A losing season doesn’t typically breed confidence for next year.
But after rattling off eight wins in the last 12 games and reaching the semifinals of the Southeastern Conference Tournament, Vanderbilt chooses to look at its recent past as a stepping stone for the near future.
“It is more than hope. It is excitement, really,” freshman guard Sheldon Jeter said. “To think of what we’ve built this year, how far we’ve come this year – it is a big momentum swing for next year.”
With a 64-52 loss to Ole Miss on Saturday, the Commodores finished with a losing record for the first time in 10 years and just the second time in coach Kevin Stallings’ 14 seasons. The Rebels prevented Vanderbilt from defending its SEC Tournament title and then claimed their first SEC Tournament crown since 1981 by upsetting No. 13 Florida 66-63 on Sunday at Bridgestone Arena.
Despite watching a program-record streak of three straight NCAA Tournaments end, Vanderbilt (16-17) remains optimistic in the future. A team without any seniors this year returns all 10 scholarship players and adds a transfer from Tulsa and a highly touted incoming freshman center.
Plus, the Commodores – and their coaches – feel much better after improvement over the last five weeks pulled them out of the SEC basement and into a 10th-place regular-season finish.
“It gives us confidence because we know we’re definitely going to be an NCAA [Tournament] contending team,” guard Kyle Fuller said. “We know how we can play. I know that next year’s team is going to be better than this year’s team. We’re all growing up and being more mature.”
Low on experience, the Commodores endured numerous growing pains.
Offensively challenged for much of the winter, they scored just 33 points twice. They blew second-half leads to Middle Tennessee State, Ole Miss and Alabama. Last-second opportunities against Tennessee, LSU and Kentucky came up short and Vanderbilt fell to 8-13 in early February.
Then, after a four-game losing streak and more than 20 games in, an inexperienced team finally started to gel. Defensively strong all year – they ranked third in the SEC by allowing just 60.1 points a game – the Commodores began to hit shots.
Rod Odom, just one of two juniors, became the consistent offensive threat he was expected to be. Defensive specialist Dai-Jon Parker turned into a solid 3-point shooter. Kevin Bright recovered from the freshman wall to lead the team in 3-point shooting and rebounding. Jeter emerged as one of the team’s best finishers at the rim. Center Josh Henderson, though still inconsistent at times, started to log valuable minutes. And Fuller and Kedren Johnson anchored the offense at the point guard position.
As a result, Vanderbilt beat Arkansas twice in the last month, held on against Texas A&M and South Carolina, rallied against Georgia and stunned Kentucky last Friday.
“We made immense improvement,” Bright said. “From the beginning of the season to now, we made major, major steps. We developed individually and as a team. We were talking earlier about how we didn’t know how to play offense and defense in the same rhythm. But now we came to a point where we played offense and defense together. That is one strength we are going to take into next season.”
The Commodores hope they’re also adding two weapons that will bolster the league’s worst scoring offense (60.3 points a game). Eric McClellan sat out this season after transferring from Tulsa. The 6-foot-4 sophomore guard averaged 8.5 points and 2.2 assists in his lone year with the Golden Hurricanes. The other addition is 6-foot-9 Damian Jones. The big man from Baton Rouge, La., is a consensus top 100 prospect and helped lead Scotlandville Magnet to its second straight state championship. He will be relied on immediately to fill the glaring hole inside that Henderson and Shelby Moats struggled to plug.
“I feel like we’ll have more contributors,” Jeter said. “We’ll be scoring more points. But, honestly, we’ve got to build on both ends. We’ve got to build defensively and offensively and I feel like that’s what we’re going to do.”
Before turning the page to next season, Stallings praised his squad for its resilience and growth.
In more than 20 years of coaching, he said this team was as fun and as coachable as any group he’s ever coached.
“I’m proud of them,” he said. “They deserve credit. They deserve a lot of credit for the character and perseverance they’ve showed. People were off us and down on us and all of that. They didn’t give into any of the negativity. They didn’t give into any of the questions or the cynicism. They just kept doing what they were asked to do. As a result, they produced a pretty good finish.”