Throughout the fall, many kept a close watch for signs of the “same old Vanderbilt.”
An overhaul of the football coaching staff, the promise of upgraded facilities and all that was nice. Decades of history were difficult to ignore, though, and there were plenty who wondered when the program would revert to form.
Maybe it was the loss to Arkansas when a game-tying field goal sailed wide right at the end. Maybe it was South Carolina when a second-half lead vanished in a heartbeat. Maybe it was Florida when one good half
of football was not enough to offset one bad one.
Come the second weekend in November, it finally happened. Same old Vanderbilt.
As it turned out, though, people were looking in the wrong place.
Familiar failings of the Commodores showed up in — of all places — Memorial Gymnasium, as Kevin Stallings’ team was stunned in its second game of the 2011-12 campaign by Cleveland State.
In stark contrast to the football program, the men’s basketball team entered this season with some serious expectations.
A preseason Top 10 ranking — a first in nearly half a century — and a roster loaded with experience made Vanderbilt one to watch for many.
As often is the case during the offseason, though, people chose to dwell on the positives, of which there are many. Few, if any, paid much attention to the fact that the Commodores have not exactly been a postseason juggernaut.
Seniors Jeffery Taylor, Lance Goulbourne and Festus Ezeli have a high degree of athleticism not always prevalent on West End. John Jenkins is a bona fide scorer, one who actually topped the Southeastern Conference last season. Brad Tinsley and Steve Tchiengang offer versatility and a well-regarded group of first- and second-year players offer the promise of depth at every spot.
Those same players have exactly zero NCAA tournament wins to their credit, though, having been upset by Murray State in 2010 and Richmond this past March. They’ve also had the occasional disastrous performances against the likes of Western Kentucky and have yet to navigate an SEC regular season well enough to win a title.
Cleveland State reminded us all that this team struggles against quick, penetrating guards and sustained full court pressure. It also proved once again that one of this team’s strengths — its balance — is also a weakness in that there was no one player who took over when needed and did what was required.
True, Ezeli did not play because of the combination of an NCAA suspension and a knee injury. The suspension was something different but the issue with the knee was nothing new, and there’s no reason to think he won’t have games, once he returns, in which pain limits him to some degree or sidelines him altogether.
Just a day earlier, the football team easily dispatched an inferior opponent in Kentucky, moved within a game of bowl eligibility and had people all around the region ready to revisit their opinion of that program.
When it comes to the basketball version, though, little has changed from recent seasons.
On one hand, that clearly is a good thing. That means there are going to be plenty of entertaining contests at Memorial in the coming weeks, more victories than defeats and a good chance that the season will extend beyond the SEC tournament.
Then again, it seems just as likely that the end will come all too soon, not to mention in utterly disheartening fashion for the faithful who, for so many years, have counted on the men’s basketball program to ease the pain of football season.
When all of the key people are the same, it’s just hard to expect things to turn out differently.