It is — at once — a target and an obstacle.
It beckons from a distance, and at this juncture the expanse seems great, indeed. Upon arrival, though, it breaks the hearts and dashes the dreams of exactly half of those who make it.
‘It’ is the regional semifinal round of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament, a.k.a. the Sweet Sixteen.
Four times since 1985, when the field was expanded to 64 teams, Vanderbilt managed to reach this exalted place. None of those squads, which included some of the most decorated players in program history, could break through and go higher. No Elite Eight; no Final Four.
This week, the Commodores return to the tournament for the first time since 2008. They need to win twice to make it back to the Sweet Sixteen, which does not seem unreasonable for a team that twice defeated Tennessee [once in a rout] and in one meeting with Kentucky, pushed the mighty Wildcats to the brink.
Whether the current roster can advance deeper in the NCAA than any of its predecessors is anybody’s guess. There are those who believe it’s possible, though.
“I think … they’re a team that can win games in the tournament,” Auburn coach Jeff Lebo said. “They have depth and they have an inside presence with two guys who can score inside. They have toughness in the point guard position with (Jermaine) Beal, who is a senior leader. They’re well coached, and they have guys who can shoot it on the perimeter.”
Let’s look at several of the things that could allow this Vanderbilt team to make a deeper postseason run than any of its predecessors:
Voice of experience
Beal is the only senior on the team but he is the point guard. That means he has the ball in his hands more than any of his teammates and offers the likelihood that good decisions will be made.
He also ended the regular season as the Commodores’ leading scorer — a testament to his offensive consistency — and in four games against Kentucky and Tennessee [two each] had a total of just five turnovers.
During his Vanderbilt career, Beal has played with two SEC Players of the Year [Derrick Byars in 2007, Shan Foster in 2008]. This season he was the only VU player named to the All-SEC first team this season. The play of his current supporting cast, though, has created optimism in regard to their collective postseason potential.
“We have good wing players and good big men, a good coaching staff and good players all around,” Beal said. “To be a good tournament team, you have to have a good team. Obviously, we have a good team — one of the top-ranked teams in the nation and one of the best teams in the conference.
“Now it’s about going out there, playing and executing more than the other team.”
He knows that better than any of his teammates.
He is the only one in the group who has been part of an NCAA tournament victory. Juniors A.J. Ogilvy and Darshawn McClellan and third-year sophomore Andre Walker were members of the 2008 team, which lost in the first round. Beal, on the other hand, was a freshman in 2007, the last time the Commodores reached the Sweet Sixteen.
On the surface, that lack of experience figures to be a detriment, but each of the two seasons prior to 2007, Vanderbilt did not even make the NCAA tournament field and was forced to settle for NIT appearances.
“These guys are exposed to so much more than basketball players were 15 years ago that that experience is probably less important than it was in the past,” coach Kevin Stallings said.
One thing Vanderbilt’s Sweet Sixteen teams all had in common was a singular superstar.
The leading scorer on each of those four teams [1988, 1993, 2004 and 2007] averaged at least 18 points per game, and three of those four — Will Perdue , Billy McCaffery  and Derrick Byars  were All-Americans and the SEC Player of the Year.
The current team differs in that regard. Beal is the leader, but at an average of fewer than 15 points per game, he heads an ensemble cast. Four players averaged better than 10 points during the regular season, and no one was the team’s leading scorer in more than four consecutive contests.
Two of those top scorers [Beal and John Jenkins] are guards, one [Jeffery Taylor] is a forward, and the other [A. J. Ogilvy] is a center, which means this team can exploit virtually any weakness in a defense.
At an average of 78.1 points per game through the regular season, it was well ahead of the offensive pace of Vanderbilt’s two most recent Sweet Sixteen entries.
“Vanderbilt will always get 70-75 points a game,” Middle Tennessee State coach Kermit Davis said. “What (you) have to try to do is match that offensively.”
The most consistent aspect of the Commodores’ offensive approach was their ability to get to the foul line. During conference play they averaged 29.4 free throws per game, and their 355 made foul shots were more than nine of the league’s other 11 teams attempted. The three players who attempted more than 100 free throws during the 30 games of the regular season all made more than 73 percent of those shots.
