It was like old times Saturday night at Memorial Gym. Had you been sleeping solid since 1993, a Rip Vanderbilt Winkle, had you snored right through all the once-unimaginable losses for the home team, had you not seen all the empty seats with your own eyes, you might be sanguine in the belief that nothing had changed since you nodded off at the end of Eddie Fogler’s tenure so long ago.
For old-school Vandy fans, everything was just as it was supposed to be, just as it had always been. Memorial was packed for a highly ranked SEC rival, Florida. The crowd was electric, vocal and, at times, louder than a rock concert on a freight train in the vortex of a tornado. Winning this game was important if Vandy, which had lost two straight on the road, hoped to maintain its momentum toward an NCAA tournament berth. And, just as they once almost always did in big games at Memorial, the Commodores won.
In recent years, Vanderbilt men’s basketball has been a little like the bewitched kingdom of Rohan in Lord of the Rings. Despite the impressive and formidable façade, a veil of cobwebs seemed to have covered the program. Marauding armies of orcs representing various other spots in the Southeastern Conference were ripping in to plunder the place. Attendance dwindled to the point that sellouts, once the rule for SEC games, had become the exception.
This season, as if by Memorial magic, the old vigor has returned. But the secret of Vandy’s roundball resurgence really isn’t hard to pinpoint. The old crowds are back, the old roar is back and the old atmosphere is back thanks mostly to the wonder-working, rejuvenative power of a winning team.
George Patton had it right: Americans love a winner and will not tolerate a loser. At some schools, they express their intolerance by canning coaches at the first sign of unmet expectations. At Vanderbilt, they express it with an empty gym.
It takes a winner to break that spell, and this year, for the first time in his tenure on West End, Kevin Stallings has a team capable of winning big. Five years ago, his first team showed promise of restoring the kingdom’s old fortunes. There have been periodic flashes since. More often, though, there has been fizzlecaused largely by injuries and lack of depth. One more so-so season, and it’s not unreasonable to think that Stallings’ job might have been in jeopardy.
This year, defying general expectations, the ’Dores won their first 12 games, cracked the Top 25 and emerged as one of the SEC’s better teams. This year, in contrast with previous models, they have real depth; against Florida, Stallings played his entire squad12 playersin the first half. This year, as never before, they can field a front line with three players at 6-10 or taller. And this year they have a Player of the Year candidate, Matt Freije; unlike Dan Langhi, Vandy’s last player to win that award, Freije possesses both a shooter’s touch and a banger’s physicality.
That difference perhaps is symbolic of the way Vanderbilt has treated visitors to Memorial this season. They raised a few eyebrows by thumping Indiana back in November. A few more arched up when the Commodores smoked a previously unbeaten Michigan team.
In their SEC opener, they followed an old, familiar pattern. They spent one half dicing Auburn like an onion, then went frigid enough to turn a 20-point lead into a late five-point deficit, then somehow righted themselves and won. Against No. 15 Florida, they used a ball-hawking, steal-producing defense to blow out a team that many Basketball Geniuses give a good chance of reaching the Final Four. Both of those conference wins reflected another old pattern: not losing in the friendly confines of Memorial Gym.
Even their first loss, at Kentucky, reflected an improvement. Instead of rolling over at Rupp after falling behind 24-10, they fought back and trailed by only two with five minutes to play. Now, if they split their remaining games, the Commodores are a virtual lock for an NCAA bid.
But in one important way, the return of the old status quo at Memorial reflects an important evolution in Vandylandand is perhaps establishing a precedent by demonstrating that Nashville is big enough after all for college teams and pro franchises to prosper.
Heretofore, it was looking like the local sports marketplace was a zero-sum game. The Predators presumably drew fans away from Vanderbilt; the Titans sucked ticket-buyers away from them both. On Saturday, though, while the Commodores played before a sellout crowd, the Preds (who also are enjoying their best season in six years) also hosted a nearly full house.
At the same time, Vandy appears at long last to have recognized that it fills only a niche in the new sports market, and that it must both compete and cooperate to sell tickets. The Commodores and Predators have run reciprocal ticket-stub discount promotions this season. And in a move that would have been unimaginable for Joe Billy Wyatt, who was about as likely to be spotted on campus as a whooping crane, Vandy Chancellor Gordon Gee served as pitchman in a humble-toned newspaper ad announcing “We want you back” to lapsed ticket-holders and offering big discounts as an incentive.