Vanderbilt doesn’t need a refresher course in recent NCAA Tournament history.
The Commodores are well aware they’ve gone 0-for in their last three tournament appearances.
That skid dates back to 2008, when senior center Festus Ezeli was redshirting his freshman season. He sat on the bench as Vanderbilt lost a stunner to No. 13 seed Sienna. His contributions the last two seasons weren’t enough as the Commodores failed to get out of the first round against No. 13 Murray State and No. 12 Richmond.
No one wants to end the first-round woes more than Ezeli and Vanderbilt’s six other seniors. For all of their accomplishments — which include 90 wins and numerous individual records — the Commodores’ upperclassmen never have won an NCAA Tournament game.
“It is not even about [snapping the losing streak]. It is about the last time,” Ezeli said. “This is my last year. This is a lot of our last years. So we’re just ready to go and do it.”
With nearly 50 fans escaping work Tuesday afternoon to see the Commodores off, Ezeli and his teammates hopped on a bus to the airport and later arrived in Albuquerque, N.M. Vanderbilt, ranked 20th in the latest AP poll, opens the NCAA Tournament as a No. 5 seed and plays No. 12 seed Harvard (26-4) on Thursday (3:40 p.m., TNT).
The Commodores (24-10) last won an NCAA Tournament game in 2007 when they reached the Sweet 16. Many experts and outsiders believe they can get at least that far again this season, especially after knocking off top-ranked Kentucky in the Southeastern Conference Tournament championship game on Sunday.
On Monday, coach Kevin Stallings had a long talk with his team about returning to earth after the big win and refocusing their energy and minds.
“They’ve had a good focus about them,” Stallings said. “They weren’t hung over from Sunday I don't think [Tuesday]. We've talked about this point for a long time and now we’re here. So it is time for us to do the best we can in preparation and go out and see what we can do.”
Added senior forward Lance Goulbourne: “We're a very experienced group so that shouldn’t bother us. We understand how this works. You can’t dwell on the championship or a loss for too long.”
Last year, Stallings believes a prior defeat cost the Commodores in the NCAA Tournament.
Vanderbilt dropped a nail-biter to Murray State in 2010 on a shot at the buzzer but the Commodores jumped all over Richmond and led by 11 late in the first half. Then the Spiders made a charge and the lead was just three by halftime. At the point, it was anyone’s game — and eventually Richmond pulled in front and held on.
“I really felt like we lost last year’s game because we lost the one the year before,” Stallings said. “Our players became so tight at the end of the Richmond game ... as the game got closer to the end they just got tighter, tighter and tighter. I think we’ll be looser this time around. I hope we are.
“We obviously all want to win. It is about the only thing now that this group hasn’t done.”
Having won seven of their last nine games, the Commodores believe they are more mentally prepared to exorcise the first-round demons.
At the beginning of the season — even well into January — they allowed several second-half leads to slip away. But twice in the last two weeks they’ve rallied to win, against then-No. 16 Florida and Sunday against Kentucky. The Wildcats looked poise to capture their third straight SEC Tournament championship as they led by seven with five minutes left. But Vanderbilt punched back and got big baskets from playmakers Jeffery Taylor, John Jenkins and Ezeli, along with reserves such as freshman Kedren Johnson. They then hit free throws when they needed to — another Achilles heel in recent NCAA Tournaments.
By doing so they rallied and for the first time in their careers they entered the NCAA Tournament coming off a win.
Now, they believe they’re ready to finally start the NCAA Tournament with a win.
“I think our maturity level has risen over the years due to those types of [NCAA Tournament] losses,” senior guard Brad Tinsley said. “I think our experience level and maturity level will play a key role when it comes down the stretch.”