Solid finish, two SEC tournament wins have Commodores focused on future

Sunday, March 17, 2013 at 11:41pm

A losing season doesn’t typically breed confidence for next year.

But after rattling off eight wins in the last 12 games and reaching the semifinals of the Southeastern Conference Tournament, Vanderbilt chooses to look at its recent past as a stepping stone for the near future.

“It is more than hope. It is excitement, really,” freshman guard Sheldon Jeter said. “To think of what we’ve built this year, how far we’ve come this year – it is a big momentum swing for next year.”

With a 64-52 loss to Ole Miss on Saturday, the Commodores finished with a losing record for the first time in 10 years and just the second time in coach Kevin Stallings’ 14 seasons. The Rebels prevented Vanderbilt from defending its SEC Tournament title and then claimed their first SEC Tournament crown since 1981 by upsetting No. 13 Florida 66-63 on Sunday at Bridgestone Arena.

Despite watching a program-record streak of three straight NCAA Tournaments end, Vanderbilt (16-17) remains optimistic in the future.  
A team without any seniors this year returns all 10 scholarship players and adds a transfer from Tulsa and a highly touted incoming freshman center.

Plus, the Commodores – and their coaches – feel much better after improvement over the last five weeks pulled them out of the SEC basement and into a 10th-place regular-season finish.

“It gives us confidence because we know we’re definitely going to be an NCAA [Tournament] contending team,” guard Kyle Fuller said. “We know how we can play. I know that next year’s team is going to be better than this year’s team. We’re all growing up and being more mature.”

Low on experience, the Commodores endured numerous growing pains.

Offensively challenged for much of the winter, they scored just 33 points twice. They blew second-half leads to Middle Tennessee State, Ole Miss and Alabama. Last-second opportunities against Tennessee, LSU and Kentucky came up short and Vanderbilt fell to 8-13 in early February.

Then, after a four-game losing streak and more than 20 games in, an inexperienced team finally started to gel. Defensively strong all year – they ranked third in the SEC by allowing just 60.1 points a game – the Commodores began to hit shots.

Rod Odom, just one of two juniors, became the consistent offensive threat he was expected to be. Defensive specialist Dai-Jon Parker turned into a solid 3-point shooter. Kevin Bright recovered from the freshman wall to lead the team in 3-point shooting and rebounding. Jeter emerged as one of the team’s best finishers at the rim. Center Josh Henderson, though still inconsistent at times, started to log valuable minutes. And Fuller and Kedren Johnson anchored the offense at the point guard position.

As a result, Vanderbilt beat Arkansas twice in the last month, held on against Texas A&M and South Carolina, rallied against Georgia and stunned Kentucky last Friday.

“We made immense improvement,” Bright said. “From the beginning of the season to now, we made major, major steps. We developed individually and as a team. We were talking earlier about how we didn’t know how to play offense and defense in the same rhythm. But now we came to a point where we played offense and defense together. That is one strength we are going to take into next season.”

The Commodores hope they’re also adding two weapons that will bolster the league’s worst scoring offense (60.3 points a game). 
Eric McClellan sat out this season after transferring from Tulsa. The 6-foot-4 sophomore guard averaged 8.5 points and 2.2 assists in his lone year with the Golden Hurricanes. The other addition is 6-foot-9 Damian Jones. The big man from Baton Rouge, La., is a consensus top 100 prospect and helped lead Scotlandville Magnet to its second straight state championship. He will be relied on immediately to fill the glaring hole inside that Henderson and Shelby Moats struggled to plug.

“I feel like we’ll have more contributors,” Jeter said. “We’ll be scoring more points. But, honestly, we’ve got to build on both ends. We’ve got to build defensively and offensively and I feel like that’s what we’re going to do.”

Before turning the page to next season, Stallings praised his squad for its resilience and growth.

In more than 20 years of coaching, he said this team was as fun and as coachable as any group he’s ever coached.

