After a 1-3 start to the season that included an embarrassing 70-62 home loss to Furman, most Vanderbilt fans thought the only drama around the Commodore program in March would be whether or not coach Kevin Stallings would survive the month as Vandy's coach.
The 98-93 overtime win against Toledo that followed moved VU within a game of .500 made fans feel little better. But although Vandy beat a young and talented Georgia Tech squad in Nashville a week later, the Commodores still looked more like pretenders than contenders for an NCAA bid as the conference season approached.
A conference-opening lost at Auburn moved the Commodores' record to 10-5 with a hot Tennessee team invading Memorial Gym on Jan. 10. The Vols took an 81-80 lead with just seconds to play, and looked poised to waltz out of Nashville with a victory over their archrivals when Derrick Byars missed a contested layup from the right side with about two seconds to play.
What happened next changed the course of Vanderbilt's season.
The Vols, caught up in watching Byars' miss careen off the glass, forgot to box out on the other side of the lane. Vandy's Shan Foster swooped in, and in one motion grabbed the ball and banked it off the glass and through the twine just before the horn sounded.
A wild celebration ensued in Nashville as officials watched the replay and correctly ruled that Foster's shot indeed fell in time. Vandy lost at Georgia next, but returned home to blow out a ranked Alabama team at home, then pulled shocking upsets at Kentucky and LSU before knocking off an underrated Ole Miss team at home.
The Commodores never lost consecutive regular-season SEC games during the season, and went on to snap No. 1 Florida's 17-game winning streak with an 83-70 victory over the Gators in Nashville that was one of college basketball's most-impressive victories of the season.
However, Vandy heads into the NCAA Tournament on a bit of a slide, having lost consecutive contests to Arkansas, and eking out wins over South Carolina and Kentucky in the games before that after trailing in each game in the final minute.
The game before that, the Commodores, perhaps flying a bit too high after the win over Florida, were embarrassed by a solid Mississippi State squad by an 83-70 score that was much worse than the margin indicated.
Now, Stallings' challenge will be to re-group his squad after a particularly-heartbreaking last-minute loss to Arkansas in which his team blew an eight-point lead in the game's final six minutes. The Commodores got a nice second-win on Sunday with a No. 6 seed in the East Region, which was higher than most Vandy fans expected.
Can Stallings rally his team from difficult times and stun the nation in college basketball's second season as well? Here's an in-depth look at the Commodores as they head to what could be a difficult first-round matchup with George Washington.
Byars headlines experienced starting five
After losing DeMarre' Carroll to a transfer to Missouri after last season, the Commodores knew that they'd be vulnerable inside. That problem was compounded after starting center Alan Metcalfe went down against Wake Forest with a broken foot in Vandy's 88-78 loss in Winston-Salem.
That injury turned out to be a blessing in disguise. Faced with few other options, Stallings inserted 6-foot-4 shooting specialist Dan Cage at power forward to form what is essentially a four-guard lineup. And although it took about a month for that lineup to gel, that starting five played about as well as any in America from the Auburn game on.
While it's not a big lineup and it leaves the Commodores vulnerable to big, athletic teams who pound the offensive glass, the synthesis of the five together is a thing of beauty when they're on. All five players are smart players, pass well and can shoot the 3, which causes a multitude of problems for opponents.
Here's a look at them individually:
PG: Alex Gordon, 5-foot-11, 164 lbs., Jr., Pensacola, Fla.
7.7 ppg, 3.4 apg, 2.3 rpg, 38.5% 3-PT%
Gordon, affectionately known as "Red" to his coaches and teammates, is in his first full season as Vandy's starter at the point. Gordon's skill set seemed to make him a better fit as a smaller two-guard, as Gordon has proven to be a deadly-accurate shooter who can light it up in spurts as evidenced by a 30-point game as a freshman against Tennessee.
With no experienced point guard on the roster, Gordon began the year as a reserve but has started from the third game on, and has made a nice transition to a "pass-first" player. Gordon is quick and will occasionally take the ball to the hole, but mostly is content to hang around the perimeter and feed teammates, and take open looks when he gets them.
Defensively, Gordon has had trouble stopping dribble penetration, and sat out a good portion of the second half in the SEC Tournament against Arkansas because of it. Gordon plays hard, but his height becomes an issue when he gets beaten into the lane by quicker point guards, which happens frequently.
SG: Derrick Byars, 6-foot-7, 230 lbs., Sr., Memphis, Tenn.
