At least now the pollsters can say Vanderbilt basketball's No. 7 pre-season ranking was simply an excellent piece of long-run prognostication.
After a season of fits and starts and losses at home to Cleveland State and late game fades and must-win flame-outs, Kevin Stallings finally saw the Commodores click to life at the SEC Tournament in New Orleans. This time it was Kentucky that failed to close the game, while Jeff Taylor played like Jeff Taylor, Festus Ezeli didn't look like his nagging injury nagged him at all, and John Jenkins delivered an MVP performance.
And for the first time since Harry Truman was stopping bucks, Vanderbilt left the Big Easy as SEC Tournament champions.
For some reason, though, it didn't seem the title impressed the bracket arrangers on the selection committee. The Commodores ended up a No. 5 seed — that old curse — and have to travel to Albuquerque to take on Harvard, champions of the Ivy League.
It is, in a way, fitting that the Commodores should head to New Mexico, the only member of the union with an official state question: "Red or green?" But Stallings won't be worrying about sauce color. Instead, his team, which could appropriately replace its black star logo with the punctus interrogativus, looks to shake off the naysayers who point to years of first-round failures.
Much has been made of the Thursday match-up with Harvard. It's as if the selection committee is engaged in some sort of parlor game, setting games to generate talking points. Yes, it's two strong academic institutions, all ivy and magnolia. Harvard is one of the few schools that can flip all the smarter-than-thou Vandy chants back around in the 'Dores direction.
But a game that would fit well in a courtroom also makes for a solid basketball court battle. Tommy Amaker's Crimson is well-coached, disciplined and competitive, just as Vandy at its best is. The experts are evenly split between Harvard's chances at the glass slipper and Vandy's shot at returning to New Orleans for the Final Four.
If the team can survive the men from Cambridge, the path to greatness isn't impossible to see. Vandy even matches up well against the East region's top seed, Syracuse, for the Orange rely stubbornly on zone defense. They're particularly vulnerable to teams with outside shooting skill, like Vandy.
Belmont, meanwhile, looks for its first NCAA tournament win, squaring off with the What's-a-Hoyas of Georgetown on Friday in Columbus. Belmont has played Georgetown once before, as a 15-seed in 2007. Back then, Roy Hibbert scored about a gazillion points to send the Bruins back to Nashville. Vanderbilt fans have fond memories of that particular Georgetown team too. Mention it and hear an in-depth explanation of how Jeff Green traveled on his way to hitting the game winner against the 'Dores in the Sweet 16, joining Nazr Muhammad on the list of infamous no-calls to go the wrong way for Vandy.
This is a different Belmont team, though. It is more seasoned, more experienced. The Bruins make their fifth trip to the tournament and enter the bracket winners of 14 straight in their last season in the Atlantic Sun. Making history against the Hoyas could set up a nice run to the Sweet 16 for Rick Byrd, now getting appreciation after decades with the title of America's best coach no one's ever heard of.
It has been a banner year for Nashville basketball. And Belmont and Vandy may be able to hang more banners still.
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