My college journalism teacher had a saying: one time is an occurrence, two times is a coincidence, and three times is a trend. With three straight first round losses in the NCAA Tournament, Vanderbilt is in the midst of an awful trend.
That's why we're bringing back Schadenfreude Fridays - and turning its shameful gaze directly at the Commodores. Vandy hasn't made it past their first day of March Madness since 2007's Sweet Sixteen run, dropping games to unheralded teams Siena, Murray State, and Richmond over that span. As a result, one of the most talented recruiting periods in Vanderbilt history might end up passing through Nashville with zero NCAA Tournament wins to show for it.
So what's been holding this team back in the postseason? Some have suggested a lack of killer instinct and a void of leadership that dates back to the departure of Derrick Byars - but solid, swagger-filled veterans like Shan Foster and Jermaine Beal weren't able to carry the 'Dores to the tournament's first weekend. Others have suggested that it's an issue with Coach Kevin Stallings's playcalling and motivation - but his overall body of work suggests that he excels in getting more out of his players when it matters the most. No one has suggested that it's the result of a curse dating back to when Alex Gordon got into a shouting match with an old Gypsy woman at Pizza Perfect, but hell, that's a good theory too.
What's really the cause? Any of the aforementioned hypotheses may play a role, but one way to better understand the mechanics of this unfortunate trend is to take a look at the play on the court. Several themes recur across Vanderbilt's NCAA Tournament losses, including weak play from the team's guards, a lack of interior toughness, and the inability to create - or hit - open looks from long range. A failure in any of those categories could give any team fits, but given the Commodores' philosophy on the floor, they became fatal. A look at some of the problems that have plagued this team on college basketball's biggest stage since 2007 comes after the jump.
A bed-crapping in the backcourt: 2 of 3 losses. Over the course of three Vandy losses in the NCAA Tournament, the Commodores have had some solid 1-2 combinations working on the perimeter for them. Alex Gordon and Jermaine Beal. Beal and John Jenkins. Jenkins and Brad Tinsley. All four players will go down in school history as solid players - Beal and Jenkins will probably even be remembered as studs. However, they've all contributed in this team's spiral of failure once March rolls around.
Beal and Gordon combined for just 6 points on 2-12 shooting against Siena. Their performance paved the way for Jamie Graham to be the team's most effective guard - a sentence that should never have existed. In 2011, the backcourt's play against Richmond was solid in their overall body of work, but earn a failing grade thanks to their disappearance in the game's final six minutes. John Jenkins's inability to get open, combined with Brad Tinsley's inability to initiate the team's offense in the clutch, doomed this team in their trend-setting loss.
The team's guards only showed up when it mattered most against Murray State, where the Jenkins/Beal/Tinsley combination scored or assisted on 13 of the team's final 15 points in the last eight minutes of play. Their work forced Murray State to hit a buzzer beating shot in the team's best showing in the three-loss series. However, they still had their flaws, which leads us to...
Related: Inability to hit threes: 2 of 3 losses. You don't have to watch many Commodore games to understand how important the three pointer is to this team. Vanderbilt lives and dies by the longball, and in their recent tournament experiences, only John Jenkins has been keeping this team off life support. Jenkins is shooting 66.7% (6-9) from long range in the NCAA Tournament. The rest of the team has shot 22.2% (8-36). Notable clunkers over this span: Shan Foster (1-5), Beal (2-7), Gordon (2-7), and Lance Goulbourne (0-4).
Getting beat up in the paint: 2 of 3 losses. This was a close one. Vanderbilt was only outrebounded in one of their recent tournament losses (when Murray State used 13 offensive rebounds to gain a +6 edge), but Richmond threw a block party in Jeffery Taylor and Lance Goulbourne's honor in 2011. The pair combined to have seven shots blocked, including four (four!) Taylor layups. While Festus Ezeli was a beast in that game, he repeated a 2010 occurrence that saw Vandy's centers rise up to the occasion while the team's other forwards shrunk from the spotlight. In 2010, A.J. Ogilvy and Ezeli's solid play was tempered by a 6-21 shooting night (and only 9 rebounds in 61 minutes) from Andre Walker, Taylor, and Goulbourne.
As a result, we can point to this disparity on the court as a theme despite the solid rebounding performance in this year's game against Richmond. Of the three instances examined in the trend, the 2011 loss was the only one that saw a Vandy player pull down more than six rebounds in a game.
Just saying that we have depth doesn't make it true: 2 of 3 losses. Though the team runs ten deep with legit recruits, you wouldn't be able to tell by looking at the performance that this team's reserves have put up in March over the last three years. A case can be made that Vandy's eight bench players performed well against Siena (Keegan Bell and Jamie Graham outscored Alex Gordon and Jermaine Beal 11-6), but it's tough to support since most of their impact came in garbage time. Vandy's subs have been unable to sustain leads or act as a pace-changer when they hit the court. The bench was unable to spark a comeback against Siena and unable to protect a double-digit advantage against Richmond.
Only against Murray State - where Brad Tinsley, Lance Goulbourne, and Festus Ezeli combined for 46 solid minutes - were Vanderbilt's reserves able to have a positive impact in the NCAA Tournament.
Not enough Alex "Fucking" Gordon: 2 of 3 losses. Who will yell at opposing players in crunch time? WHO WILL JACK UP HALF COURT THREES WITH HIS EYES CLOSED???
Hitting free throws: 2 of 3 losses. 2009-2010 season average: 72.1%. vs. Murray State: 58.6%. 2010-2011 season average: 74.3%. vs. Richmond: 60.9%.
There you have it, some of the statistics that bond this team's March failures together. Some of it is mental (drops in free throw percentage, certain players fading into the background). Other parts, like play in the paint, stem from the growth of an early season weakness into a fatal flaw. A little bit can even be chalked up to bad luck. One thing is certain though - Vanderbilt has earned the reputation of a NCAA Tournament choker with three straight losses to teams ranked 12 or higher. If this team is going to progress, they'll have to address the trends that we've all seen perpetuating throughout the first week of March Madness over the past four years. Until they do that, they'll be everyone's chic pick for a classic 12/5 or 13/4 upset.