16.8 ppg, 3.4 apg, 4.9 rpg, 46.2 FG%
Byars was named the league's player of the year because of his ability to take over in big games. The Virginia transfer's nature is to pass first, but when it became evident that he had to be the man in order for the Commodores to go anywhere this season, Byars simply seemed to take over games at will and get buckets when Vandy needed them most.
Byars is built almost like a flex tight end, and has elevated himself to a mid-to-late first-round pick in this summer's NBA draft. Perhaps no player in the SEC has a skills set as complete as his.
He can beat teams with his outside shot or with the drive, can pass well enough that he played point guard during spurts last year. Byars can play above the rim, delivering an array of thunderous dunks, and is sometimes picked to be Stallings lock-down defender when needed.
Byars seems to play his best when the stakes are the biggest, as he showed with spectacular performances in the wins against Florida and Tennessee. Simply put, the Commodores will be hard-pressed to advance without great performances from the man who's the heart and soul of the team.
As a fifth year senior, this will be Byars' first and last NCAA Tournament. That, and his potential NBA draft situation, should be strong motivation for Byars to have a career day on Thursday.
SF: Shan Foster, 6-foot-6, 200 lbs., Jr., Bonnabel, La.
15.4 ppg, 2.5 apg, 4.8 rpg, 44.8% FG%
Foster, who has a chance to pass Matt Frieje as Vandy's all-time leading scorer next year, has taken criticism for being a one-dimensional shooter for part of his career. However, Foster broadened his game this season, as his stat line closely resembles Byars' for this season.
Foster has hit just 35 percent of his 3-point shots this year because of an early-season slump, and was a 45 percent shooter from long-range coming into this season. The lanky Foster has a beautiful, looping stroke that starts from behind his head, and is consistent in his form nearly every time. He's also one of the team's best free throw shooters.
Like Byars, Foster is one of the team's best leapers and can play above the rim when needed. He's not a great ball-handler, but occasionally can score on drives from the wing, and has become a better passer this year.
Defensively, Foster has had trouble at times throughout his career, but the fact that Stallings occasionally used him to defend top offensive players such as Tennessee's Chris Lofton speaks to his improvement this season.
When Vanderbilt has been at its best, Foster has almost always been special. Foster was despondant after missing what would have been the game winning shot against Arkansas in the SEC Tournament, and won't likely miss many opportunities like that one in the NCAA Tournament.
PF: Dan Cage, 6-foot-4, 215 lbs., Sr., Indianapolis, Ind.
11.2 ppg, 2.1 apg, 3.0 rpg, 46% 3-PT %
Cage got the starting nod for the first time in his career after Metcalfe's injury, and has made the most of it.
The senior from Indianapolis draws tough matchups defensively, having to guard the likes of Florida's Joakim Noah or Alabama's Jermareo Davidson because no one else is available. At 6-foot-4, that sometimes presents obvious problems for VU's defensive matchups when they went up against teams that had a big, athletic rebounding presence.
However, the offensive problems Cage presents cause more headaches than the defensive ones his height sometimes brings. Cage, who ranks among the SEC leaders in 3-point shooting, gives Vandy yet another perimeter shooter who has to be guarded. When running the baseline, Cage draws big men away from the basket and opens up things inside for Vandy.
Cage is the team's top 3-point shooter, and as an 87 percent career foul shooter, is a guy Vandy wants on the line as the game winds down. He rarely takes the ball to the hole, but is an under-rated passer and often sneaks behind defenses for back-door layups.
C: Ross Neltner, 6-foot-9, 245 lbs., Jr., Ft. Thomas, Ky.
9.7 ppg, 5.7 rpg, 2.2 apg, 52.3 % FG, 39.6% 3-PT FG%
Neltner, who is closer to 6-foot-7 than the listed 6-foot-9, also plays out of position because of the Commodores' unique roster situation (he's more comfortable at power forward). However, his toughness and basketball intelligence make up for the deficiencies caused by his playing in the paint.
Neltner is one of the league's best passing big men, and can shoot outside as well. As with Cage, that combination serves to open things up inside because big men have to come out of the paint and guard him on the perimeter.
An LSU transfer who left after being stuck behind the Tigers' immensely-talented frontcourt players, Neltner can be prone to getting in foul trouble. When that happens, that causes real problems for Vandy on both ends of the court. His foul trouble against Arkansas was a key factor in Vandy dropping their SEC opener in the Atlanta tournament.
Neltner needs to stay in the lineup for the Commodores to make a deep run in the tourney.
