After a decade of disappointment in the SEC Tournament, Kevin Stallings has enjoyed some significant success in the league's finale over the past two years. 2012 brought a breakthrough SEC Championship on the backs of players like John Jenkins, Jeffery Taylor, and Festus Ezeli. 2013, while not as successful, got the Commodores to the conference's final four despite losing 95% of their scoring from the previous year.
Now, Kevin Stallings will have to prove that he can sustain that momentum despite an auspicious end to the season. Vandy will head to Atlanta on the tail end of a four-game losing streak. The past two weeks have left a bad taste in the mouths of Vanderbilt fans, as the 'Dores sandwiched losses in three winnable contests (against Florida, LSU, and Ole Miss) around an out-and-out skunking to arch-rival Tennessee.
Any Vanderbilt revival will start against 13-18 Mississippi State, who finished dead last in a weak SEC this year. To suggest that the Bulldogs have struggled lately would be a gift to understatement. Rick Ray's team hasn't won a game since January 22nd. During that 13-game losing streak, they've kept their opponents' margin of victory in the single digits just three times.
That includes a 55-49 Commodore victory of which ESPN Classic has already torched the master copies. Vandy won ugly, as they are wont to do, behind an ironman basketball effort and a tight defense that kept every Bulldog but Fred Thomas from scoring more than nine points. If Vanderbilt wins again on Wednesday, they will clinch a .500 record (or better) barring any surprising postseason invitations. That's a big accomplishment for a team that's only got seven scholarship players - and two true freshman - on the active roster.
Neither team has momentum on their side, but a win on Wednesday will mean a rematch against Ole Miss for either an in-state rival or the team that was a few friendly bounces away from beating the Rebels in the regular season finale. An early exit from the league bracket would erase the goodwill that Stallings and this Vanderbilt squad had built up this season and in the two conference tournaments prior. Every game from here on out will be the most important of the year for the 'Dores.
So can Vandy follow South Carolina's lead and earn a big win over Mississippi State? Let's take a closer look at how the Gamecocks turned back the Bulldogs last week.