At a school where no individual athlete will ever get the recognition he or she deserves, Vanderbilt men’s basketball seniors Luke Kornet and Nolan Cressler top the most underappreciated list.
Kornet and Cressler reached Vanderbilt via very different paths, but the duo will leave Vandy together as the driving forces behind an unlikely NCAA tournament appearance with a new coach and a thin roster. No matter the results this weekend in Salt Lake City and beyond, the Vanderbilt men’s basketball senior class of 2017 means the world to me and should hold similar value in the hearts of the Commodore faithful.
This article is a tribute to those two men. The two men who stayed up until two in the morning the night before the 2016-17 season opener discussing what this year of basketball could bring and how they could make it happen. The two men who are aggressive leaders on the court and hilarious off it. The two men who are most responsible for Vanderbilt’s March Madness appearance this week.
“The Ivy League transfer by way of Cornell…” Yeah, we know, we know. The kid is so much more. The Young Yinzer, which Nolan is called only in his innermost circles, is literally a token Pittsburgher, a distinction to which this fellow Pittsburghese reporter aspires. (FYI: “Yinz” is Pittsburghese for “y’all.”)
Late in my second semester at Vanderbilt in spring 2014, I heard we had a transfer joining the program from Pittsburgh, the greatest city on the planet. I met Nolan early on in my sophomore year, and he felt like a real friend from the moment I met him. We instantly bonded over Heinz ketchup, dem Stillers and Western Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic League glory (more on this one later). He was such a good Yinzer that, if you didn’t know better, you’d think that his home township of Plum was right next to Penn Hills “dahn the Parkway.”
For those of you who didn’t comprehend any of that last paragraph, let’s forget Pittsburgh and talk hoops. Nolan came to Vanderbilt with high expectations as a perimeter scorer, lit up practice during his mandatory redshirt year, then didn’t accomplish what he wanted in his first year as a Commodore. Not even close.
“I kinda felt like I had to burst onto the scene last year,” the Young Yinzer said.
When that didn’t happen, Cressler put his pride behind him and did everything he had to in order to have an impressive final season at Vanderbilt, meeting the expectations laid out before he ever played a meaningful minute at Memorial Gym by people who had never met him. Let’s not forget that Nolan owed Vanderbilt absolutely nothing, but he still left a permanent mark on this program.
An underappreciated Commodore and an all-time Yinzer, Nolan Cressler is a small slice of Aiello’s Pizza (or Mineo’s, your call) in a world of hot chicken. Between his Shop 412 gear and meeting his all-WPIAL baseball pitcher friends at Pirate games dahn on the Norf Side, The Young Yinzer puts the “Burgh” in “Vanderburgh.”
I think I learned more from Luke Kornet at Vanderbilt than I did in any class, which is ironic because Luke learned more in class at Vanderbilt than everybody else combined. The dude has about eight ridiculously hard majors and just happens to be the best player on an NCAA tournament team and is also seven feet tall and is also going to play in the NBA next year.
OK, let’s rewind a little here. I was fortunate to live in the same dorm and on the same floor as Luke and Damian Jones my freshman year at Vandy. We had a floor meeting the day we moved in, and I was so pumped about having a basketball player living down the hall that I went straight back to my room and looked up Damian’s recruiting profile. I didn’t even find out that the lanky white kid he lived with was also on the basketball team until like two weeks later.
Even if I had searched for Luke’s recruiting info, I probably wouldn’t have found much. “Luke Kornet, the seven-foot wonder who grew eight inches in his senior year of high school and did not have a single college scholarship offer…” Yeah, we know, we know.
The kid who did not know how to run and jump in his own body during his freshman year because he had grown so quickly and so recently has come a long way. First Team All-SEC, NBA prospect and the NCAA leader in most three-pointers ever by a seven-footer (that last stat will never get old).
He’s also unbelievably kind, incredibly hilarious and the ultimate definition of someone whom I will support no matter where he ends up. That last one is a characteristic I could pin on many of the Vanderbilt athletes I’ve met and known over the past four years.
Luke actually stopped during a shootaround before practice a couple of weeks ago to wave at me, completely unprovoked. I literally did the double take in cartoons where someone looks around like “Who, me?” and realized that he stopped practicing to goofily wave and grin at me. I was honored, but I also was concerned that I’m enough of a distraction for him to stop shooting.
Here’s the important part. Getting to know Luke and Damian three years ago taught me that athletes are actually people too, which seems obvious when written down but changed the way I look at something that means the world to me: sports. That lesson has helped me as a reporter too and is something I will carry with me as I graduate in two months. Luke rocking Damian’s Golden State Warriors jersey after his final regular-season game last week was a cool reminder of that.
Graduating will be cool. Seeing Luke and Nolan graduate will be cooler. Seeing them win against Florida on their Senior Day was even cooler. Seeing them play in the NCAA tournament on TV Thursday will be the coolest.
Luke Kornet and Nolan Cressler deserve way more recognition than they will ever get at Vanderbilt. So does every other Vanderbilt athlete. This is no knock on the fans, the coaches, the administration, or anybody; it’s just a reality at a school like Vandy based upon a multitude of predominantly non-changeable factors.
Through two of those underappreciated stories, I hope I have shown why Vanderbilt’s two men’s basketball seniors mean a heck of a lot to me.