NASHVILLE, Tenn. — It can all be traced to that infamous night in Tuscaloosa.
After what turned out to be one of the most-lopsided defeats in program history, Vanderbilt became a new team, a better team, perhaps the most-dangerous team.
“After that game we all just came together and were like, ‘This is unacceptable. We know what we can do.’ We know what our capabilities are. It just came down to heart,” Vandy point guard Ezra Manjon said. “That first game after that Alabama game was going to show where we’re going to be. We just came out, everybody played hard and everybody bought in to what coach Stack was saying. Now we’re here.”
The Commodores (18-13) have gone 8-1 since that fateful night against the Crimson Tide of Alabama, a 57-point loss. They’ve cut a swath through the SEC while rising into a tie for fourth place in the league standings and securing the No. 6 seed at this week’s Southeastern Conference Tournament at Bridgestone Arena.
Because of all that, the stakes, and the excitement, have been raised. Head coach Jerry Stackhouse’s squad isn’t just playing for a chance to win its third-ever SEC tourney crown, but remarkably playing for a shot to be included in the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2017.
“We’re confident, but at the same time, we’ve seen night-in and night-out that everybody is capable,” the fourth-season head coach said Wednesday after his team’s shootaround inside Bridgestone Arena. “We really have to stay in-tune to our game plan and do the things that we need to do.
“We just knew that we had been beating ourselves in a lot of different games. I think we cleaned up some things (after the Alabama loss) and they started to receive some fruit from all of their labor that they had put in.”
To add to the impressiveness of Vandy’s turnaround is the fact it kept things rolling even without superstar center Liam Robbins. Robbins had been averaging 22 points, 10.1 rebounds and 4.4 blocks per game going into a March 1 matchup at Kentucky.
But the seven-footer broke a bone in his right leg early in that matchup spelling doom for the Dores. Instead, Vandy won that game on a last-second shot and then knocked off Mississippi State on Saturday despite a height disadvantage down low against the Bulldogs.
Those two wins have created an optic that perhaps this team is of the mindset that it can’t be beaten no matter what the circumstances.
“We feel that we’re playing well and we’ll give ourselves a chance to win by what we’re doing defensively,” Stackhouse said. “You want to play well offensively, but not every night the shots are going to fall. The way we give ourselves a chance to be in games and stay in games no matter what is being focused on the defensive side of the ball.
“We have good leaders who set the tone there. If we want to accomplish our goals and come in here and have a really good weekend, we have to set the tone right away.”
Vanderbilt now opens postseason play around 8:30 p.m. Thursday against Louisiana State.
LSU (14-18) broke a three-game losing streak Wednesday night with a 72-67 win over the Bulldogs. The Tigers, the 14-seed, got 18 points from leader KJ Williams and doubles-doubles from two other players.
LSU handed Vandy its only loss since the start of February when it ambushed the Commodores 84-77 in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, on Feb. 22. Williams had a career-high 35 points in that matchup.
Should Vanderbilt win Thursday it would advance to Friday’s quarterfinals against No. 3-seed Kentucky. The Wildcats (21-10) eliminated Vanderbilt from the 2022 SEC Tournament.
“We did really good things going into February and then the first games in March,” Vandy center Quentin Miller-Brown said. “We just want to keep that momentum going, try to focus on the little details every day so that way when it comes down to playing we’re ready to go.
“We’re excited. We’re going to bring a ton of confidence with us because we think we’re in a great spot. We have really good momentum coming into this and we want to keep it going.”
- Vanderbilt will be looking for its third ever SEC Tournament title having previously won in 1951 and 2012.
- The Dores are 3-3 in the SEC Tournament under Stackhouse and 42-59 all-time at the event.
- Vandy is 64-58 all-time against LSU and 4-6 against the Tigers at the SEC Tournament.
- Vanderbilt guard Jordan Wright has 1,105 career points and is 43rd on Vanderbilt’s all-time scoring list. Luke Kornet (1,135) is 42nd.
- The Commodores are 14-3 this season when leading at halftime, 2-9 when trailing at halftime, 12-2 when scoring at least 75 points and 15-6 when shooting at least 40 percent from the field.
- Vandy will be going for a 19th win for the second season in a row. The last Vanderbilt squad to win at least 20 games in a season was the 2014-15 team that finished 21-14.
— Chad Bishop covers Vanderbilt for VUCommodores.com.
Follow him @MrChadBishop.