An ignominious distinction, from espn’s article on Thursday’s game against Richmond:
“The Commodores became the first program in NCAA tournament history to lose in three consecutive round of 64 games as a No. 5 seed or better.”
I hate to say it, but we must acknowledge that the underachievement of our program has reached all-time historic levels. True, you have to have a relatively strong program during the regular season to consistently obtain 4 and 5 seeds in the tournament. That means something, and no matter what anyone says, I’d rather lose in the first round of the NCAA tournament than play deep into the NIT. But for better or worse, all that the majority of college-basketball viewing Americans care about is “March Madness,” which is the NCAA tournament. Quite frankly, even as a season-ticket holder, I can’t say that my own sentiments are that different. And on that stage, we are now a historic failure. If you thought people were picking against us in the tournament this year, just wait until next year. I doubt this post will be the last time that you hear the above-quoted statistic.
There are lots of strategic reasons for this year’s collapse (e.g., consistently weak perimeter defense, trouble getting our best players shots in clutch possessions) as there were last year (defensive rebounding, toughness) and in 2008 (over-reliance on a single player, difficulty winning on the road). But aside from weak defensive rebounding (which actually wasn’t as big a problem yesterday, likely due to Richmond’s relative incompetence at rebounding, except for their critical five-possession stretch in the second half), the most glaring common denominators between these teams—other than losing in tournaments—are Coach Stallings (and his crew) and the name on the jersey.
Actually, after scouring the box scores, I realized that there is another statistic, perhaps less obvious, that should concern us. From behind the three-point line: Siena, 9-20 (45%); Murray State, 7-15 (45%); Richmond, 12-24 (50%). Overall three-point shooting percentage in NCAA men’s basketball over the past five years: 35%. (I’m not sure what the statistic is for the average 13 or 14 seed historically, and I expect it’s probably a little above 35%, but it’s nowhere close to 45-50%.) Simply put, we’re getting killed from three. Year after year.
Back to the common denominator. Not a single player who played yesterday in the loss to Richmond also logged minutes in the game against Siena in 2008 (with the exception of Andre Walker, who logged 18 minutes against Siena and 2.7 seconds against Richmond). And one of the biggest weaknesses with this year’s squad, the lack of an “alpha dog” to step up and take over when we needed it, is the polar opposite of a weakness of the 2008 edition, which over-relied on Shan Foster’s outside shooting—which was stunning at times (e.g., senior night vs. Mississippi State), consistently strong (he shot 47% for the season), but not the foundation on which to build a deep NCAA tournament run (he only scored 13 points in the upset against Siena and didn’t even attempt a shot until the game was already almost out of reach). We’ve had different players, and different weaknesses, spanning across this painful streak. In short, the players aren’t the problem.
Is the problem the name on the jersey? That is, is there such stigma associated with being a Vanderbilt basketball player that our otherwise-talented players and teams just can’t win in March? It didn’t use to be the case, at least. As was well documented yesterday in a post on Anchor of Gold, over the past thirty years Vanderbilt has been the Cinderella about as many times as the fallen Goliath. See http://www.anchorofgold.com/2011/3/16/2053353/a-gentle-reminder-of-vandys-postseason-successes. Going forward, we can only hope for Dai-Jon Parker, Kendren Johnson, and us fans that there isn’t some newfound curse on the jersey. But as superstitious as sports fans can be, we don’t actually believe that the jersey itself is cursed. What we really mean is that there are psychological problems that consistently tend to manifest themselves in the players who wear the jersey. And those problems are only attributable to coaching (unless timorous high-school recruits self select for Vanderbilt because they know of this reputation of the program—something I simply cannot believe).
