The Vanderbilt Commodores’ 2018-19 basketball season has reached the point at which local sportswriters are already writing the obituaries for the season just five games into the conference schedule.
That might be true in terms of making a postseason tournament; Vanderbilt has almost certainly damaged its resume to the point that the NCAA Tournament is off the table. Hell, the NIT might even be a longshot at this point. It’s certainly not because the Commodores are incapable of competing: even without Darius Garland, Vanderbilt showed the ability to beat teams the quality of middling SEC teams when it knocked off Arizona State a month ago — regardless of whether that feels like it was forever ago.
In terms of pride and avoiding an embarrassing record, though, the season isn’t over. The problem that we’re seeing, and that Joe Rexrode almost certainly sees, is that things have seemed to get progressively worse over the last two weeks. The skid started with a home loss to Ole Miss that basically everyone thought going in that they should have won. That was followed with a 19-point road loss to one of the worst teams in the conference. A competitive loss in Rupp Arena provided some hope: you never expect to win there, but Vanderbilt at least looked like it was capable of competing with top opponents. But then, the Commodores blew a 12-point second-half lead and lost to South Carolina at home.
Saturday night, though, was the worst performance yet. To tell you a bit about what it looked like going in, Mississippi State came in as a three-point favorite — a game in which Vanderbilt should have been competitive. Instead, Vanderbilt started the game in a massive offensive funk and, after hanging tough until Mississippi State went on a 14-4 run early in the second half, faded pretty quickly and fell behind by as many as 22 points before losing 71-55.
I’m generally not one to call out the efforts of unpaid college athletes, and especially not individual efforts. In some cases, it can be a natural reaction to seeing your best effort still not be enough to win games. If your best effort isn’t good enough, and you’re not getting paid to do this, what even is the point of giving maximum effort?
And that tends to be especially true when you’ve reached the point that you’re not playing for much more than pride. Vanderbilt now faces a three-game stretch in which it will host the #1 team in the country (Tennessee), followed by a trip to Oklahoma and a rematch with Kentucky. That’s a stretch in which Vanderbilt could honestly play well and still go 0-3; play poorly, and 0-3 is a given, and those games might deserve a “For Mature Audiences Only” disclaimer. Maybe if you can steal a win out of that stretch, the NIT is still a realistic goal.
But mostly, though, we’re looking to see if the team has any pride. It’s sad that we’ve reached the point that we have to ask that question, but the last time out did not look promising.