“I think we have all the pieces,” Walker said. “We just have to put it together and play with more of a sense of urgency than we did the last couple games (of the regular season). I think we can do some damage.”
In some ways, the balanced offense is a bi-product of Vanderbilt’s depth.
The core of the roster is a six-person sophomore class — five of whom started at least once. All of them averaged better than 11 minutes of playing time in the regular season, and a total of 10 players were regular contributors at various times.
“They have a little bit of everything and they don’t have to worry about fouls because they are so deep,” Lipscomb coach Scott Sanderson said. “You can substitute freely over there when you have that many guys.”
The effect of that depth is enhanced by the versatility of a number of players.
Beal and Brad Tinsley each can play either guard position, and sometimes switch off by possession. Walker and Lance Goulbourne both can operate at guard or forward, and Steve Tchiengang — one of three low post players — occasionally steps out and knocks down 3-point shots.
“I think that this is a team that has a chance most nights it plays to be successful,” Stallings said. “We have a lot of different weapons, we have a lot of different ways to beat you.”
This year’s team has, in fact, done its share of winning.
Its 12 victories in conference play were more than three of the Sweet Sixteen teams managed. The one exception was the 1993 bunch, which went 14-2 and won the Eastern Division.
Plus, the final win totals for the 1988, 2004 and 2007 teams did not exceed the number of victories the current squad had in the regular season .
“The only reason people feel like you have a chance to make a run in the tournament is that you had success in the regular season,” Stallings said. “The same things that helped you then can help you now.”
It doesn’t hurt that nine of those regular-season victories, including the last four, were by six points or less. Vanderbilt won its only overtime game of the season, got a game-winning free throw from Taylor with six seconds to play at Alabama, and held Florida without a field goal for the final 9:53 in a four-point victory at Gainesville.
The Commodores lost two in a row just once.
“We’ve got more of a margin for error than we’ve had in the past because a key guy can have an off-night and we can still win against good teams,” Stallings said. “So I think for those reasons, our physicality, the fact that we’ve got a senior point guard — those are things that give you a chance to be successful for a long time in a tournament just like they give you a chance to be successful during the regular season.
“There’s no special formula other than you have to out-compete the people you’re playing against. If you do (and) if you have good players then you have a chance to stay and play. If you don’t, then you go home.”
VANDY’S BEST NCAA TEAMS
Since the NCAA tournament field was expanded to 64 teams, Vanderbilt has advanced to the Sweet Sixteen four times ― never higher. It's a mark that this year's tourney-bound Commodores would love to break.
Record: 19-14 [12-6 in SEC]
Coach: C.M. Newton
Leading scorer: Will Perdue, 18.3 ppg
NCAA seed: 7th, Midwest Region
NCAA victories: d. No. 10 Utah 80-77; d. No. 2 Pittsburgh 87-77 [OT]
NCAA defeat: lost to No. 3 Kansas 77-64
Record: 28-6 [14-2 in SEC]
Coach: Eddie Fogler
Leading scorer: Billy McCaffery, 20.6 ppg
NCAA seed: 3rd, West Region
NCAA victories: d. No. 14 Boise State 92-72; d. No. 6 Illinois 85-68
NCAA defeat: lost to No. 7 Temple 67-59
Record: 23-10 [8-8 in SEC]
Coach: Kevin Stallings
Leading scorer: Matt Frieje, 18.4 ppg
NCAA seed: 6th, Phoenix Region
NCAA victories: d. No. 11 Western Michigan 71-58; d. No. 3 North Carolina State 75-73
NCAA defeat: lost to No. 2 Connecticut 73-53
Record: 22-12 [10-6 in SEC]
Coach: Kevin Stallings
Leading scorer: Derrick Byars, 17.0 ppg
NCAA seed: 6th, East Region
NCAA victories: d. No. 11 George Washington 77-44; d. No. 3 Washington State 78-74 [2OT]
NCAA defeat: lost to No. 2 Georgetown 66-65