No matter how you cut it, coaching is the root of our psychology of losing big games. This problem, I believe, arises at least partly from recruiting. We all know that Vanderbilt has high academic admissions standards, and that those standards are applied, at least to an extent, to its student-athletes (Ron Mercer in the 1990s). But several of the most elite college basketball programs exist at schools with similarly high academic admissions standards (e.g., Duke, UNC, Georgetown, UCLA). So that alone cannot be the problem. Rather, it’s the type of player that Coach Stallings tends to recruit: they are often relatively more religious (e.g., Shan Foster), soft-spoken (e.g., Jermaine Beal), or alternative in style (e.g., A.J. Oglivy) than their peers at other schools. I must emphasize that these characteristics are not bad in themselves (they’re often virtues), and that my point is not to be critical of our current or former student athletes. I’m simply suggesting that these personality characteristics are somewhat abnormal among college basketball players generally, that they may correlate with timidity under pressure, and that when they permeate the teams year after year, those teams may be uniquely prone to crumbling in the clutch. We should continue to recruit the soft-spoken three-point assassin; those players are a huge part of why I love Vanderbilt basketball. But to reach the next level, we may need at least a few players in our rotation who have a contagious "killer instinct" and swagger that infect everyone else—allowing us to extend moderate leads rather than blowing them, and to take opposing teams’ best punches without folding down the stretch. So recruiting—not talent, mind you, but personality—appears to be part of the problem. Coach Stallings must take that into consideration going forward.
But the problem also stems from motivation: how Coach Stallings and his staff motivate those players once they arrive on campus, start up conference play, and eventually step under the bright lights of the Big Dance. I must disclaim up front that I have absolutely no knowledge of what goes on in the locker room before, during, and after games. But my fear (and I doubt I’m alone on this one) is that Coach Stallings does not properly motivate the players for big games, that he does not acknowledge and slay the biggest elephant in the room. You can’t tell me that these players don’t know their recent Vanderbilt basketball history, that it doesn’t enter their minds, to some extent, when things start going poorly during big games. We need someone who can exorcise the demon in the jersey, and if it’s not going to be any one of the players, then it has to be the coach. At least from this fan’s perspective, that has not happened. It needs to.
Coach Stallings is the second-winningest coach in our program’s history (after only legendary Roy Skinner). He has taken us from a middling program to a consistent top-25 team. He has been the SEC coach of the year twice in the past five seasons. Over the same time period, he has presided over two SEC players of the year (and almost a third this year). He runs a clean program with great student-athletes who make us all proud. He has coached us to more NCAA tournaments in his tenure than any of his predecessors. But when it comes to NCAA tournament performance—the most high-profile and critical measure of success in college basketball—he has fallen woefully short of late.
Despite the Vanderbilt administration’s show of commitment to the football program demonstrated by the recent hiring of Coach James Franklin, I seriously doubt they would make a move against Coach Stallings at this time, even after this most recent in our series of disappointments. Nor should they. With our three marginal NBA prospects considering their future this offseason and two celebrated recruits (who fill important strategic holes in our team) coming in next season, this would be a bad time to make such a change.
Something obviously needs to change, however, and in my opinion it must come from Coach Stallings. I believe in Coach Stallings, in Vanderbilt basketball, and in Memorial Magic. I was lucky enough to attend the Sweet Sixteen game in New Rutherford, New Jersey in 2007, when we took a powerhouse 2-seed Georgetown team down to the final possession, making clutch free throw after clutch free throw along the way. We didn’t win that game, but nobody there that day would have believed you if you said that Coach Stallings can’t win in March.
If Taylor, Jenkins, and Festus all stay (as they should; all could use another year in college for different reasons), we will have an even better chance to get out of the Round of 64, and make a deep NCAA tournament run, again next year. We should still have a great chance if we lose one of the three to the NBA. But in the meantime, Coach Stallings must reflect deeply on the recent trend and how to change it. Experimenting with different ways of challenging key players to become vocal leaders; speaking to trusted peers in the coaching world (in and outside basketball) about motivational techniques; considering giving assistant coaches new roles regarding motivation. I’m no expert, but ideas like these, and others, need to be on the table.
A consistent emphasis on perimeter defense and defensive rebounding from the very beginning of next season are necessary, but they’re only a start. Most importantly, Coach Stallings needs to figure out how to assemble teams and motivate his players so that they thrive, rather than shrink, in March. The next time (next year?) we make it to the Sweet Sixteen, the Jeff Greens of the world will not be so lucky.