As you guys know, I’m a huge fan of Vanderbilt football. But as it turns out, we’re historically a basketball school. Coincidentally, and unfortunately for basketball, Vanderbilt football seems to be having unprecedented success at the same time that the basketball team is uncharacteristically struggling—men’s basketball hasn’t had back-to-back losing seasons since the 80’s. The Dores were close to keeping their winning ways, coming in at just under .500 on the season both years: 15–17 in 2012–2013 followed by 15–16 for 2013–2014. Both were justifiable, and I’ll give the backstory from my perspective below.
Pre-freshman year: 25–11, (10–6); 4th in the league and SEC Tournament Champions (over national champions Kentucky).
Obviously, that’s a great season (though we only made it to the round of 32 thanks to a 3–point lost to Wisconsin). I was on Vanderbilt’s MOSAIC weekend during that game, and the school felt tangibly sadder the day following the loss. The Big Three that led us to that record: Festus Ezeli, John Jenkins, and Jeffery Taylor. Jenkins is now in the NBA, and the other two are playing in Europe. Basically, they were really good. We knew the first year without them was going to be a big adjustment, but we also knew that there was some talent on the team that needed development.
My Freshman Year: 16–17 (8–10 SEC)
Having lost 88% of the scoring from last year [the Big Three] and other seniors, Vanderbilt initially struggled with finding scorers. The worst loss in Stallings’ tenure happened this season—a 50–33 loss to Marist. Yeah, only 33 points in 40 minutes of play. Towards the end of the season though, the team really started to gel together and win some games. We made it to the semifinal round of the SEC tournament (having knocked out Kentucky on the way) to eventual champion Ole Miss. This season was amazingly close to being over .500, and some questionable calls against Kentucky in January and a missed tip-in at Tennessee could have really changed the season. Everyone was hyped up for next year, because we knew we would be back. But then the offseason happened.
Kevin Bright, a talented freshman who really started to develop towards the end of the year, decided to go turn Pro in Germany to be with his family. “Hard loss, but ok—we can afford that hit. He’s a long way home.” Then a few weeks later, AJ Astroth transferred. “Ok, he didn’t do much last year, so that’s not a big loss.” Then Kendren Johnson, our leading scorer, was suspended for a year without a publicized reason. “Alright Stallings, what’s going on?” Fans weren’t happy, and pessimism about the season set in. Then, as if enough damage hadn’t been dealt, Sheldon Jeter, who played significant minutes, also decided to transfer (and it wasn’t pretty). At this point, everyone was done with Stallings, had given up on basketball, and started talking about football SEC Media Days.
Alright, we went 8–4 in the non-conference schedule. There was hope that our slightly-undermanned squad could get it done. We had some losses that shouldn’t have happened, such as at Texas and vs. St. Louis, but Vandy fans were excited that the guys would get it together even with the reduced lineup. But then our starting center, Josh Henderson, tore his ACL against St. Louis. Not good. After a mysterious absence of McClellan in the SEC opener at Alabama, fans found out a week later that he had been permanently dismissed from the team for academic violations. At this point we had lost 6 key players and 5 from the previous year’s team—even though no one graduated. We were doomed.
Much to everyone’s surprise, Stallings & the team didn’t give up. After the team went on a 4 game win streak to reach 5–4 in SEC play, the remaining scholarship players were dubbed the “Magnificent Seven”. But after some close losses starting with a 77–75 home loss to Arkansas, the fatigue caught up with the Commodores. Having your starters play consecutive 40-minute games isn’t sustainable. After being a part of the SEC 7-team 7–7 logjam, we lost our last 3 games and were knocked out of the SEC tournament in the first round by lowly #14 Mississippi State. The worst part about it all is that there were some games that that we should have won in that losing skid (Against #1 Florida & LSU, both at home), but we didn’t and ended up with another losing record. Though we lost Rod Odom (2nd Team All-SEC) and Kyle Fuller, Luke Kornet and Damian Jones (All-Freshman) will be back to keep Memorial filled with happy and exciting fans.
Despite the leakage of players for the past couple of years, this year’s recruiting class looks very good and are poised to play some serious minutes. (Depending on their skill level, Stallings may even decide to give Kornet a redshirt so that he can bulk up. For 7 feet, he’s pretty spindly.) Here’s who we have incoming:
Jeff Roberson, a 6’7” Power Forward out of Houston (3-star Rivals & 247 Sports)
Wade Baldwin, a 6’3” Small Guard from New Jersey (4-star Rivals, 3-star 247 Sports)
Matthew Fisher-Davis, a 6’4” Small Guard from Charlotte, NC (4-star Rivals & 247 Sports)
Riley LaChance, a 6’2” Point Guard out of Wisconsin (ESPN 96, best player in home state, 4-star 247 Sports, 3-star Rivals)
Nolan Cressler [transfer, Cornell; ineligible until 2015–2016] (Sophomore, Cornell leading scorer, 4th best scorer in Ivy League)
Basically, things are looking good for Vanderbilt basketball well into in the future. What with the coaching Stallings did this year with a limited roster, he’s really affirmed himself as Vandy’s coach. There’s just one important thing missing on his résumé: SEC Regular Season Champions. That would be great (especially if it coincided with the [a] year Mason won at least an SEC East championship) as Vandy hasn’t won a regular season title since 1993 and only three overall. I look forward to Memorial Gym again becoming the place where great teams go to die. Other than Kentucky, no team looks especially strong this upcoming year, so I look forward to the opportunity to make a real run at the regular season title. Anchor Down, Commodore basketball.