While Vanderbilt players were celebrating their win over Kentucky in the SEC tournament finals in New Orleans on Sunday, coach Kevin Stallings
made his way to the Commodores’ bench and draped a towel over his face. The improbable run to Vandy’s first SEC championship since 1951 had been enough to crack the veneer of his trademark Midwestern stoicism.
Several hours after the game, at a press conference in Nashville that followed the NCAA Tournament bracket announcement, Stallings was asked about that moment. Once again, emotions that Stallings usually keeps in check rose to the surface.
Pondering the question, Stallings paused, took a sip of water, and then explained why the victory meant so much to him.
“When you invest a lot, you care a lot,” Stallings said. “I think what I’m most proud of is the investment that’s occurred by this group of young men in our program. To see those guys get to experience what they experienced, that was a great feeling for me.”
CBS cameras better be ready. The next payoff on Vanderbilt’s investment might get Stallings even more emotional. If the Commodores put an end to their string of first-round NCAA Tournament ousters, the whole team will, as ESPN analyst Dick Vitale likes to say, dance in the streets of Albuquerque.
Albuquerque is the site of Vanderbilt’s second-round NCAA game against Harvard. The Commodores are seeded No. 5 in the East Regional, the Crimson 12th. That matchup is right in Vanderbilt’s danger zone. A 12 seed over a 5 seed has historically been one of the most common upsets in the tournament. And the teams that bumped the ‘Dores out of the first round in their last three tournament appearances were seeded 13th (Siena, 2008), 13th (Murray State, 2010) and 12th (Richmond, 2011).
Stallings thinks one early ouster has led to another, a trend he’d like to see end this year.
“That’s all anybody has really seemingly focused on,” Stallings said. “I really felt like we lost last year’s game because we lost the one the year before. Our players became so tight at the end of the Richmond game … we played pretty loose, but as the game got toward the end, they just got tighter and tighter and tighter.”
This year, the Commodores could have a secret weapon. Senior guard Jeffrey Taylor
, the hero (18 points, 11 rebounds) in Sunday’s victory over Kentucky, won a state high school championship (Hobbs) at the University of New Mexico’s Pit, where the NCAA games will be played. Taylor is stoked to be returning home. An engaged and energized Taylor is a dangerous dude, as he clearly illustrated against Kentucky.
Harvard is a deliberate, defensive-minded team that was 330th in the nation in adjusted tempo (61.2 possessions per game). The Crimson isn’t in any hurry to do its thing on the offensive end of the floor.
Harvard gets good production from inside players Keith Wright (10.7 ppg, 8.1 ppg) and Kyle Casey
(11.3 ppg, 5.5 rpg) and it also has a pass-first point guard in Brandyn Curry
(7.8 ppg, 5.0 apg).
Stallings thinks the SEC Tournament title may have lightened up his players for the Big Dance.
“I think we’ll be looser this time around,” he said. “I hope we are. It’s obvious we want to win. It’s about the only thing now that this group hasn’t done. It would be a nice thing to be able to accomplish.”
In other second-round games involving SEC teams, all played on Friday, No. 1 seeded Kentucky plays the winner of the First Four game between Mississippi Valley State and Western Kentucky in the South Regional at Louisville on Friday; No. 7 Florida faces No. 10 Virginia in Omaha, and No. 9 Alabama plays No. 8 Creighton in the Midwest Regional at Greensboro, N.C.
Here’s a quick look:
Kentucky vs. Mississippi Valley State/Western Kentucky
The loss in New Orleans may bode well for the Wildcats. Remember 1996? Kentucky lost to Mississippi State in the finals of the SEC tournament, which was played in the Superdome. If memory serves, then- Kentucky coach Rick Pitino
had talked during the regular season about how it wouldn’t be a bad thing if the ‘Cats — 16-0 in SEC games — took one on the chin before embarking on their NCAA Tournament trip.
Sounds familiar doesn’t it? Kentucky coach John Calipari
has said the same thing this season, reasoning that his young team could learn more from its mistakes than it could from its successes.
In 1996, the Wildcats won the national championship, beating Syracuse in the title game. If form holds, Kentucky is on a collision course with the Orange, and the title game will be played in New Orleans.
