Jeffery Taylor has never visited New Orleans. By the end of March, however, he hopes to make two trips to the Big Easy.
The first comes this weekend when Taylor and his Vanderbilt teammates partake in the Southeastern Conference Tournament. The Commodores want to make a return trip to New Orleans three weeks later — for the Final Four.
“It is obviously a long road until anybody gets there from now,” said Taylor, a senior forward and All-SEC first team selection. “But it is definitely where we want to end up.”
Four months and 10 regular-season losses later the shine has worn off for a team that was ranked seventh in national preseason polls. But the unranked Commodores (21-10) still can make believers out of skeptics with a deep run in March.
“We feel like if we play well, we play the way we are capable of playing we can beat most teams in the country,” Taylor said.
They hope to gain some momentum heading into the NCAA Tournament with a nice showing this weekend. By earning the No. 3 seed, Vanderbilt earns a bye and will play the Mississippi State-Georgia winner at 9 p.m. Friday on the SEC Network. With a win, the Commodores could get a third game with No. 2 seed Tennessee on Saturday in a semifinal. The Volunteers, who play either Ole Miss or Auburn on Friday, knocked off Vanderbilt in the regular-season finale last Saturday, avenging a January loss.
The Commodores last reached (and won) the championship game of the SEC Tournament in 1951.
“It has been a very long time, obviously,” coach Kevin Stallings said. “That is something we would like to make happen. It was one of our goals at the beginning of the season — to put ourselves in position to play for an SEC Tournament championship.”
The tournament, which started Thursday, will be played at the New Orleans Arena, home of the New Orleans Hornets. The Final Four will be played just across the street at the Superdome, home of Drew Brees and the Saints.
Stallings said he is staying away from bringing up a second tip to New Orleans to his team.
“Believe me, our existence is one day at a time,” Stallings said. “We are just trying to take it day by day and get a little better in practice. I know that sounds like a boring coach talking but you’d be surprise at how much of a challenge that actually is. ... The challenge is within this gym. The challenge is not in New Orleans or with another team. The challenge is with us. We have to get us as close to right as we can get and then say our prayers at night and hope that things work out for the best.”