As the losses mount, the Vanderbilt Commodores maintain they are growing — for the better.
Their self-described “naturally slanted negatively” coach endorses the notion.
In his 14th year as head coach, Kevin Stallings says he has never had a team give away more wins than this year’s squad. The latest came on Saturday when the Commodores blew an 11-point lead with seven minutes left and lost at home to Alabama.
Still, Stallings says he sees the light at the end of the tunnel for this bunch that has lost three straight and three Southeastern Conference games by a total of seven points. But the 52-year-old admits looking at the glass half-full isn’t always easy for him.
“It is hard for me to stay positive anyway because I’m naturally slanted negatively, which is probably my quality I hate the most,” Stallings said. “But I don’t lose sight of the big picture. I do see that this team has gotten a lot better than we were at the beginning of the year. We’ve been in a position to beat a number of good teams. We didn’t have an upperclassman in the starting lineup on Saturday. We had two freshmen and three sophomores starting so the big picture looks good to me.
“The immediate picture doesn’t look worth a crap. But the big picture looks good. I try to remind myself of that every day. That is about as positive as I get.”
Vanderbilt (8-12, 2-6 SEC) will try to recapture the positive vibes when it hits the road to play LSU (12-7, 3-5) on Wednesday (7 p.m., ESPN3.com).
The Commodores have made strides recently even if the win column does not reflect as much. They rank fifth in the league in scoring defense (59.3 points per game) and fourth in 3-point shooting (41.3 percent).
Against Tennessee, center Josh Henderson compiled the best offensive performance by a Vanderbilt post player this season when he tied a career-high with 13 points off the bench. Still, the Commodores couldn’t eke out a victory on the road, missing two point blank shots at the end to lose by a point.
On Saturday, the young starting lineup built an 11-point lead on Alabama. But in the last seven minutes, Vanderbilt failed to make a field goal, missed eight shots and committed four turnovers.
In addition, the Commodores have lost home games to Kentucky and Ole Miss in which they led in the final minutes. Against Ole Miss, the second-best team in the SEC, Vanderbilt blew a 13-point lead in the last eight minutes and gave up a game-tying 35-foot 3-pointer at the buzzer to force overtime.
That one probably rivals the setback to Alabama for the toughest to swallow.
“I think we still have to learn how to close a big game,” freshman guard Kevin Bright said. “I think that is our big problem. We just got to find a way to finish a game efficiently. We proved to ourselves that we are capable to play in this league. Now it is to make the next step and just try to figure out how to close the game.”
Both Bright and guard Kyle Fuller listed listening to the coaching staff as an area in need of improvement.
At times this season, Stallings has boiled over while trying to make a point, most notably when he broke a clipboard during a timeout against William & Mary in the last non-conference game.
Stallings said he’ll still occasionally unleash his disapproval. When asked on Monday if he had found new ways to channel his frustration, he replied, “No, the old ones work just fine.”
“Coach doesn’t have much patience,” sophomore point guard Kedren Johnson said. “He didn’t have much patience last year. I’ve never known him to be a patient guy. So it is just something you have to work with. We can’t let it affect us too much.”
However, forward Rod Odom, one of two juniors on a senior-less squad, believes Stallings is handling the Commodores’ youth quite well.
“Coach has been real patient with us,” Odom said. “He knows that we’re growing and we have a lot of young guys. I think that he expects us to grow a little faster than we have; just like we expect ourselves to grow a little faster than we have. So we’re on the same page with that.”
Likewise, Stallings isn’t displeased with his team’s effort.
For all their shortcomings, lack of effort isn’t one and a big reason he tries his best to stay positive.
“I would say it is more their attitude that I like than it is their effort,” Stallings said. “They’re coachable. They’ve responded. They’ve rebounded. They want to do right. They want to do well. I think they have very good intentions. I just don’t think that we have what it takes yet to get it done at the end of games and the kind of guys that understand yet and make those plays.”