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Commodore Nostalgia: The 1999-00 Team Got Royally Screwed

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We're digging into our past as we get into the offseason, and we start with Kevin Stallings' first year, and the team that ultimately led to karmic payback in the form of the 2015-16 team making the NCAA Tournament.

Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

Since we're starved for content in the offseason, Anchor of Gold is reliving the basketball seasons of Commodores past.  I'll start with the Kevin Stallings era, and I may get to the seasons before that (for which, well, information is sometimes difficult to find on the interwebs), which means we're starting with wait a minute they're done announcing the teams I don't remember seeing Vanderbilt did you see them OH MY GOD THEY LEFT US OUT AND UNLV GOT IN AND THE MOUNTAIN WEST COMMISSIONER IS THE COMMITTEE CHAIR CONSPIRACY ALERT.

Ahem.

Yeah, Kevin Stallings' first season at Vanderbilt was one to remember for all the wrong reasons, but it actually followed a pattern we became all too familiar with over Stallings' tenure.

Roster and Stats
# Player Ht. Year Pos. GP GS MPG PPG RPG APG BPG SPG FG% 3FG% FT% WS Notes
4 Darius Coulibaly 7'1" So. C 30 4 10.5 2.2 2.3 0.3 1.0 0.2 0.441 0.000 0.375 1.0
5 Atiba Prater 6'1" Sr. G 30 30 32.5 7.4 3.3 6.0 0.1 1.9 0.491 0.250 0.683 2.5 Third Team All-SEC
10 Sam Howard 6'3" So. G 30 4 23.4 10.5 2.2 1.5 0.1 1.0 0.389 0.361 0.741 1.9
13 James Strong 6'3" Sr. G 28 28 30.5 10.8 4.3 4.0 0.2 1.9 0.456 0.311 0.565 2.0
14 Rick Jones 6'1" Fr. G 30 2 16.6 5.7 0.9 0.9 0.0 0.2 0.478 0.482 0.840 1.7
25 Chuck Moore 6'3" Jr. G Redshirt
32 Anthony Williams 6'7" Jr. F 30 28 24.6 8.4 6.4 0.8 0.2 0.8 0.443 0.286 0.853 2.4
42 Dan Langhi 6'11" Sr. F 30 29 34.4 22.1 6.0 0.8 0.3 0.4 0.477 0.403 0.871 5.3 SEC Player of the Year
44 Sam Lekwauwa 6'7" Fr. F 26 2 17.9 5.1 2.9 0.4 0.2 0.5 0.518 0.000 0.677 1.2
52 Greg LaPointe 6'10" Jr. C 26 23 17.5 4.5 2.7 0.9 0.1 0.6 0.457 0.250 0.487 0.6
Losses
Player Pos. MPG PPG RPG APG BPG SPG WS Notes
Vince Ford G 25.4 9.4 4.0 1.4 0.3 0.7 2.4 Graduated
Michael LeBlanc F 14.7 6.0 2.2 1.0 0.0 0.3 0.7 Dismissed from team
Deandre Moore G 18.8 3.3 1.7 2.7 0.0 0.8 0.8 Transfer/San Diego St.
Iiro Tenngren F 8.4 2.3 2.3 0.0 0.3 0.0 0.2 Transfer/MTSU
Newcomers
Player Yr. Pos. Notes
Rick Jones Fr. G Kentucky Mr. Basketball
Chuck Moore Jr. G Transfer/Seton Hall; sat out

Vanderbilt's roster for the 1999-00 season shows a lot of the effects of the tail end of Jan van Breda Kolff's tenure.  VBK's last good recruiting class came in 1996, and that's the senior class here -- Dan Langhi, Atiba Prater, and James Strong.  You might remember those guys.

The 1997 recruiting class was merely okay.  Sam Howard and Anthony Williams were solid supporting players; Greg LaPointe returned a few years later under the assumed name Josh Henderson; and Darius Coulibaly was a 7-foot project who never developed.  You could have lived with that recruiting class, I guess, but the next two recruiting classes?  Not so much.

The 1998 recruiting class was almost entirely gone by the time the 1999-00 season rolled around: Iiro Tenngren barely made it to semester break in 1998-99 before leaving the team (ultimately ending up at MIddle, where he became a role player), and Deandre Moore left late in the offseason -- as Blue Ribbon's season preview eloquently put it, he "took a free trip to Europe before announcing he was transferring to rejoin van Breda Kolff at Pepperdine."  (That last detail turned out to be incorrect; Moore went to a JUCO for a year before resurfacing at San Diego State, where he had an okay career.)  Sam Lekwauwa, after redshirting his first year because he was freaking 16 years old, was still with the program but wouldn't be for long; he'd give up basketball entirely to focus on academics after this season, which was kind of a disappointment because he showed some promise in his one season for the Commodores.