Could some New Orleans mojo be guiding this team again?
No 16 seed has ever beaten a No. 1 seed, and you have to feel a bit sorry for Mississippi Valley State, coached by former Kentucky player Sean Woods
, or Western Kentucky, which will meet in the First Four to determine which team plays Kentucky. The Wildcats are going to take out the frustration of coming one game short of an undefeated run through the SEC on somebody.
MVSU won 17 straight games in Southwestern Athletic Conference play after starting 1-11 against a nasty schedule that included games at Notre Dame, DePaul, North Carolina, South Carolina, Arkansas, Northwestern, Ole Miss and Florida. A lot of teams would have been 1-11 after that trek.
Western Kentucky started slowly, too, but its administration wasn’t patient with former coach Ken McDonald
. A 5-11 record through the season’s first two months earned him a pink slip. That turned out to be a blessing in disguise, as Western Kentucky rallied under replacement Ray Harper
and won the Sun Belt Tournament and the NCAA berth that goes with it. Harper is a proven commodity who has won four national championships, two at the Division II level and two more at Oklahoma City, an NAIA school.
FLORIDA VS. VIRGINIA:
Given their late-season struggles — six losses in their final 10 games — the Gators might seem vulnerable against Virginia. Coach Tony Bennett’s
Cavaliers are another deliberate, defense-oriented team that held its opponents to an ACC-low 53.7 points per game and 39.6 percent shooting.
Florida will counter with its fast-paced 3-hoisting game. That makes Florida four man Erik Murphy
, who earned All-SEC Tournament honors on Sunday, a key player to watch. Also look for the low-post battle between the Gators’ Patric Young
and Virginia’s 6-8, 240-pound Mike Scott
(18.1 ppg, 8.4 rpg), the runner-up for ACC player-of-the-year honors.
CREIGHTON VS. ALABAMA:
The Bluejays are led by 6-7 sophomore Doug McDermott
, son of Creighton coach Greg McDermott
. The younger McDermott has had an impressive year, averaging 23.2 points and 8.2 boards and shooting 61.0 percent form the field, 49.5 from 3 and 79.9 from the free-throw line.
Creighton is a high-scoring team that shoots .509 from the field, tops in Division I, and averages 80 points a game, seventh in the nation. Alabama is a defensive-minded team that presses fullcourt and pressures in the halfcourt. The Crimson Tide held its opponents to 58.1 points a game and 38 percent shooting.
No college basketball team aspires to play in the NIT, but if that’s the best postseason destination a team can muster, it’s best to embrace it and try to go as far as possible.
Coaches whose teams don’t quite measure up to the NCAA Tournament selection committee’s standards and wind up in the NIT talk often about the value of extending the season with extra competition, but more importantly, extra practices. That gives coaches like Tennessee’s Cuonzo Martin
more opportunity to reinforce and implement their systems.
“Obviously, you want to win games,” said Martin, whose team earned a No. 1 seed and hosts Savannah State on Tuesday night. “But the biggest key is just to practice and get better … individual and skill wise, but to continue to improve as a team, continue to jell as a team. So it’s very important to get those extra games under your belt.”
The SEC wound up with four teams in the NIT. All four came to last week’s SEC Tournament with at least a chance to get into the Big Dance, and all came up short. That was a disappointment, and the teams that shake that off the faster and realize a trip to New York and Madison Square Garden is a nice consolation prize will derive the most benefit as March continues.
Ole Miss coach Andy Kennedy
has led his team to five NIT bids in his six seasons. Again, nothing he aspires to, but he has definitely gotten some mileage out of the tournament, having coached the Rebels to a pair of appearances to the Garden.
Ole Miss is a No. 2 seed in the tournament and plays seventh-seeded Illinois State in Oxford on Wednesday.
Mississippi State, the team that was probably the most disappointed about dropping from the NCAA field, also got a home game. The Bulldogs are seeded fourth and play host to UMass on Tuesday night.
The only SEC team that travels for a first-round game is LSU, which as a No. 6 seed was dispatched to Oregon.