basketball Edit

Pride, respect, and the state of Vanderbilt basketball

Let’s get this out of the way: Vanderbilt Kentucky closer than anyone dreamed in a 71-62 loss at Rupp Arena. And there are positives that came with that.

Vanderbilt players look on as Kentucky's Nick Richards makes a lay-up.
Vanderbilt players look on as Kentucky's Nick Richards makes a lay-up. (Mark Zerof, USA Today)

But if you’re reading to hear about those things, please stop here.

For whoever’s left, the reason I won’t go there can be summed up in two words: Pride and respect.

On Wednesday night, Vanderbilt broke an 80-year record for futility that had been un-challenged for so long, I can’t recall it coming up in conversation until recently. It’s now lost 25 straight Southeastern Conference regular-season games, a mark so horrid that the last program that set it (Sewanee) left the conference rather than see how far it would go. Add two conference tournament losses, and that number against league foes becomes 27.

Vanderbilt has no such choice to quit. It has 11 games remaining in the regular season, and at least one in the conference tournament. Barring something unforeseen, it’ll be an underdog in each.

The humane thing seems to be focusing on how freshman Dylan Disu (13 points, 11 rebounds, five blocks) was absolutely brilliant, or how Saben Lee played well and how the team competed, especially in light of foul trouble.

But I won’t. It goes back to those two words, and the fact that programs should always be bigger than their players and coaches. And that’s what this is about.

Basketball has always been a big deal at Vanderbilt. I can’t help think how much this hurts a lot of people who have played, coached or watched Vanderbilt basketball over decades. While I feel for those playing and coaching through the current situation, I have too much respect to insult those who came before them with talk of moral victories.

There’s also the elephant in the room: Stake holders are freaked out over the state of the program. It was that way well before people were writing about the wrong kind of history. And for those people, too, the truth deserves an audience.

Sure, there’s been a lot of bad luck. Strike the Darius Garland and Aaron Nesmith injuries and there’s zero chance we’re having this discussion. But that’s not how life works. Countless other SEC teams have lost their best player for significant stretches of time in other years and didn’t lose this many in a row. Those teams didn’t fall that far because their floor was higher than Vandy's.

That's really the problem. That, and the fact that Vanderbilt never seems to learn from any of it.

Here’s how you reach bottom: Through poor administrative support, an out-of-date arena and facilities, difficultly getting transfers (graduate transfers are nearly impossible to get into Vandy) and almost certainly other stuff I don’t know, because Vanderbilt is such a strange and complicated place with so many mine fields in places you don’t even think to look.

There are two questions left to ask.

First, does Vanderbilt want to continue to play basketball at a competitive level?

This has been discussed ad nauseam and I won’t re-hash most of that here. But, the university treating this is anything other than a Code Red is either a sign of incompetence, or an inappropriate level of concern, or both.

Vanderbilt prides itself on integrity, and having players graduate, and things like that. You will never hear me knock it for that. Frankly, the college sports world would be a better place if other schools emulated VU in that regard. But the school puts too much credence on the opinions of folks who at best, are ignorant about how college sports works and at worst are hostile to the idea, and it seems there's more of that coming as the faculty will apparently get to give its input on VU athletics' long-awaited strategic plan this week. If letting outside voices have a say in the policies that affect others, let's have coaches help set school academic policy, too. Otherwise, Vanderbilt needs to confess its double-standard here and at least be honest about what's really happening.

Second, how much stomach does Jerry Stackhouse have to see this through?

Stackhouse is a bright guy and has done a good job with player development, and that was needed. But he's been clear about that being the foundation. As good as that end's been, he's mistaken. Recruiting is almost unfailingly the foundation when it comes to college basketball. Had he stuck it out in the G League, an NBA head coaching opportunity probably would have come, and in the NBA, you can spend all your time on player development.

Nobody wants to sink a head coaching career before it gets off the ground, and this isn't getting better soon. The implications of the decisions that come next are obvious.

Winston Churchill once said, "Don't let a good crisis go to waste."The bill for decades of terrible process has come due, and only Vanderbilt can control how long the interest compounds.