Thursday, March 8, 2012

March Madness and Vanderbilt Basketball: Synonymous in a Bad Way

Conference Tournament time, in my opinion, is just as much a part of March Madness as the NCAA Tournament. The bubble is very nearly defined, at least a couple of mid-majors shock and awe their way in, and some major teams that looked dead a month, or even a week ago catch fire. The Conference Tournament can help some teams in the middle of the pack of the NCAA field gain some much needed leverage with seeding. There is no better example of this than UConn, who was 9-9 in Big East play last year before taking the Conference Tournament by storm and riding it on a Magical March wave to an NCAA Championship. The Conference Tournament can also punch a cinderella's ticket. Western Kentucky is the best example of that this year, as a team that fired its head coach mid-season with a losing record, only to win its conference championship earlier this week.

The point is that crazy happens in Championship Week, just as much as NCAA Tournament time. A team either catches the wave, plays its best basketball, and accomplishes its preseason goals, or it flutters in the spotlight and drops in the face of adversity. The right team, with the right level of talent, can ride that wave a long, long way, much like UConn did last year. But even in spite of that talent, you can just as easily crash and burn if you miss the wave. For the past 2 Marches, this has been Vanderbilt's M.O.

Quite frankly, this team is still maddeningly inconsistent. They were maddeningly inconsistent the previous two years, but the hope and expectation was that 4 guys in their senior year, and one in his junior year, would somehow kick some of the bad habits that make them inconsistent. They have, to an extent (we're better defensively), but some things have gotten worse (defensive rebounding for one). They drill Marquette on the road, win ten games straight, then blow a dominant first half lead to Mississippi State at home. They get a huge home win over Florida on Senior Night, only to not show up against Tennessee the next game. Both Mississippi State and Tennessee are good teams when they want to be, but every Vandy fan rightfully expected those games to be wins. This is not to dwell, but to illustrate how frustrating it is for these guys, their coaches, and their fans. We all deal with it together.

But March for the past two seasons has been a microcosm of that incredible inconsistency. In both years, we have gotten to the SEC semifinals only to get bounced. One time, it was by a better team (Florida last year was very good), the other, it was by a worse team (Mississippi State). In both years, we've lost our first-round game. We were posh upset picks in both years, and we are again this year. The ESPN blog Giant Killers absolutely loves us because we literally prove them right time and again. This year, we're the second most-likely major team to get bumped. The reason is because, over the course of the entire season, we have turned the ball over a lot, haven't forced turnovers ourselves, and haven't prevented offensive rebounds. The funny thing is, at points throughout the year, we have done 2 of the 3 really well. We are either great or really average. We don't share Mississippi State's lows, but we also don't look better than Tennessee at times. Then we go out and play Kentucky closer than any other team, smoke Marquette, and drop 100 on Ole Miss. It's literally madness.

Which is why, for this group of seniors, for their coaches and fans, this March HAS to be different. This isn't just about throwing a monkey off their backs, this is about their legacy. There are no more chances after this. It's either play like you did against Marquette, against Ole Miss, heck against Kentucky, or play like you did against Tennessee. One changes the perception of this senior class, the class that took the program to heights it had never been before, the other leaves it exactly as it presently is, good, but not great.

This SEC Tournament could not have been laid out better for the Commodores. After blowing their opportunity to capture the 2-seed with a no-show in Knoxville, they do not have to face Kentucky, Florida, or Alabama to get to the championship game. They have to face two dangerous opponents in Mississippi State (assuming they beat UGA, not guaranteed) and Tennessee (assuming they beat Ole Miss or Auburn, not guaranteed), but both are flawed and both simply aren't as good. Simply put, this team either rises up and gets to the Championship Game, or lets Tennessee hang around in their minds and falls flat again. I'd almost say that more of our own fans have the expectation that they'll fall flat. Our performance in this tournament will tell me a lot about how things are going to go in the Big Dance. But there is no more next year, the time is now, and the job simply has to get done.

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