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.”