In the 2008 NCAA Tournament, Fran McCaffery’s Siena Saints thrashed Kevin Stallings and the Vanderbilt Commodores. In that moment, two coaches stood on opposite sides of a March ambush, one the author and one the unfortunate recipient.
In each of the past two seasons, McCaffery and Stallings — years removed from their clash in the NCAAs — have sat in the same seat, suffering the same fate. One’s an accident, as they say. Two’s a trend.
It wasn’t supposed to be like this in either Indianapolis or Nashville on Thursday afternoon, but in the 2016 Big Ten and SEC Tournaments, Iowa and Vandy created Groundhog Day.
The Hawkeyes and Commodores wished they didn’t even poke their heads above ground. They saw their own shadows, and boy, were those shadows dark.
In the cover photo for this story (above), you can see the 2016 Tennessee Volunteers celebrating a win over a higher-seeded Vanderbilt team in the second round of the SEC Tournament in Nashville. If you think this was a one-off event, think again.
This year’s game was a 5-12 game. The Vols had to play an opening-round game on Wednesday, which should have put them at a disadvantage against the rested Commodores. Tennessee’s star player and scorer, Kevin Punter, was out with an injury. That should have been enough for Vandy to use, en route to a win which would have safely put the Dores in the field of 68. However, if the Punter injury didn’t mark the full extent of Vanderbilt’s advantage, what also should have come to the forefront was that VU hosted a lower-seeded Tennessee team in last year’s SEC Tournament.
The 2015 edition of Vols-Vandy in the SEC tourney was a 10-7 game. When VU lost, the Commodores were worried if they’d make the NIT:
Damian Jones and the rest of the Dores did not bring their best stuff to the building against the Volunteers last year. With another year of seasoning, and with an NCAA bid essentially one game away from being secured, there was no reason for Vanderbilt to fall short this time — not against an undermanned opponent playing on short rest.
Yet, it happened.
Jones, who has consistently struggled to play like the big man he is, took only eight shots, an appallingly low number. Vanderbilt got out-hustled for most of the day; scrambled late to briefly take a one-point lead; and then watched the Vols get to a lot of 50-50 balls down the stretch, giving Tennessee just enough extra possessions to dig out a 67-65 win.
Last year, the Commodores lost to this coach:
After falling to Donnie Tyndall in 2015, Vanderbilt and Stallings couldn’t solve Rick Barnes in 2016. If last year’s SEC Tournament loss was hard to live down, this one will be a lot worse. Should Vanderbilt miss the NCAA tournament — which is not guaranteed, but a strong possibility at this point — the shadows created by this loss will haunt Stallings through the offseason. It’s the kind of loss a coach can’t collect when he’s been missing from the NCAA tournament since 2012.
All Vanderbilt had to do was kick the “losing to Tennessee in the SEC Tournament” habit. VU could not, and the cost of this failure to learn from 2015 could be enormous.
For another team unable to kick a bad conference tournament habit, there will be no “in or out” anxiety on Selection Sunday. Yet, the same sick feeling of going down a familiar and ugly road remains.
Recall this picture above?
This was the scene a year ago in Chicago, when the 13th-seeded Penn State Nittany Lions beat the fifth-seeded Iowa Hawkeyes in the second round of the Big Ten Tournament. Iowa lost a chance to bolster its NCAA tournament seeding, coming out flat against one of the bottom-feeders in its conference.
The awareness of that loss should have been all Iowa and McCaffery needed on Thursday in Indianapolis, one year later. The Hawkeyes, again seeded fifth — again with No. 4 Purdue waiting in the quarterfinals — faced 12th-seeded Illinois, a team going through an absolutely miserable campaign.
Surely Iowa would not fall asleep at the switch this time. Surely the Hawkeyes would display the clarity and urgency of a team which had been humbled on this stage by Penn State.
The Illini might have blown an 11-point lead in a span of under two minutes late in the game, after the under-four-minute media timeout in the second half. However, they regrouped for a go-ahead bucket. Moments later, Iowa turned the ball over on an ill-advised inbounds pass near the midcourt line, which deflected out of bounds off the Hawkeyes. Illinois successfully inbounded the ball; Iowa walked away with the taste of humiliation again resting on the lips of every player and coach.
What Kevin Stallings and Vanderbilt endured in the SEC, McCaffery and Iowa allowed to happen in the Big Ten.
Two seasons, two very similar situations. Two bad habits, unable to be kicked. One bad day at the office will happen. Two straight years of the same problems? That’s a bit different.
One’s an accident, two’s a trend.