Vanderbilt’s bumpy roller coaster ride to the NCAA Tournament

Photo by Blake Dover

In the words of the late Notorious B.I.G., it was all a dream.

When Bryce Drew took over as head coach of Vanderbilt’s men’s basketball team, he wasn’t reading Word Up magazine, but had a simple dream for his team: make the NCAA Tournament and win at least one game in the Big Dance. However, a 6-6 start to the season and an 8-10 record in mid-January put those dreams in serious jeopardy. It looked like their season would end with the SEC Tournament, rather than the NIT or NCAA Tournament.

Almost a year after stepping into the program, the first part of Drew’s dream has come true: Vanderbilt is going to the NCAA Tournament.

“It’s something that’s truly miraculous,” senior Luke Kornet said at the press conference on Sunday night. “Thinking back, I think we were 8-10. At that point, we were trying to just get back over .500. It’s like a completely different team. Just the run we were able to make and the way we were able to play these past couple of weeks. I think if you were to try and tell me a month or two ago that we’d be sitting here, I’d be a little skeptical.”

There were certainly some very low points for this Commodore team. After starting SEC play 2-0, they went on a four-game losing streak in mid-January, including losses to Tennessee and Georgia. They blew a 15-point lead in the final six minutes of their game against Arkansas on January 24th. They lost to the worst team in the SEC, Missouri, by 20 points.

But, for every low point, there was a high point. Vanderbilt snapped that four-game losing streak with a thrilling, gritty win against a ranked Florida team on the road. They took down the eventual Big 12 champions, Iowa State, in a midseason non-conference game. Finally, they ended the regular season with yet another thrilling win over Florida and capped it off with a third win over Florida in the SEC Tournament quarterfinals.

Drew pointed to that first Florida game as a big moment in their season.

“I think that Florida game was kind of a turning point at Florida,” he said. “It kind of showed us that we could play at a high-level and beat a high-level team. Even though we kinda went back-and-forth after that, it really gave us a confidence boost for the rest of the season.”

Even from the early days of this season, it didn’t seem like Vanderbilt was reacting ineffectively to Drew’s system or playing with a talentless roster. They just ran into tough teams and hadn’t built their confidence yet.

Kornet seemed to agree.

“I was always confident in the people we had on and the players on the court,” he said. “But, early on, it definitely didn’t seem to be this way. After taking a couple of losses early, you’re just trying to get some wins and stuff like that. I think we always had confidence in each other, it just took getting some wins to turn that around.”

When this team began their season back on November 11 against Marquette, there really weren’t many expectations. They had a brand-new head coach for the first time since 1999 and had lost their two best players, Wade Baldwin IV and Damian Jones, to the NBA.

Now, the Commodores are going dancing, and with a good matchup against Northwestern, they have a chance to make some noise. That’s something that seemed nearly impossible when the team took the floor in Annapolis in November.

“Honestly, going back to Marquette and that first game, that feels like a year ago,” Kornet said. “It feels so far away. As a team, we feel so far away from the team that was on the court that day. It wasn’t always the easiest thing, but I think we’ve completely changed from where we were for the better.”

“We’re playing with a lot of confidence, which should help come Thursday.”

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