Incredibly tell-tale stat: 1-11. That’s Vanderbilt head basketball coach Kevin Stallings’ record in season finales since he signed on with the Commodores in 1999.
The latest such event was last night’s 86-76 loss to Florida in Nashville. While the Gators have proven to be surprisingly strong in 2010-11, the ’Dores were looking pretty good themselves a little less than two weeks ago, with a 20-6 overall record (8-4 in SEC play).
But the ’Dores are at it again, looking like a talented, well-coached team most of the year and then flagging, their seeming lack of mental toughness once more promising an early end to their post-season. Vandy is guaranteed a slot in the NCAA basketball tournament, but after losing three of their last four games, including home games to Tennessee and Florida, you gotta start asking questions. For instance, Why can’t this program develop a killer instinct?
Now, at 21-9 (9-7), they’ve missed a chance to draw a bye in the upcoming SEC year-end tourney, and they’re faced with the prospects of either 1) Losing in the first round, and diminishing their record even more (not a bad idea, actually, since they can rest up for the NCAAs); or 2) Playing at least two games in the league tournament and possibly more, padding their record--even though doing so means a grueling four-day schedule possibly facing lesser schools desperate to exploit the one last chance to possibly grab an NCAA berth by adding to their win totals or winning the tourney outright for an automatic bid.
In fact, Vandy gains nothing by winning a tournament game. No strategic advantage within the conference. No boost to their seeding in the Big Dance. And, really, if they aren’t practiced enough by now for postseason play, then it’s probably too late for them anyway, and all they do is risk injury by competing against, say, a fired-up Alabama squad trying to get off the bubble.
And come to think of it, the ’Dores’ resume suddenly doesn’t look that great. There was the win over North Carolina (in November), plus wins over Belmont, Marquette and St. Mary’s, but only two of those schools were ranked in the top 25. Plus, the ’Dores’ road record is not impressive. Their biggest non-conference road foe, Mizzou, beat them 85-82 in OT on Dec. 8.
Versus main SEC rivals Kentucky, Tennessee and Florida, Vandy is 1-5. Stallings has pointed to “moral victories” of late, but who wants to hear about moral victories come tournament time? A better team--a tougher-minded team--would be able to point to a stronger league record, bigger wins, and would have momentum on its side.
In seasons past, good players like Matt Freije, Derrick Byars and Shan Foster have led the Commodores into the NCAAs with high hopes. This year’s team MVP, John Jenkins, faces a similar scenario. But the team appears to have peaked, and who can forget 2008, when 13th-seeded Siena ousted #4 seed Vandy in the first round.
Looks like deja vu all over again.
Postseason Tournaments Still Seem Like a Waste
Also on the local beat, Belmont University, Nashville’s other NCAA entry, completed a fabulous 30-4 (19-1) season with an 87-46 victory over North Florida in the Atlantic Sun tournament championship game.
Clearly the class of its league, little Belmont heads to the postseason with visions of repeating, or surpassing, its stunning 2008 near-upset of Duke. (The Bruins lost that first-round game 71-70, but served notice that veteran coach Rick Byrd knows what he’s doing with less than blue-chip talent.)
But here’s what’s messed up: It wasn’t enough for Belmont to go 30-4. In order to grab the NCAA bid, they still had to win the league tournament. So, if North Florida had gotten lucky--if a fluke had occurred, which is always possible--the A-Sun would have been sending a 16-18 team into the Dance.
Does that make sense to anybody? What’s the incentive to dominate at 30-4 when you could lose in the league tourney and be done for the year? (Or maybe take an NIT bid. Meh.)
Yep. Have a league tourney and risk sending a mediocrity to the NCAAs. All for a little more money. Stupid.