderbilt is 8-5 in road games this season.

Merideth, who along with seniors Jessica Mooney, Lauren Lueders and Ashlee Bridge are set on continuing their run toward Sacramento, sees the team's strength as its' camaraderie.

"I think that our team has always been very close, on the court and off the court, hanging out a lot. We love each other and we care so much about each other. We know we're there for each other whenever someone's down and hurt--we're going to support each other no matter what. I think that's what we've done throughout this whole season with all the adversity that we've gone through. We've been there, and that has just made us stronger."

Team intensity and passion serves underdogs well. Top Stories