Vanderbilt returns to defend SEC title, but with a far different group of players

Monday, March 11, 2013 at 10:05pm
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Kedren Johnson (Frederick Breedon for SouthComm)

Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings sat alone on the bench, overcome with emotion, his head buried into a towel as the Commodores celebrated their first Southeastern Conference tournament championship in 61 years.

A watershed moment for the program feels like a distant memory now — just 12 months later.

“It seems like another lifetime,” Stallings said. “But I still remember it. It was an awesome experience. It was awesome for the guys on our team to get to experience it. I’ll always be grateful for that.”

Upending Kentucky, the No. 1 team in the country and the eventual national champion, the Commodores earned their elusive SEC title one year ago to the day Monday.

Most of the players responsible for that 71-64 triumph in New Orleans moved on following the season. Thus, Vanderbilt lacks a sense of entitlement typical of a defending champion as it approaches the 2013 SEC Tournament this week at Bridgestone Arena.

“I would be surprised if there was a real inherent feeling that that’s our championship until somebody takes it from us,” Stallings said. “There wasn’t a whole lot of input from these guys winning that tournament championship, unfortunately.”

All five starters and the top six scorers are gone from last year’s team. Only six players who played in the tournament remain.

Seldom-used reserves Josh Henderson, Shelby Moats and James Siakam played mop-up minutes in Vanderbilt’s opening round blowout of Georgia. Moats then played just one minute in a semifinal win over Ole Miss.

Current starters Dai-Jon Parker, Kedren Johnson and Rod Odom came off the bench in all three games, figuring into Stallings’ nine-player rotation. Johnson, then a freshman, actually scored the go-ahead reverse layup and subsequent free throw with 90 seconds left in Vanderbilt’s come-from-behind win against Kentucky.

“The team is so different and so young that most of the guys don’t even have any recollection of the SEC tournament last year,” Johnson said. “It shouldn’t just mean something to four people — them having the mindset of trying to defend it and then the rest of the team is on another page. We’re really just keeping our heads in the huddle and sticking together as a team. I don’t think we’re focused too much on that.”

Also taking some of the rub off the shine is the obvious differences between the two teams.

The 2011-12 team was ranked No. 7 in the preseason polls, considered a Final Four contender and landed in its third straight NCAA Tournament berth.

This youthful and inexperienced squad continues to learn on the fly, simultaneously taking steps forward and backward. Prior to last weekend, they were 13-15 overall and 7-9 in conference play, tied for 10th place in the 14-team league.

The Commodores’ seeding will be the lowest for a defending tournament champ since Georgia was seeded ninth in 1988. However, from 1992 until last season, the league was split into East and West divisions with teams being seeded one through six in both divisions. Still, only twice did a defending tournament champ finish fifth or worse in its division — Mississippi State in 1997 and Georgia in 2009.

“We have a really different team and the situation is completely different this year,” Johnson said. “Nonetheless we’re still going out there and we’re competing at the highest level possible and not backing down. But I wouldn’t go out there on the court and necessarily be like, ‘Oh, we’re the defending SEC champions, ya’ll should give it to us.’ We’re just trying to stay level-headed and compete.”

4 Comments on this post:

By: PKVol on 3/12/13 at 7:46

I could argue that this team has done more with less than last year's team did. This team has met, and perhaps at times, exceeded expectations. Last year's team, with the exception of winning the SEC tournament, fell well short of expectations.

By: ssssunny43 on 3/12/13 at 8:56

PKVol---Kevin Stallings had the best players he's ever going to have. He had a full bench complete with size, strength, alhleticism, and a couple of great shooters and the team underperformed for TWO years, not just last year when they had a high pre-season ranking. He'll NEVER have a better team than last year's team, anywhere he coaches in the future. There are plenty of coaches who would have taken last year's team to the Final 4. He didn't. Maybe he's a better coach when he has lesser talented players? Results won't change until Vandy decides that they ought to have the best basketball coach in the Nashville area instead of the 3rd best coach.. Why wouldn't Vanderbilt want a basketball coach just like James Franklin and Tim Corbin? I think it's possible to duplicate Coach Franklin's and Coach Corbin's presence in the bball program, and that would certainly change the prospects for the future just like it has first in baseball and now in football. Vandy--you want more of the same or do you want better? Corbin, Franklin, Stallings---what's wrong with this picture?

By: Jughead on 3/12/13 at 9:52

Players hate Stallings because he beats them down instead of coaching them up. What a fat, angry tool.

By: wiseguy1 on 3/12/13 at 4:34

Jug ... speaking of a beat down.

Yak away boys ... the only way to get the 'Dump Stallings' wagon on the road is to donate a bunch of money and visit with David Williams regularly.

When was the last time any of you remember VU firing a coach other than football? 33 +/- years ago in the Dobbs/Schmidt debacle? Vanderbilt and Stallings are likley married and the expense to end the marriage is greater than the cash available to terminate Stallings contract AND hire a new $$$exy coach. On the upside, the commitment/marriage concept works well with Franklin, Corbin, hundreds of current athletes and a multitude of aspiring coaches. Have we heard that Williams is unhappy with Stallings? VU is not interested in being a revolving door for coaches on the way to someplace else. Williams is patient, he will give Stallings sufficient rope to hang himself. Since Roy Skinner, we have suffered through Dobbs, Schmidt, Newton, Fogler, Van Breda Kolff, and now Stallings. Fogler's winning pct (.628) is marginally better than Stallings (.621). Fogler bolted for South Carolina and pay raise. That worked well for him.

Polk went 13 years, Skinner 16 years ... maybe Stallings is getting tired of the rat race. I just hope he is looking to lure a recruiter to an assistant spot before he retires.