ATLANTA – Vanderbilt’s history at the Southeastern Conference Basketball Tournament has been less than glorious.
The Commodores haven’t played in the championship game since 1951, have made only one appearance in the semifinals since 1993 and have quietly bowed out in the first round in two of the past three years.
No. 18 VU, however, has more on its mind than mending its ways the SEC Tournament, which begins today.
For the Commodores, the more urgent issue is improving their seeding for next week’s NCAA Tournament.
“Right now we’re all just jockeying for position in one form or another for the NCAA Tournament,” Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings said. “Everybody has their own motivation, but I think it all revolves around the NCAA Tournament.”
Some teams, Vanderbilt included, have already punched their NCAA Tournament tickets. For others, however, conference tournaments represent their final hope.
Even while knowing their season will continue next week regardless of what happens this week in Atlanta, the Commodores hope to learn from history that the SEC Tournament still matters.
In 2004, Vanderbilt entered the SEC Tournament, in Stallings’ estimation, as a likely No. 8 or 9 seed for the NCAAs.
By upsetting Mississippi State and advancing to the semifinals, the Commodores improved their national status, received a No. 6 seed in the NCAA Tournament and rolled to the Sweet 16.
Vanderbilt also found out last season that a poor showing in the SEC Tournament can be overcome.
After losing in the first round a year ago to Arkansas, the Commodores marched into the NCAA Sweet 16 and produced one of the most memorable seasons in school history.
“I wasn’t surprised at all at our success in the NCAA Tournament because I thought at that time, despite the fact that we lost those games back to back to Arkansas, I thought that we were a very good team that was playing pretty well,” Stallings said.
The lesson is clear: Everything that happens in March, regardless of the venue, carries added significance.
“The thing you’re remembered by in any college basketball season is how you finish and how you do at tournament time,” Stallings said.
Vanderbilt and Auburn will meet today in the first round of the SEC Tournament for the third time in four years.
Tigers coach Jeff Lebo, whose team won only four SEC regular-season game for the third time in four years, calls today’s game a less than ideal matchup.
“It’s a tough draw for us,” Lebo said. “Vanderbilt is just a terrific team and well-coached. They haven’t played as well away from home. They’re special at their place. One positive for us is at least we don’t have to play them there.”
Vanderbilt finished 19-0 at Memorial Gym this season, 4-6 on the road and 2-0 on neutral courts.
During his news conference at the Georgia Dome on Wednesday, Stallings bristled when it was suggested that his team can’t win away from Nashville.
“I’m sure it will take me all of about 30 seconds to tell our team how pitifully you people think we play on the road,” he said.
And perhaps the Commodores will finally produce a good showing at the SEC Tournament.
“We definitely plan on being there until Sunday afternoon, and we’re going to do our best to make that happen,” VU senior Shan Foster said.