A reeling Vanderbilt team hopes to snap a nine-game losing streak Thursday evening in the SEC Tournament, and perhaps find some positives to take into next year. The Commodores (10-17, 3-13) face Alabama (17-10, 7-9) in the opening round of the SEC Tournament at the cavernous Louisiana SuperDome in New Orleans (6:30 p.m. CT, Jefferson-Pilot TV).
"It's very difficult dealing with a losing streak," Commodore coach Kevin Stallings said Wednesday. "It's been a long time since we've won a game, and it wears on you. We've had losses of all kinds, ones where we have played well, and ones where we haven't. We played with passion and intensity in our last game (Tennessee), but we didn't finish the game at the same level as we started."
Vanderbilt's only hopes for postseason play are to win four games in a row. The winner of the SEC Tournament receives an automatic invitation to the NCAA Tournament. Alabama coach Mark Gottfried says that the Crimson Tide has "plenty of respect" for Vanderbilt after a 70-69 loss in Nashville on Jan. 11.
"You've got to guard them on the perimeter and you've got to make sure that you are aware of Freije at all times," Gottfried said. "They are going through a rough period, but that can happen in this league, even if you are a good team. It has happened to everyone except Kentucky."
With only a 7-9 conference record, Alabama badly needs a good SEC Tournament performance to impress the NCAA Tournament committee.
The winner of Thursday's opening round match will advance to play SEC regular-season champion Kentucky (26-3, 16-0) in the quarterfinals Friday at 6:30 p.m.
If Vanderbilt were to upset the favored Crimson Tide Thursday, it would also bring a measure of payback. Twice in the last five years, Alabama has been the team to eliminate the Commodores from the SEC Tournament.
In 1998 in Atlanta, Vanderbilt was 18-11 and on the NCAA Tournament bubble. Needing at least one victory in the SEC Tournament, Jan Van Breda Kolff's Commodores were ousted by Alabama, 72-62, and had to settle for the NIT. Tide Coach David Hobbs had already been fired, and his team rallied around him for the upset.
Two years ago at the Gaylord Entertainment Complex in Nashville, the situation was very much like this year's. Stallings' second Vanderbilt team had lost seven straight games and was looking for something positive on which to end the season; Alabama was 19-9 and on the bubble. Gottfried, Rod Grizzard and the Tide easily downed slumping Vanderbilt, 78-59. The Tide was snubbed by the NCAA, though it did reach the NIT Finals.
Speaking of SEC Tournaments past-- ten years ago Thursday, Vanderbilt's 1993 SEC Championship team, coached by Eddie Fogler, was ousted in the semifinals by Dale Brown and LSU at Rupp Arena. That was the last Vanderbilt team to reach the semifinals; the Commodores, seeded No. 1, had beaten David Hobbs' first Alabama team in the quarterfinals.
An unprecedented mid-March snowstorm had wreaked havoc across the Southland and blanketed Lexington with over ten inches of snow. (The weather forecast for Thursday in New Orleans, exactly ten years later? Sunny and 84 degrees.)