DENVER — Another 20-plus wins. Another NCAA Tournament appearance. Another incomplete season.
That is how the Vanderbilt men’s basketball team views the 2010-11 campaign.
The Commodores finished 23-11 and went 9-7 in the Southeastern Conference to place third in the Eastern Division behind Florida and Kentucky, both of which are headed to the Sweet 16. Vanderbilt also picked up big wins against Kentucky, Georgia, Marquette and North Carolina — all NCAA Tournament teams.
But for the third straight time — and second year in a row — the Commodores failed to win an NCAA Tournament game. The last two times (2008 and 2010) they were the fourth seed and lost to 13th seeds Siena and Murray State, respectively.
Last Thursday, they fell in their opening game again, this time as a No. 5 seed. They lost 69-66 to No. 12 seed Richmond, which also reached the Sweet 16.
“It is very disappointing,” junior Lance Goulbourne said. “It is unfortunate and it hurts just as much as last year if not worse. It is hard to go through a full season, six months of the year, not even including the offseason stuff — it is tough to come to the NCAA Tournament and lose in the first round again. There was so much more that we had to get. It is pretty tough.”
Signs of a late-season fade were there.
Vanderbilt lost three of its last four prior to the SEC Tournament, but the losses were to quality opponents in Tennessee, Kentucky and Florida.
The Commodores then showed life in the league tournament. They won their first two games — including a thriller over formidable Mississippi State — before they fell to Florida in the semifinals. In that game against the Gators, though, they held a double-digit lead before it sliped away.
Five times this season, Vanderbilt led by as many as 11 points and lost. The last time was Thursday’s setback against Richmond.
The Commodores led the Spiders by 11 in the first half and by nine nearly halfway through the second. The contest ultimately was a microcosm of the season. Vanderbilt failed to get timely rebounds, make clutch free throws and deliver stops on defense.
Though VU outrebounded Richmond 36-27, the Spiders had seven of their 10 offensive rebounds in the second half, which extended numerous possessions. The Commodores also shot a so-so 14-of-23 from the free-throw line. And they couldn’t stop Richmond guard Kevin Anderson, who scored 16 of his game-high 25 points after halftime.
“We couldn’t get critical stops when we needed them,” coach Kevin Stallings said. “These games are going to be close. Those are your margins for victory — coming up with rebounds, getting the stop, making your free throws. We just weren’t able to get those done on a consistent basis.”
While the season ended in defeat, it was not lacking in positive moments.
Despite injuries to Andre Walker and John Jenkins, which cost both players multiple games, playmakers emerged.
Center Festus Ezeli came out of A.J. Ogilvy’s shadow and grew into one of the SEC’s best big men. He improved his shooting, his defense, his rebounding and his free-throw shooting. He also set the school’s single-season block record with 87.
Brad Tinsley took over for Jermaine Beal and proved he could run the point guard position. Tinsley finished with 155 assists and had just one turnover in his last four games.
Jenkins finished as the league’s leading scorer with an average of better than 19 points per game.
Goulbourne was a force on the boards with 10 or more in eight games.
Freshman reserves Rod Odom and Kyle Fuller stepped up as role players nicely and, for the most part, provided solid minutes in Vanderbilt’s nine-player rotation.
“I thought a lot of our guys grew over the year and definitely got better as basketball players,” Tinsley said. “I thought we came together as a team more. There were some big positives.”
In the end, however, the Commodores will be remembered for what they didn’t accomplish — again.
“We had a lot of goals that we had set up for ourselves at the beginning of the season,” forward Jeffery Taylor said. “It just feels like we were right there so many times and we just couldn’t get over the hump, really.”