Last night ended about as badly as any Vanderbilt basketball game could have. In a matter of seconds, a scenario in which the 'Dores held the last shot of a tied ballgame disintegrated into a three point deficit and a desperation heave at the buzzer. The end result was a sloppy loss, but there's more to Wednesday's game than what the box score holds.
This team beat itself as much as Mizzou did (though give credit to the Tigers - they are a deep and talented team), depleting an efficient performance through turnovers and deficiency at the free throw line and on the glass. However, nothing that sunk this team Wednesday night was a problem that wasn't fixable. The issue in Columbia wasn't talent, coaching, or depth - it was mental lapses and sloppy play. What we saw on ESPN wasn't a matter of a scrappy team overachieving in a near-upset against a highly-ranked opponent, it was a sloppy, toe-to-toe slugfest where the Commodores got roped into Missouri's game and came up short in a game they should have won.
Did the team choke? A little. Did playing on the road rattle them? Yes, especially at the free throw line. Should they be upset with the outcome? Absolutely. But the team we saw last night set themselves apart from last year's team with their performance.
The positives? Festus Ezeli proved that he can score and defend against a legitimate opponent without getting into foul trouble. Jeffery Taylor asserted himself on the court and used his athleticism to create open shots and get to the rim. John Jenkins exploited holes in the Tigers' defense and the Brad Tinsley/Kyle Fuller combination almost seamlessly dealt with Mizzou's pressure defense. Lance Goulbourne and Rod Odom proved that they can fill in for one of the nation's best glue guys (Andre Walker) while he's out with mono. The problems that manifested last night were fatal flaws, but they are all correctable. For the most part, the pluses outweighed the minuses, and the national media was put on notice - this Commodore squad is for real.
The season is early and Vanderbilt is 7-2, but unlike other seasons in the Stallings era, both losses have come against legitimate opponents. Gone are the upsets by teams like Western Kentucky, Appalachian State, or Furman. In their place are a pair of defeats to likely NCAA Tournament teams by virtue of last second heroics in each. These Commodores have responded to the criticisms of the past by beefing up their nonconference schedule, playing tough teams away from Memorial Gym, and beating the teams they're supposed to.
Ask a Vandy fan whether they'd want this team's current 7-2 record or the team's 9-0 slate in 2007-2008. Back then, the team's best wins were over .500-ish teams like Georgia Tech and Wake Forest. Not one of the teams Vanderbilt beat in that season's out-of-conference schedule made it to the NCAA Tournament. Those Commodores were blasted in March by #13 seeded Siena. These Commodores? They're on their way to avoiding a similar fate.