The Vanderbilt Commodores have lost their edge as a basketball team, but head coach Kevin Stallings plans to do whatever is necessary to help them find it.
The Commodores, a young team with little depth, extended their losing streak to eight games as they limped to a 78-59 loss to Alabama Thursday night in the first round of the Southeastern Conference basketball tournament at Gaylord Entertainment Center. Stallings refused to speculate publicly on how the Commodores will rediscover that elusive edge, but speculation is that some changes in personnel are being considered.
"Five weeks ago we were sitting at 15-7 and thinking if we win four or five more going down the stretch we have a chance of being in the NCAA tournament, and eight games later we are 15-15," Stallings said. "Competing in college athletics is a lot more than showing up to play in the game and playing hard in the game. There is a competitive edge that athletes need in order to be successful.
"We were working on a small margin of error to begin with and somewhere in there we lost a little bit of our edge. Somewhere in there mentally our edge escaped us and without that edge you've got nothing. It is not quantifiable. But when it escapes you it is gone."
The Commodores struggled to find the basket against the Tide. Their 19 first half points was a season low. In the second half they trailed by as many as 25 points.
Freshman Scott Hundley was the surprise scoring leader with 17 points. The only other Commodores in double figures was senior Greg LaPointe with 13 and freshman Billy Richmond with 12. The Commodores shot only 33.3 percent from the field, 25 percent from 3-point range.
"We struggled offensively," Stallings said of his team which didn't take a two-point field goal until almost nine minutes into the game after opening with a 3-point field goal by Brendan Plavich. "We couldn't make shots when we had them at the beginning of the game and I think we kind of dropped our heads and stopped working to execute our offense. We got plenty of good looks early and when we didn't make them. Unfortunately, that deflated us somewhat and we never really recovered."
The wear and tear of too many minutes for the five freshmen on the roster may have played a role in the late season downfall of the Commodores according to Stallings.
"How much did the season get to them with the competition overwhelming them at times?," Stallings speculated. "You lost two or three in a row that are close that you have a chance to win and deflation comes from that. It certainly had a cumulative effect.
"If guys going through our program don't understand anything else they have to learn and understand if they are not competitors, and if their instincts are not competitive, they might have a nice, relaxing life, but you will be watching everybody else be victorious."
The eight-game losing streak is the worst for the Commodores since 1985. It was a difficult ending of the careers of LaPointe and Anthony Williams if no NIT bid is offered.
"It is hard for me to draw positives at a time like this because, right now, what we have learned over the last month is how to lose," Stallings said. "That is not a lesson that we like.
"Five of our top eight players at the end of the season were freshmen. No one thought we would have success like that and unfortunately we didn't. It won't stay like that. This group of freshmen will have success."
The Commodores, 15-15, are a longshot at best for the National Invitational Tournament. Stallings indicated the Commodores would accept a bid if it is offered.
"If this is the end we're disappointed for Anthony and Greg that they went out like this," Stallings said. "They are really, really great people and probably deserve better than this."
The Crimson Tide, 21-9, took another step toward a berth in the NCAA Tournament. Stallings thinks that may had added to the urgency for the Crimson Tide.
"Alabama played with a lot of focus and a lot of energy," Stallings said. "I think they probably felt a pretty big sense of urgency relative to their ability to get in the NCAA tournament. Whether that urgency is real or imagined I think they felt it and they used that energy to help them through the game."
Alabama advances to take on No. 5-rated Florida, 22-5, at 6:30 tonight.