“I’m proud of them,” he said. “They deserve credit. They deserve a lot of credit for the character and perseverance they’ve showed. People were off us and down on us and all of that. They didn’t give into any of the negativity. They didn’t give into any of the questions or the cynicism. They just kept doing what they were asked to do. As a result, they produced a pretty good finish.”

8 Comments on this post:

By: TITAN1 on 3/18/13 at 4:59

Proud of coach Stallings and this young team! The future is BRIGHT!

By: Rasputin72 on 3/18/13 at 5:20

This was a miracle team. They won at least 10 games that based on talent they should not have won.

If the pre-season is weak enough and the incoming freshmen are good enough and the SEC remains weak enough the future is bright for Vanderbilt.

By: Specter47 on 3/18/13 at 8:46

I just love you Vandy fans. A few weeks ago you were whining and complaining about the team and wanted to tar and feather Stallings. Today you're just beaming with delight. And though they had some lucky wins towards the end, the team still sucks. Amazing.

By: ssssunny43 on 3/18/13 at 12:24

SO. . . Stallings said in our illustrious daily newspaper yesterday that he did a better job this year than in SOME previous years. I assume two of those years he's referring to are last year and the previous year, but it's not important. What has Vandy been paying him so much money to do? An admitted lousy job??? Why do they give him raises and extend his contract when it's obvious that he hasn't gotten the job done in previous years? Why did he lose a top recruit for next year? And his full body of work is???Compare Stallings record with some others over a similar period of time; how about coaches like Billy Donovan at Florida, Rick Pitino at Louisvile, Bo Ryan at Wisconsin, and Mark Few at Gonzaga? Stallings record is DISMAL compared to what these 4 coaches have delivered over the same period of time. Stallings is, however, the THIRD BEST basketball coach in the Nashville are. Maybe having the best basketball coach in Nashville isn't important to Vandy. Vandy is, after all, MAYBE the 5th best basketball team in Tennessee. The bowling coach has more stature at Vanderbilt than Stallings. Maybe that's what you get when you have an AD who's really just an Intramural Sports VP. Maybe he's more comfortable with Stallings than he is with coaches like Corbin and Franklin in baseball and football. Maybe the AD just doesn't realize that his counterparts at other schools are getting a lot more for the high salaries they're paying their basketball coaches. How soon will Vandy ever have as good a team than they had last year? Depends on who they get for their next coach, in my opinion. When that coach has a team as good as Stallings did, I'll bet he takes it a lot further in the NCAA tournament. How about Final Four or higher? Anybody see that on the horizon with this coach? Maybe he'd do better at Northwestern or Texas Tech.

By: Rasputin72 on 3/18/13 at 5:05

I would love to see Stallings leave of his own accord or be escorted oit.

By: 4gold on 3/19/13 at 3:49

The UT trolls are out today. LOL.

Go Dores, Preds, Titans! Go Nashville a great place to live!

By: 4gold on 3/20/13 at 7:41

Waiting to see how many scholarships UK's Calipari will revoke. How many kids will suffer because Cal can't coach, he just hires and tells'm to go play. If they don't pan out they are out the door. Harrow will be the first with a pink slip. He has one foot out the door, crying his eyes out after VU buried them. No NBA and no education. what will he do? Too bad Poythrese made the same mistake. Could have learned something on the court and classroom at VU.

Go Dores, Preds, Titans! Go Nashville a great place to live!

By: ssssunny43 on 4/1/13 at 8:32

Wichita State lost it's top 6 scorers off last years team. They make it to the Final Four this year. How did Kevin do last year with his Final Four talent? How'd he do this year under the same scenario as Greg Marshall? Anybody in the Vandy Intramural Athletic Office paying attention or are they too busy investing their personal $2 million salary? No reason to upgrade your 5th best basketball team in TN or your 3rd best basketball coach in Middle Tennessee when you can pay Kevin $1.5 million and get a 50-50 season. Back to your personal investments. . . . no time to look for an upgrade in your basketball program. "Wait til next year".