Kedren Johnson saved our season with one play.
With that up-and-under layup with under two minutes to go in the SEC title game, the freshman point guard extended the Commodore lead and delivered the final blow of the battle that saw the #1 team in the country humbled – however briefly – and Vanderbilt at the top of the SEC Tournament for the first time in 61 years. A championship, a banner, a ring – history. Proof that this team was there, that it happened, something to take pride in for the rest of their days.
If that game is lost – if the crowning achievement is merely reaching the title game for the first time since the Truman Administration – then the sole lasting accomplishments of this team would be that they finally reached Sunday in the SEC tournament, once, and finally won a game in the NCAA tournament, once. Media and fans would have almost unanimously judged the season a disappointment. And they would be absolutely correct. A team that opened the season with a rank of #7 in the country would have only the equivalent of a participation ribbon to show for – on paper – the most loaded squad in Vanderbilt history.
There are different perspectives. One camp holds that the amazing talent on hand was squandered by a coach whose in-game talents appear to be limited to drawing up inbound plays under his own basket. Another holds that for all the talent, they lacked a couple of vital pieces – a premium passer, or any reliable ball-handlers in the clutch, or someone who could reliably break the press. Another holds that the team just had psychological issues that the coach either couldn’t break through or actually brought about himself. Yet another holds that the team was always overrated, that its accomplishments were overachieving, and that Vanderbilt should count itself lucky to have made the tournament three straight years, while a similar camp grumbles that no team can break through when forced to compete against schools with surpassingly congenial admissions standards – or in the case of Kentucky, a glorified NBA scout team.
And some people – by which I mean me – believe we were just plain fucking snakebit. How else to explain the NCAA’s inexplicable ruling that somehow Festus Ezili deserved a six game suspension – and that he injured his foot and served those games on the bench in street clothes anyway? How else to account for Josh Henderson suffering an injury and leaving only Steve Tcheingang to cover the 5 spot, playing out of his natural power-forward position? How else to explain losing double-digit second-half leads on multiple occasions and overtime losses to no less than three top-15 opponents? Or the last three losses of the season all officiated by the very same referee, whose name is synonymous with “Basketball Officiating Random Event Generator”? How do we get the cutesy draw against a Harvard team under-seeded at 12? How else does the leading scorer in the SEC suddenly lose his shot? How do you explain a team that seems to have a black cat shoved up its collective ass, right before being thrown under a ladder and into a shattering mirror?
The final numbers: 21-10 in the regular season, 10-6 in the conference, ranked #20 in the country, a 5 seed and then 1-1 in the NCAA tournament. In the abstract, shorn of all context, it’s not a bad season at all, made great by the addition of 3-0 and a championship in the SEC Tournament.
But the year before, they were 21-9, 9-7 in the conference, a 5 seed and then 0-1 in the NCAA tournament, with an additional 2-1 in the SEC tournament thanks to the divisional system and no bye. Had that system been in place again, this year’s Vanderbilt would have found themselves playing on Thursday once again. The bye – coupled with the upset losses of Tennessee and Florida – meant that Vanderbilt only had to play a feeble Georgia and a weakened Ole Miss to get to that one Sunday shot at a Kentucky team playing for a coach who scorns conference tournaments. Put another way, you can make a case that all the luck of the 2011-12 season was used up on one weekend in March.
Last year’s team had a way of blowing leads, famously against South Carolina and Tennessee. Last year’s team had no answer for the run-and-gun Hogs of Arkansas. Last year’s team was maddening in its inconsistency and left a cornucopia of “what ifs” in its wake. So you can argue that nothing changed; that this is a team which hit its ceiling last year and barely budged this year. Or you can argue that this was a team of destiny – you think an uninjured Festus Ezili was worth two extra points against Xavier and Louisville to stave off OT? And would those two wins have helped the momentum and overcome the sluggish performance against Indiana State? Would a regular-season record of 24-7, with four wins against top-20 opponents, been enough to maybe scoot into a 4 seed instead and get to take on Montana or New Mexico State in Nashville? And would a final record of 29-8, a Sweet Sixteen appearance and an SECT title been enough to fulfill the dreams we had for this senior class?
