Wednesday, February 29, 2012

The Morning After: Thoughts on the Vandy-UF Game and Its Importance

At the beginning of the year, I wrote that this was the team that would take us off the plateau, albeit a high plateau, that the program has been on and would get us deep in the tournament.

Then Ezeli got hurt/suspended, Vandy lost to Cleveland State at home, couldn't muster a win against either Xavier or Louisville despite second half leads, and to top it all off, fell to Indiana State. That pretty much soured the punditry, who had established very high expectations for the Commodores.

It's pretty fair to say that this team is not the same team as that group early in the year, continuing the trend of Stallings' teams to be disappointing in the first half of the year, and dangerous in the second. Say what you want, but the Dores have played very well in SEC play. Yes, they seem to ghost out for anywhere between 5-10 minutes of the game offensively, but they are #2 in the SEC in offensive efficiency and #4 in the SEC in defensive efficiency. Their only losses in SEC play have been to Kentucky, Florida, Mississippi State and Arkansas (on the road). The most shameful of those may have been the Mississippi State game, but it's still not a bad loss. The biggest knock on the 'Dores is that their only big win came in a complete beat down against Marquette, which most pundits wanted to chalk up as an aberration more than a statement about Vandy.

Until last night. Make no mistake, Vandy had to have this one on so many levels. This group, which has been incredibly polarizing given the level of expectation and the baffling performance swings from spectacular to awful, needed to prove that they could beat a really good team. They needed to take charge of the 2-seed in the SEC tournament. They needed to rally after a tough road loss to UK. They accomplished those goals last night, but this was really more than about one game, at least from the fan's perspective. It was about proving that this team really was different from the previous 2 editions.

Vanderbilt has struggled with senior night in recent history. The last time Vanderbilt won on senior night was 2008-2009, when these guys were freshmen. The last big senior night win was 2007-2008, the night of Shan Foster's 42 point explosion against Mississippi State. This game was not really an "upset", as Vandy was favored by 2.5, but any Vandy fan will tell you that this game was something to fear. Watching this senior class, who came with much fan fare and who have been dogged incessantly for their March shortcomings, walk out of Memorial with a win made me a little misty-eyed. All the more so watching Jeff Taylor's emotional outpouring. These guys have put their heart and soul into this program, and they have been through more disappointment and adversity than just about any sports team I've ever followed. This squad took a large step to proving they are different last night with this win by doing something that the past four Vandy tournament teams couldn't: win the last home game.

This team's regular season work is not done. Going to Tennessee and winning will not be an easy task, as the Vols have hit their stride over the last ten games or so. The team will need to shake off the emotional swing and get prepared for Saturday, as a win over the hated Vols will solidify their #2 position in the SEC tournament. But for one night, this team and its fans got an opportunity to savor something they've really been dying for: something different and awesome.

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