(NB: All opinions expressed herein are mine and mine alone. King and Train have been very kind in allowing me the use of their soapbox, and in the cold light of day, I don't want my bourbon-fueled assessment of last night to reflect on anyone's judgement but my own. That said, I can't bottle this up any longer.)
Bright side first: We are 10-2 in our last 12 games, with only one of those losses coming in regulation (Arkansas, where we've won only once in the last seven or eight tries anyway), and our overall record shows that three of our six losses were against top-15-ranked teams. If you didn't know anything about this Vanderbilt team, you'd think things are going pretty well.
But we know about this team. More important, we know where we were ranked in the preseason. We know how this team has flamed out down the stretch for the last two years. And we know this year was when things were going to be different. In 2011-12, more than ever before, it was possible to say "the future is now" because we know what comes next year: barring a miracle, this team will have no scholarship seniors and only two juniors, one of whom only got meaningful playing time for the first time all season in last night's loss at Arkansas.
It's nobody's fault that Fes got hurt. It's asinine that he was suspended, but the injury did for that anyway. It's nobody's fault that Hendo was lost for the year and that we had to play with Stevie Thunder out of position for the first dozen games or so, and that our frontcourt didn't round into shape until January 1. Maybe we're just snakebit.
But we can no longer duck the question - we have to seriously consider whether the problem is at the end of the bench.
Here, then, is the bill of charges against Coach Kevin Stallings. J'accuse:
1) HE'S NOT COACHING WELL. This would seem to be tautological - the coach is doing a bad job because he's not coaching well - but I'm sick and tired of hearing post-game remarks like "we had a number of guys that didn't hold up their end of the bargain." You have five seniors. If they have been playing together for four years and somehow still aren't holding up their end of the bargain, it's time to consider that it may not be on the players. Setting aside the merits of throwing your team under the bus in the presser - again and again - the fact is that the starters on this team have been playing as a team for four seasons now. If it's going to happen, it should have happened by now - and if Stallings thinks it hasn't, he has only one place to look for an explanation.
2) HE'S NOT RECRUITING WELL. Again - barring a miraculous return by John Jenkins, we're going to have six scholarships free for 2012-13. Right now, my understanding is that we only have players for three of those slots. You can say that they put all their chips on landing Alex Poythress, but I will say that even if he turns out to be Blake Griffin, Kevin Durant, Lebron James and Smarty Jones all rolled into one, he can only play one spot on the floor, and that doesn't fill the other five slots. This team, bar Rod Odom and Kyle Fuller (assuming he doesn't transfer as has been rumored) will be composed entirely of freshmen and sophomores next season, and while next year is probably going to be a dumpster fire for the ages, the season after that will need guys who can use that seasoning and trial by fire and be ready to go. There's a very real possibility that we could put one scholarship senior on the floor in the next two seasons combined, and in a world where Kentucky can run one-and-done future NBA lottery picks out there every season, we need experienced talent.
3) HE'S NOT RESPONDING TO THE PRESSURE OF EXPECTATIONS. Siena. Murray State. Richmond. And now, Indiana State. Names that are carved in flaming blood on the hearts of the Commodore faithful, names that get flung in our face as March approaches, names that are cited as everyone from ESPN pundits to the PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES pencils us in for a first-round loss - correctly. We landed a 6 seed in 2004 and 2007 and gritted and luck-boxed our way into the Sweet Sixteen twice. We have since gotten two 4s and a 5 and been home by Friday night of the first weekend every time. We get a spot in the polls and the wheels come off. For a couple of years now, this team has blown double-digit leads against inferior competition and constantly left fans wincing and wondering where the next dagger was coming from. How many teams have fans that constantly fret that they'd be better off unranked? How many schools with three legit NBA prospects still feel like they have to sneak up on teams?
4) WE KNOW WE CAN DO BETTER. James Franklin made an impact without ever coaching a game, just by changing the attitude around football from day one. Tim Corbin put Vanderbilt baseball at the #1 spot for most of 2007 and last year delivered a College World Series berth at last. Kevin Stallings, in the last three years, has managed to assemble the most talented and potential-laden Vanderbilt basketball squad since - when? The Big Mac Attack? The F-Troop? Clyde Lee? - and delivered a team that struggles on the road, can't seem to get over the hump of Florida or Kentucky, and now loses regularly at home to teams that end in "State."
It's been a good run. It was a great turnaround after the VBK debacle. It really looked promising for a while there, and it was fun to dream the big dream. But in the end, the dream didn't die because of the other SEC talent, or because players didn't hold their end up, or because the lure of NBA prep school was too strong, or because of the curse of Jimmy Dykes, or because of the SEC Officiating Random Event Generator. You could blame a game, or maybe a season, but not five years of deflation. For that, there's only one explanation.
I know it was you, Kevin. You broke my heart.