And the 1999 class?  As far as I can tell, VBK didn't sign anybody in 1999; perhaps because with Vince Ford being the only senior on the 1998-99 team, there weren't many scholarships available.  Rick Jones, the lone freshman signee in the 1999 class, was a Stallings recruit; actually, Stallings had recruited him hard at Illinois State and Jones, after waiting for Tubby Smith to offer him at least an invited walk-on spot (which he didn't) decided to sign with Stallings at Vandy.  That sentence should tell you everything you need to know about Jones, who like Lekwauwa would be gone after one season (though for entirely different reasons.)  Stallings also brought in Seton Hall transfer Chuck Moore, who would sit out the 1999-00 season.

In short, the Prater-Langhi-Strong class meant there was enough left in the tank for Vanderbilt to make a run in Stallings' first season in Nashville, but the house of cards that VBK had built was going to collapse rather quickly after that.  The unrelated dismissal of Michael LeBlanc, a UConn transfer who played one season at Vandy, also meant that Vanderbilt had nine scholarship players available.  We weren't quite in Magnificent Seven territory (in that nine is more than seven, and also because the Magnificent Seven team did not have a player the talent of Dan Langhi or even Atiba Prater on it), but we were close.

That said, from best I can tell Vanderbilt wasn't expected to do a whole lot in 1999-00: the Commodores didn't receive a single vote in the preseason AP poll, and Blue Ribbon (which is literally the only reputable projection I can find on the internet, since the internet was just barely a thing in 1999) had the Commodores pegged as an NIT team, I'm assuming projected to finish something like fourth or fifth in the SEC East.  The SEC was kind of weird in 1999-00: Auburn (Auburn!) was considered a serious national title contender (they weren't, but that didn't become clear until around February); Kentucky was entering their "Tubby gives his son too much playing time" angry radio calls phase; Jerry Green was lucky that Vols fans had not yet figured out the concept of internet petitions to demand the coach be fired; and this was Billy Donovan's first really good team at Florida.  LSU was a surprise winner in the West behind Stromile Swift, which was something that apparently no one saw coming in the preseason; the Tigers got to the tournament for the first time since 1993.  Those were five of the six tournament teams from the SEC (we'll get to the sixth in a minute), but Dan Langhi was putting together an SEC Player of the Year campaign and the Commodores were a surprise contender.

Schedule
Date Opponent VU Opp W L Notes
11/23/99 Belmont W 72 55 1 0
11/27/99 Tennessee-Martin W 87 64 2 0
11/29/99 East Tennessee State W 70 55 3 0
12/4/99 at Notre Dame W 87 85 4 0 overtime
12/7/99 Hofstra W 74 46 5 0
12/11/99 Wofford W 92 61 6 0
12/18/99 Western Kentucky W 101 77 7 0
12/20/99 Stetson W 94 62 8 0
12/22/99 at Florida State L 65 70 8 1
12/29/99 William & Mary W 81 60 9 1
1/5/00 #6 Florida W 87 77 10 1
1/8/00 at #25 Kentucky L 52 72 10 2
1/12/00 at #12 Tennessee W 76 73 11 2
1/15/00 #24 LSU W 65 62 12 2
1/22/00 #18 Kentucky L 73 81 12 3 overtime
1/26/00 at South Carolina W 61 60 13 3
1/29/00 at #10 Florida L 63 89 13 4
2/2/00 at Georgia W 67 58 14 4
2/6/00 Boston College W 76 58 15 4
2/9/00 Mississippi State W 69 64 16 4
2/12/00 at Alabama L 63 77 16 5
2/16/00 #12 Auburn L 80 86 16 6
2/19/00 #5 Tennessee W 85 72 17 6
2/23/00 at Arkansas L 63 78 17 7
2/26/00 at Ole Miss L 67 75 17 8
3/1/00 Georgia W 101 89 18 8
3/4/00 South Carolina L 72 77 18 9
3/9/00 vs. Mississippi State W 76 53 19 9 SEC Tournament (Atlanta, GA)
3/10/00 vs. #10 LSU L 60 71 19 10
3/14/00 Wake Forest L 68 83 19 11 NIT

And yet, the 1999-00 season followed a pattern that we'd become way too familiar with under Stallings.  The Commodores, unheralded in the preseason, got into the Top 25 in the middle of January following a 12-2 start, albeit with one of the losses coming against a Florida State team that finished the year 12-17.  They spent five of the next six weeks ranked in the polls, though danger signs began to show with a 14-point loss to Alabama (who was in its second year under Mark Gottfried and finished the year 13-16.)  Auburn came to Memorial Gym and dealt the Commodores their second home loss of the season, but Vandy followed that up three days later with a solid home win over a top-5 Tennessee team.