We’ll never know. And that may be the cruelest fate of all as we stare into next year’s abyss.
There are only seven men left.
John Jenkins has turned down the NBA for us once. I wouldn’t expect him to do it again. Nor would I blame him. He’s given us three great years, he’s made All-American and put his name in our record books. He doesn’t have to prove anything to us. If he wants to chase the NBA dream, God bless him and please let him go to the Warriors. Looking down the list, then, here are our players for 2012-13 (the three incoming true freshmen indicated with an F):
Point Guard: Kedren Johnson, Kyle Fuller
Shooting Guard: Dai-Jon Parker, AJ Astroth (F)
Swing Forward: James Siakam, Kevin Bright (F)
Power Forward: Rod Odom, Shelby Moats
Center: Josh Henderson, Arnold Okechukwu(F)
That’s the depth chart. The front three positions are all staffed by players 6-6 and under. Kevin Bright is playing in high school in Germany and we have no idea what he’s got to offer. Okechukwu is a two-star prospect who would be considered a redshirt candidate any other year. Astroth is 6-6 and 180 pounds, which suggests he needs a few cheeseburgers at Rotier’s and some quality time in the weight room (and why he goes on as a 2 rather than a 3).
And when I say that’s the depth chart, that’s exactly what I mean – that’s the entire roster. Right now, we have exactly enough players for a full scrimmage and not a single live body to spare, and two scholarships are going begging. Every single player on the roster arrived no earlier than autumn 2010. There are no seniors. Odom and Fuller will be juniors. Three players are true frosh, assuming no redshirts. The other five all have exactly one year of live basketball under their belts, three of those as true freshmen – only one of our notional front court starters has more than 75 career minutes on the floor. This team is raw. This may be the youngest team in the SEC next year – and unlike Kentucky, it won’t be top-heavy with NBA prospects who expect to go pro after only a year or two. Put another way: all ten of the players on next year’s team have combined for a total of three career starts.
The only thing we’ll know about Kevin Stallings next year is whether he is the greatest basketball coach in human history, which is what he’ll need to be to eke out so much as a .500 overall record with this lineup. I don’t even want to think about the conference record in a league that’s adding Missouri and will still feature Florida, Kentucky, and up-and-coming teams with talented young coaches in Arkansas, Alabama, Auburn, and – painfully – Tennessee. As it is, this could be worse than the 2002-03 team that imploded completely – the primary challenge will be to try to keep this team from quitting on the season. I don’t think they’re the type, but there’s no predicting the effect of getting your brains dashed out night after night after night.
Ultimately, that’s why this season’s expectations were so high. Including the walk-ons (and walk-ons matter; if you think otherwise look at that depth chart again), we are losing eight live bodies off this year’s roster. Literally half our team is going away. The future was now, and in the end, it looked a lot like last year’s version. Our only solace – the one bone that Dame Fortuna condescended to toss us – was a paved road to a one-game matchup with Kentucky that just happened to have a title attached to it.
So was 2011-12 a successful year? I suppose so. Was it a disappointment? Yes. Did this team underachieve? Absolutely. Did they leave a mark on Vanderbilt basketball history? Absolutely. It’s all there. This team is large, and contains multitudes, as Whitman might have said. And let’s be honest – it’s probably the only team in the league where all the players could tell you who that is.
Look, here are the facts: we are the smallest school in the SEC. We are the only private school in the SEC. We are the only USN&WR top-50 school in the SEC. We are also the only SEC school never to have an athletic program placed on probation.
The hard truth about the SEC is that this is a football league. Not a basketball conference, not a baseball conference, and certainly not an academic conference. The SEC is about football. Period. Paragraph. World without end, amen. And this past season notwithstanding, we are as far from a football school as it’s possible for an SEC team to get. Even Ole Miss has the Vaught years. Kentucky went to an Orange Bowl under Bear Bryant. Vanderbilt hasn’t had 9 wins in a year since 1904 – its last full undefeated season.
