Any number of adjectives can describe this year’s Vanderbilt men’s basketball team.
Boring isn’t one.
Look no further than the last three games — all losses — to see that while these Commodores might be inconsistent, inexperienced, young, frustrating and so on, they do not lack entertainment value.
Last week, against Kentucky, Vanderbilt rallied from a 16-point, second-half deficit, took the lead but lost in the final minutes, which included a controversial shot clock violation not called by the referees. Two days later, at Arkansas, the Commodores nearly rewrote the record books — not the good kind — with their second 33-point game of the season.
And on Tuesday they showed signs of growth only to regress in the last nine minutes. They blew a 13-point lead and watched as a 35-foot 3-pointer by Ole Miss’ Marshall Henderson at the buzzer forced overtime. They ultimately lost 89-79.
It left all associated with Vanderbilt (6-9, 0-3 Southeastern Conference) dumbfounded and in search answers ahead of Saturday's game at South Carolina.
“It is very disappointing to lose in that manner and to self-inflict it,” Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings said on Tuesday. “I think it is safe to say we should have won the game and we did enough to lose it. But that is a sign of a team that maybe expects to lose. When you do things that are inexplicable that make no basketball sense whatsoever my opinion is you are waiting to lose.”
The same bothersome problems sunk the Commodores against Ole Miss.
The most confounding issue arose at the foul line. In the last 3:26, the Commodores missed five free throws (three by Shelby Moats and two by Dai-Jon Parker). They finished the game 10 for 23 (43.5 percent) to drop to 56.8 percent for the season and to the second-lowest mark in Division I.
Conversely, the Rebels shot 70.4 percent (19 of 27) from the foul line, including all five in overtime.
“They made big plays. They made their free throws,” Parker said. “Unfortunately we didn’t make ours, which is a trending topic for our team this year, which we’re trying to turn around. That was the ballgame right there.”
Amazingly enough, Vanderbilt could have prevailed.
Despite making a Memorial Gym record 17 3-pointers out of a school-record 40 attempts, the Commodores reliance on the long shot cost them. They went cold in the last 13:50 of regulation, missing nine of 12 from beyond the arc. In overtime, they missed all five 3-point attempts and scored just one point. Ole Miss scored 35 of the game's final 47 points.
To make matters worse, Vanderbilt committed three costly turnovers in the closing minutes and gave up four big offensive rebounds, which the Rebels turned into six points.
“Winning players just didn’t make winning plays,” Parker said. “We had the game in our hands. I feel as though everybody could have contributed. We just didn’t pull it out.”
Still, a confidence-boosting win looked inevitable when Kevin Bright hit a 3-pointer in the corner with 3.2 seconds left for a 78-75 lead. Then the frustrations came back to the forefront for a young team without any seniors. The Commodores failed to match up defensively and Marshall Henderson got open for the improbable game-tying 3-pointer.
“I figured if we just played as hard as we could we would put ourselves with a chance to win at the end,” point guard Kedren Johnson said. “That’s what we did. But unfortunately we couldn’t pull through.”
Thus, it is back to the proverbial drawing board for Vanderbilt, which is trying to avoid the first 0-4 start in SEC play in program history.
If this problematic start, though often interesting, continues to spiral downhill, the Commodores might not be able to dig themselves out.
“We just have to coach them to expect to win better, which, of course, we’re trying to do,” Stallings said. “But we’ve got to continue to do a better job with that.”