Wednesday's upset loss to Mississippi State didn't just mean the end of the season - it meant the end of Kyle Fuller and Rod Odom's collegiate basketball careers. While the duo didn't reach the heights of Vanderbilt players before them, the pair took a tremendous journey to grow from bit players into senior leaders over four tumultuous seasons. These two athletes rose up from the deep end of the bench and the derisive language centers of fans' brains to give the Commodores some shining moments in an otherwise depressing season. When other players left, got hurt, or were thrown off the team, Fuller and Odom (along with Dai-Jon Parker) simply put more responsibility on their backs and just kept moving forward.
As important as Rod Odom was to this team's development, today's article isn't about him. It's about the California point guard who struggled to find a place in Nashville before making this team his own. Kyle Fuller will leave Vanderbilt as a completely different player than he was when he arrived. Based on the way he's carried himself on and off the court, I'd suspect that growth applies to the young man as a person as well.
Fuller was a less heralded recruit than Odom, but a more exciting player from the moment he stepped into Memorial Gym. His confidence and swagger on the court made him the spiritual successor to Jermaine Beal, even if his play on the court painted him as an hastily-made clone of Keegan Bell. The bullish athlete had a penchant for charging head-down into double teams, bouncing off big men, and forcing bad shots in the paint.
Fuller was a likable player in his first two years on campus; he just wasn't a particularly good one. His runaway train dribble-drives earned him the nickname "OGKF" - or "Oh God Kyle Fuller" - for the reaction they coaxed out of fans. For every crazy layup or jumper he made, he seemed to miss two more. He was even less reliable from long range. He missed every one of his three-point attempts as his playing time shrank to just seven minutes per game on Vandy's stacked 2011-2012 squad.
Those struggles sent Fuller into a funk that nearly led to his transfer in 2012. His trademark confidence had evaporated and a transfer seemed imminent thanks to the arrival of impact point guard Kedren Johnson. His issues on the court that year were nothing compared to his problems at home, however. His father, Kyle Fuller Sr., was in the late stages of a battle with lung cancer that winter. The elder Fuller had been the biggest influence in his son's life. That May, he succumbed to his illness, forcing Kyle to face a challenge light years harder than anything he'd ever faced in the SEC.
Kyle Fuller Sr.'s influence didn't just stay with his son after his passing; it grew. Kyle Jr., inspired by the man he strived to be, dug into the principles by which he was raised.
"My dad told me I'm not a quitter," Fuller told USA Today. "He told me I'm going to fight for everything I've got. He said he didn't want to see me leave a good university, especially when you have a skill set to play at a high DI university. You're going to stay and there you're going to play. And I'm going to play."
No one - especially not Vandy fans - would have blamed Fuller if he had decided to leave Nashville that summer. Instead he stayed and grew into the leader that his father knew he could become.
He responded by taking over a rebuilding program and developing into one of the SEC's best sixth men in 2012-2013. Fuller's minutes grew to 26 per game as a part-time starter and spark plug from the bench. He led by example on the court, elevating players like Sheldon Jeter and Kevin Bright and making those true freshmen SEC-caliber starters with his unselfish play. The veteran Fuller could get work done on his own as well. His 12-point overtime explosion single-handedly lifted Vandy to a road upset over Xavier. That effort earned him SEC Player of the Week honors and pumped hope into a potentially depressing season. His play in the conference tournament against Arkansas and Kentucky (14.5 ppg, 64% FG) led the overachieving Commodores to the SEC semifinals and sparked hope for the 2013-2014 season.
That momentum carried on to Fuller's senior season. He posted career highs in scoring, assists, and rebounds and proved that he could contribute to this team even when his shot wasn't falling (he made just 36.7% of his attempts this year). His 10 assists helped key the biggest win of the season when the 'Dores toppled in-state rival Tennessee at home. His 22 point explosion carried Vandy over Missouri. In 2014, Fuller's performance was a major factor in Vanderbilt's most meaningful victories.
As an upperclassman, Fuller's style of play never changed - but his court awareness did. OGKF still hurtled into the paint on drives, taking on 1-on-3 assignments and staring down the rim. However, he now knew what to expect once he got there. He could identify help defenders and knew how fast an opposing wing was bearing down on him. Instead of forcing a shot into a Kentucky center's arms or smashing a layup into the bottom of the iron, Fuller was finding holes, creating space, and getting off unblockable shots.
And they worked. Fuller set a Vanderbilt record for circus-shot layups in 2013-2014, assuming that's an actual stat. His cocksure drives into the paint became the Commodores' version of the "dagger three" that has defined so many other college basketball teams. More than anything else, his bonkers, head-down, and-1 finishes at the rim were the key to getting Vandy fans fired up late in the game.
Ultimately, his efforts weren't enough to prevent a disappointing finish for the 'Dores. Vandy lost their final five games of the season and slipped under .500 after a promising 5-4 start to conference play. It wasn't the ending that Fuller and Odom deserved, but it was an inevitable fatigue for a team with just seven scholarship players on the active roster. The tank simply ran dry despite the seniors' efforts to push their car past the finish line.
Kyle Fuller wasn't a game-changing point guard. He can't shoot and he presses the ball into bad situations. But he was our point guard - the player who grew from a shell shocked sophomore into a senior leader. He took control of his own game by learning just how far he could go on the court. That growth made him a guide that this young team could look up to - and it was exactly what Vanderbilt needed.
The stats won't show it, and the record won't reflect it, but Kyle Fuller was one of the most important players that Kevin Stallings has coached at Vanderbilt. His transformation into a true SEC-caliber starter should be one of the proudest points of the coach's career. Fuller's journey was filled with twists, turns, highs, and lows, but he took every step as a Commodore and brought every Vandy fan along with him for a ride. While his scoring can be replaced, it will be a while before the 'Dores can fill the vacancy that his heart, swagger, and leadership will leave behind.