But more to the point, we’re not an SEC type of school. We don’t have the vast army of sidewalk alums who never set foot on campus except for games. We don’t have the regional merchandising. We don’t have anything remotely approximating the scenes Warren St John captured in Rammer Jammer Yellow Hammer. When was the last time Vanderbilt was in a feature game of the week on CBS?As much as it pains me to say it, the move we need isn’t the ACC – it’s the Big Ten. Consider that every member of the league is an AAU school – so we’re at least associated with academic peer institutions. Consider that Northwestern has a couple of titles and Rose Bowl berths in recent memory – so it’s not impossible to think a school in our position could compete. And the Big Ten isn’t sitting on its laurels – it’s got its own network everywhere in the country.
But that’s not going to happen. The Big Ten seems content to sit on twelve for now – the only way they’d consider going bigger at this point would be for Notre Dame, and I don’t think ND wants to be the fourteenth team in the Big Ten (although I believe they might be the sixteenth…but that’s a wild-ass speculation for another time). The ACC is already on 14, and while there’s always the possibility of a swap for Clemson or Florida State, I don’t see that as realistic. And every five to ten years, somebody floats a new Magnolia League, bringing back Chancellor Heard’s 1950 idea of joining Duke, Tulane, Rice and SMU in a sort of pocket-Ivy League that would allow for major college football without the crasser excesses of the contemporary SEC – but that’s probably not going to happen either.
And you want to know why? Because we do very well financially out of the SEC. For years, we have cashed checks for literally millions of dollars from the eight or nine SEC teams in bowl games while we spend December eating turkey and watching ESPN. Bowls, television, merchandise – we have made the bargain that we will get a certain portion of the loot in exchange for taking the regular beatdown and playing with one hand tied behind our backs at all times. Which is just what we are doing. We take our undersized stadiums and our exacting admission requirements and try to go head-to-head with Alabama and LSU and Florida in football, or Florida and Kentucky (and now Missouri) in basketball, or Florida (fucking Gators!) and South Carolina and Kentucky in baseball. Sometimes it even works out. But most of the time it doesn’t, and we have to go like hell and compete for all we’re worth just to eke out a top-4 finish. Hell, this year we beat Ole Miss and Kentucky in football and swept our non-conference foes; that’s practically an undefeated season by our standards.
So what do we do? Better to serve in heaven than reign in hell? Can we be happy with “pretty good” as our ultimate aspiration? Should we be? We already get no respect from anyone else associated with the league – obviously you’re never going to get the calls against Bama in football or Kentucky in basketball or Florida in any damned thing, and for all the chants of “S-E-C” from the rubes, none of them really consider us a real SEC program. We are in a weird space, and how well we can live with that will determine a lot of our athletic future.
Because the window just closed on basketball. We’re a minimum of three years away from getting back to the kind of squad we’ve had for the last couple of seasons, and even that depends heavily on transfers or recruiting coups that won’t come in time for next year’s team. The window slammed last year on baseball – eleven players drafted into the major leagues – and this year we’re struggling just to win one in a row, never mind get back to Hoover, and don’t even talk to me about Omaha. Only football – football! – shows any sign that next year could be better than the last, and there’s no telling what the schedule will be like with the Missouri and Texas A&M add-ons. Seven wins sounds eminently plausible – nothing suggests Tennessee will be materially better, for one, and you have to think at least one of those single-score losses could be turned around by the returning firepower on offense and a decent kicker. Our losses were close and our wins convincing, which suggests that at least we’re unlikely to get worse. Then again, Ole Miss didn’t sit still and Kentucky showed signs of life down the stretch, and Urban Meyer’s Ohio State team is waiting in the wings in 2013.
If you’re graduating from Vanderbilt in five weeks, congratulations. Three trips to the NCAA tournament and an SEC tournament title in basketball, a College World Series berth in baseball, two bowl games for football, and that’s not even counting the women’s SEC tournament titles in cross-country and basketball. This has been the golden age for Vanderbilt sports. But the sun is setting, and it’s going to take a whole hell of a lot to hold off the night.