And then... well, those last four games of the regular season look like something we'd see a lot under Stallings.  It started with a 15-point loss at Arkansas because of course a Kevin Stallings team got blown out at Arkansas.  It continued with a loss to a mediocre Ole Miss team at the Tad Pad, and after beating a young Georgia team (yet giving up 89 points in the process), Vanderbilt threw in a home loss to a 15-17 South Carolina team to finish the regular season.  The Commodores did at least handle Mississippi State in the first round of the SEC Tournament to stop the bleeding, though.

Yet even with a 3-6 finish to the regular season, Vanderbilt seemed to have a solid case (RPI numbers here) for inclusion in the tournament.  At least, we thought.  The Commodores had an RPI of 39 on Selection Sunday, a 4-5 record vs. the RPI Top 25 (including a season sweep of Tennessee and home wins over Florida and LSU), a 4-6 record against the RPI Top 50, and only one loss to a team outside the Top 100 (the December loss to Florida State.)

And, somehow, that resume was not considered worthy of selection.  I really don't blame the team for essentially no-showing a NIT game against Wake Forest to end the season given how egregious of a snub it was.

One common theory was that Arkansas's surprise SEC Tournament win, on Selection Sunday, forced the committee to re-do the bracket a couple of hours before the selection show, and the easiest move was to just bump Vanderbilt from the bracket and put Arkansas in their place.  But that ignores the salient point that Arkansas played its first-round game in Nashville.  Considering that there was no way the committee had Vanderbilt in that particular spot in the bracket, this theory doesn't hold water.  (It also ignores the side issue that even before the SEC Tournament final tipped off, Arkansas actually had a pretty good case for an at-large bid thanks to beating top-25 Kentucky and LSU teams just to get to the final; the Razorbacks wound up getting an 11-seed, and it's entirely possible they would have gotten in even if they had lost in the final.)

What's more, the Arkansas theory fails to explain how the following teams were included ahead of Vanderbilt:

  • Pepperdine (24-8): RPI 52, 2-5 vs. Top 50, 20-2 vs. sub-100
  • St. Bonaventure (21-9): RPI 40, 2-4 vs. Top 50, 15-4 vs. sub-100
  • UNLV (23-7): RPI 51, 2-6 vs. Top 50, 17-1 vs. sub-100
  • Indiana State (22-9): RPI 47, 2-2 vs. Top 50, 17-3 vs. sub-100
  • Dayton (22-8): RPI 43, 2-3 vs. Top 50, 16-4 vs. sub-100

There was, you'll remember, some controversy about the UNLV selection.  UNLV had won the Mountain West Conference tournament, but in 2000, because of the recent MWC/WAC breakup and NCAA rules (at the time), neither the MWC nor the WAC had an automatic bid.  The WAC wasn't an issue; Tulsa and Fresno State were both in the RPI top 25 (Tulsa had spent most of the year in the AP top 25 as well) and clearly deserved inclusion.  But UNLV's case, as you see above, was iffy.  As if to annoy Vanderbilt fans further, UNLV got sent to Nashville to get their asses handed to them by Bill Self's Tulsa team.  And that Pepperdine team, of course, was coached by none other than Jan van Breda Kolff, who'd inherited a loaded team from Lorenzo Romar in his first year.

But the obvious conclusion from the above resumes is that the Selection Committee in 2000 decided that they valued pretty records over substance, as Vanderbilt got left out of the tournament in favor of a bunch of teams who'd spent much of the year beating up on nobodies.  The fact that the MWC commissioner happened to be chairing the committee has led to a lot of good conspiracy theories, but it's also true that UNLV wasn't the only team with a sketchier profile than Vanderbilt who got in ahead of the Commodores.

The only satisfaction came 16 years later when the Committee went the opposite direction and left out a bunch of mid-majors (including Bryce Drew's Valparaiso team) and South Carolina in favor of a sketchy Vanderbilt team that looked kind of good on paper.  But even sixteen years after the fact, this tournament snub still hurts -- because it quite literally does not make sense.

Next time, Stallings goes through the inevitable rebuilding process with Langhi gone.  Also, Matt Freije makes his first appearance.