Skuchas leads otherwise-youthful bench
Center Ted Skuchas joins Cage as the only Commodores with NCAA Tournament experience. The seven-foot Skuchas is a solid back-up, though foul prone. Though the Commodores don't look to him often as a scorer, he can score from six feet in and is the team's best shot-blocker.
Point guard Jermaine Beal will come close to splitting time evenly with Gordon at the point. Beal is stockier than Gordon and is a better defender. But, like most freshmen, Beal is at times erratic and needs to improve his shot. However, he seemed to improve his game in most every area in the season's final weeks.
Forward JeJuan Brown had stretches where he played very, very well this year, and could be a star down the road. Brown's range is limited to about 12-13 feet from the basket, but is surprisingly-polished in that area for a freshman. He's a good rebounder and quick enough to defend on the perimeter when needed.
Alan Metcalfe sees a few minutes most games, but little more unless there's foul trouble elsewhere. Metcalfe, a British citizen, has struggled to pick up on the nuances of the game throughout his career, but never fails to play hard or be aggressive; this, of course, often leads to foul trouble. However, Metcalfe is a good shooter and occasionally scores in small bunches, and often brings energy to the team while he's in.
George Drake played only a minute against Arkansas, but should see more time in the tournament. He has a strange skills set, as he has the skills of a forward in a guard's body. He doesn't shoot well, but is super-athletic and can drive to the hole and finish even as a freshman. Drake is very raw at this stage of his career, but has potential to be a fine player.
Coach Kevin Stallings
Kevin Stallings is in his eighth year as Vanderbilt's head coach. Stallings moved to Nashville from Illinois State, taking over for former Vandy hoops star Jan van Breda Kolff.
This is Stallings' second NCAA Tournament team at Vanderbilt, and has had three Commodore teams make the NIT. His 2004 team, led by Matt Frieje, made it to the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Tournament.
Stallings played and was an assistant coach for Gene Keady at Purdue, and also served as an assistant for Roy Williams at Kansas.
Stallings made waves for employing a modified Princeton-style high post offense that was en vogue two years ago. But this season, Stallings switched to a much faster-paced offense, which better matched Vanderbilt's smaller lineup.
As a result, Vanderbilt went from one of the lowest-scoring teams in the SEC to one of the highest scoring, and boasts three of the league's most lethal 3-point shooters.
Defensively, Stallings has always favored a traditional man-to-man defense. But this year, playing Cage at the four, Stallings has often switched to a variety of zone defenses that have mostly been effective against teams that have less mobile frontcourt athletes.
Like his mentor Keady, Stallings has a well earned reputation as the SEC's most vocal bench coach. He rarely minces words, either with his players or officials. Stallings is the only SEC coach to receive a technical foul in both of the last two SEC Tournaments.
Arco Arena is special to Stallings, as that is where his ISU team upset Tennessee in the NCAA Tournament.
The Commodores flourish in clutch situations, winning every close game in conference play except the last game against Arkansas. … Part of that is due to superior foul shooting, as Vandy hit nearly 73 percent of its attempts. … Vanderbilt is particularly-hard to guard because all five starters can hit 3-pointers. However, even if you defend the perimeter against Vandy, you have to be constantly guarding against back-door cuts and layups. Because of this, Vandy is difficult to defend, and especially for out-of-conference foes who are not used to what the 'Dores do. … However, athletic teams who can extend perimeter pressure and stop the 3's give Vandy trouble, which is why Arkansas, who also had big men Steven Hill and Darian Townes inside to help stop the back-door layups, beat the Commodores twice. … That alone makes the George Washington matchup compelling, because the Colonels' reputation is that they have the athletes to do that. On the flip side, GW likes to employ a trapping defense, which didn't seem to give Vandy problems this year, and the Commodores don't turn the ball over a lot (only 12.5 times a game). Plus, Vanderbilt has shredded the 1-3-1—which GW likes to play—on the rare occasions in which they've seen one over the previous two seasons. … Defensively, the Commodores played very well at times when they were determined to do so, and poorly at other times when they appeared less-motivated to play defense, as was the case in a few games down the stretch. Vandy's finest hour came in shutting Florida's offense in a way few others did this season in their 83-70 victory over the Gators. … Vandy can play at just about any tempo, and the Commodores will take opportunities to run the floor when they're there. … Stallings is a good tactician, and former Vandy coach Eddie Fogler calls him "one of the nation's best" at drawing up out-of-bounds plays.