We knew there would be growing pains. We didn't realize each week of SEC play would be like breaking the same bone over and over again.
On Wednesday, this young Commodore team continued their trend of finding defeat in close games thanks to a 50-47 loss at Florida. Vandy used an 8-2 run to take a late lead in a hostile environment, but the wheels came off when it came time to ice the game. Matthew Fisher-Davis, facing a one-and-one situation with a 47-46 lead, missed a key free throw that would have plummeted the Gators' win probability. Florida used the next possession to find a way-too-easy dunk with 2.2 seconds left that sent the Commodores staring at another coulda/shoulda/woulda loss in SEC play.
Vanderbilt is now 1-8 in games that have either been decided by five points or fewer or gone into overtime. Wednesday's defeat was the second in seven days where they had the lead with fewer than three seconds left on the clock and still lost. In both cases, free throw problems - from some of the team's steadiest shooters! - ultimately cost this team a chance to earn a statement win. Couple those losses with a breakdown vs. LSU (where the 'Dores failed to score a single point in the final 3:08 of regulation) and you've got the difference between a winning conference record and the 4-9 mark that currently has Vandy in the bottom third of the SEC.
That standing serves to deal another blow to a team that can't catch a break in 2015. If they can't climb higher than 11th in the conference then they'll be forced to participate in the first round of the SEC Tournament. That 11 seed is where the Commodores flamed out last season in an 82-68 loss to Mississippi State - a defeat that sealed a second-straight losing season in Nashville.
The good news is that these losses haven't been the product of a deficiency in talent. The fact that the Commodores have been in a position to win a majority of their conference games is a testament to their abilities at every position on the floor. Instead, they've been stung by a lack of composure and conditioning late in these contests - two things that only improve over time. The problems are apparent, but they are fixable.
Vanderbilt has played five SEC games that were decided by three points or fewer at the end of regulation. The 'Dores have made eight of their 14 free throws in the final two minutes of those contests - 57.1 percent. They've made 71.3 percent of their shots from the line for the rest of the season. With the outcome of the game on the line, this young team was 14 percent less likely to convert from the charity stripe - and it has killed them.
That doesn't look like a lack of talent or effort at play. That's a lack of experience. And with only one upperclassman in the main rotation, that theory appears to hold some weight. Freshmen have played 59.2 percent of the team's available minutes in the 2014-2015 season. Vandy's seniors have made up only 14.5 percent of that total. The Commodores are banking their hopes on a cadre of players who were playing in high school gyms and rushing home to study for AP history less than a year ago.
That's not much of a balm when it comes to cooling the burn from last night's heartbreaking loss to Florida. Fortunately, this team proved they can come back from an even more painful defeat when they followed a terrible loss to Tennessee by beating 15-9 Alabama on the road. The pieces are there. The future is bright.
The present? Well, it's a work in progress. What else can you say after losses like last night's?