We're only eight games into the 2013-2014 basketball season, but the Vanderbilt Commodores have already developed an identity. They don't quit - and that will make them one of the best teams to watch in the SEC this winter.
The Commodores are 5-3, but all three losses have come against major-conference opponents (Butler, Providence, Texas). More importantly, Vanderbilt put themselves in a position to win all three of those games before falling painfully short at the finish line. Against Butler and Texas, the 'Dores rallied back into contention where other Vanderbilt teams could have accepted their fate. Against Providence, Vandy coughed up a huge lead and lost big - but still rebounded to close out the Paradise Jam with back-to-back wins (albeit over less than impressive opponents). There's just no impetus to give up in these guys.
That's a key trait that will pay off in a big way when SEC play rolls around. The 2013-2014 Commodores are playing without three key players from last year's rebuilding team. They're missing their leading scorer and most promising wing players. They're breaking in a shoot-first transfer point guard and a true freshman that looks like the next big thing in the recently resurrected lineage of Vanderbilt post players. On top of that, they've only played eight games this season.
With each game, these guys gel a bit more. You can see Kyle Fuller putting more confidence behind his passes when he knows how the play will shake out behind it. You can watch Luke Kornet and Damian Jones grow in very different but equally effective ways in the frontcourt. You have visual evidence of veterans like Dai-Jon Parker and Rod Odom taking the reins and quietly leading this team on the court.
There are going to be missteps, missed opportunities, and coughed-up leads like the one we saw last night. This team is going to lose some games they should have won, and vice versa. But through a month and a half, they've proven that turning off a Vanderbilt basketball game before the final buzzer is a fool's errand. These guys have alligator blood - you can't get rid of them.
And while that means that they'll also let other teams hang around as well - for too long, in Providence's case - it's a good sign for a team that needs to rely on heart and individual efforts while they only have nine scholarship players on the roster. They've proven that they can cut off the frustration of a deflating loss and leave it in the locker room. They've shown that they can grow from game to game. With reinforcements - three four-star recruits - on the way and Kedren Johnson slated for a 2014-2015 return, that's a promising future for Commodore fans.
It won't always be pretty this winter. In fact, these Commodores might be at their best when they drag their opponents into the mud and out-fight them. Either way, Vanderbilt has proven to be appointment viewing for anyone who likes a good ending. Every outcome builds this team a bit more, and these pressure-cooker situations are gearing these players up for a breakthrough. Even if it doesn't come this spring, these 2013-2014 Commodores will be able to look back at their non-conference schedule and regard it as the foundation for Vanderbilt's return to the top of the SEC.