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Reboot or Revival? Vanderbilt Basketball and the new era of Memorial Magic

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Reboot or Revival? Vanderbilt Basketball and the new era of Memorial Magic

Photo by Cutler Klein

Photo by Cutler Klein

Photo by Cutler Klein

Photo by Cutler Klein

Cutler Klein, Sports Editor

It’s easy to hear the roars of the past when you walk through Memorial Gym.

You can still feel the rush of students storming the court when Derrick Byars and the 2007 Commodores upset Joakim Noah’s top-ranked Florida Gators. You can still feel the explosion of noise as Shan Foster drilled a three-pointer with a Mississippi State defender draped all over him to earn a thrilling overtime victory on his senior night in 2008.

Outside the gym, ghosts of the past still float around as well. You can feel the presence of hundreds of students camped out in blizzard conditions to see Vanderbilt upset #1 Tennessee in 2008. And you can still hear the chants of “Who ya with? VU!” from a raucous crowd of students waiting to great the team bus at 2:30 AM after Vanderbilt had just reached the NCAA Sweet 16 for just the sixth time in program history in 2007.

However, those memories have become relegated to seldom-watched YouTube videos and seldom-noted banners hanging in the rafters of one of college basketball’s most historic venues. Vanderbilt’s last eight graduating classes never saw the team appear in a Sweet 16, and the last three graduating classes never got to see anything more than a hapless loss to Wichita State in the First Four (2016) and a brutal first-round defeat at the hands of Northwestern (2017) in the NCAA Tournament.

Out of the shadows of a downtrodden, history-rich program have emerged three young men on a quest to hear those roars once again. They want to bring back the magic that made Memorial Gym one of the most hostile environments in basketball. They want to make more memories and bring Vanderbilt’s storied history into a new generation.

Those three young men are Darius Garland, Simisola Shittu and Aaron Nesmith. And they’re ready to make a run for glory.

“There’s a lot of history in here,” Shittu told the Vanderbilt Hustler in an exclusive interview. “We just want to continue it on, that’s what we came here for. We want to make history in Memorial Gym.”

Vanderbilt the “Basketball School” 

Photo by Cutler Klein

It might be hard to imagine for this generation of Vanderbilt students, but Vanderbilt Basketball used to be the marquee team in Nashville. Prior to the late 1990s, there were no  major professional sports in town, making Vanderbilt the hub of the Nashville sports scene. Before Tim Corbin turned the baseball program into a juggernaut and before James Franklin brought relevancy to the football program, Vanderbilt Basketball earned most of the attention of students and Nashville residents.

When Will Perdue helped lead Vanderbilt to the Sweet 16 in 1988, the students responded in kind. Tickets were in high demand.

“I just remember we were walking to the library one night and all of a sudden all this cheering is going on, and I’m like ‘What the hell is all of this?'” Perdue said. “They’re like ‘You don’t know? The students have to wait for tickets because they’re selling out all the student tickets.’ I was just like ‘Has that ever happened here before?’ They said ‘Not that we know of.'”

Photo by Cutler Klein

Matt Freijie’s 2004 Commodores brought that hype back with another Sweet 16 run, and Byars and Foster’s 2007 team kept it going with their own Sweet 16 run. When marquee teams came to town, there was no bigger party in town. The lines stretched around the block outside Memorial Gym to get into the student section.

That buzz brought out the best in Vanderbilt’s players and created a distinct home court advantage.

“Just driving by Memorial you got goosebumps just going back to your room getting ready to come back for the game,” Freije said. “That excitement and that feeling, that’s the type of stuff that makes Memorial what it is and what it can be. Hopefully we have that this year and these guys can produce for us.”

When the team was in the NCAA Tournament, campus was ablaze with basketball fever. Throngs of students and fans greeted Perdue’s team off the plane after a win at the Nashville Airport in 1988. Freije’s professors would turn class time into a chalk talk in March 2004 as the Sweet 16 approached. Applause followed them everywhere they went. Another group of students in 2007 waited until 2:30 AM to greet Foster and Byars’ Commodores off the bus on campus when they returned from their second-round victory.

For at least a few months, Vanderbilt was in the same category as Duke, North Carolina or Georgetown. Vanderbilt was a basketball school.

In recent years, while students turn out to Memorial Gym, the marquee atmosphere has been missing. There aren’t any lines outside for big matchups. The big game buzz has been replaced by the normal grind of everyday life as a Vanderbilt student.

This new group of Commodores hopes to change all of that.

“I would say that’s something to look forward to,” Nesmith said. “Just putting the lines back outside Memorial Gymnasium and making a legacy here that nobody will ever forget.”

The New Generation

Photo by Cutler Klein

While the Commodores of yesterday were special and made history with some Cinderella stories, the words “five-star” and “top-ranked” rarely entered the lexicon of Vanderbilt Basketball.

That all changed last fall with five-star Brentwood Academy point guard Darius Garland committed to Vanderbilt. Just weeks later, five-star power forward Simi Shittu committed. With four-star small forward Aaron Nesmith already in the fold, suddenly Vanderbilt was in uncharted territory. They have marquee players to match the marquee stage of Memorial Gym.

Much of that is thanks to third-year head coach Bryce Drew, whose recruiting prowess helped woo these five-stars to Vanderbilt. It’s a new era Commodore Basketball, and the next stars on West End want to bring Memorial Magic to a new generation of Vanderbilt students.

“Just making a legacy for ourselves,” Garland said of his goals for this season. “I’m from Nashville, so a lot of people talk about Memorial Magic. They want us to bring that back with the recruiting class that we have and the upcoming players that were here a couple of years ago. We’re just ready to rock.”

In a stacked Southeastern Conference, there will be no shortage of top-notch matchups at Memorial Gym this season. Shittu will get to face off against EJ Montgomery when Kentucky comes to town. Garland will go one-on-one with Jordan Bone when rival Tennessee plays. Vanderbilt might not be ranked to start the season, but if the team finds its way into the Top 25 by January, the eyes of the basketball world could look upon Nashville by the time this is all said and done.

Despite coming into a program that has not won an NCAA Tournament game since 2012, the next generation of Vanderbilt stars have high hopes and sky-high goals. It isn’t enough to be ranked or to make it to March Madness. They’ve seen how Vanderbilt celebrated a Sweet 16 appearance 11 years ago, but they want more than that.

“Yeah, that’s our vision, but we’re not just trying to get to the second round,” Shittu said. “We’re trying to get to the Final Four. We’re trying to make history, not just be another team. We’re just focused and ready to work and come in here with a whole lot of pride and want to get to where we need to be.”

“Facts,” Garland added with a smile.

The Vanderbilt Attitude

Photo by Cutler Klein

As some things change, some things stay the same. For Vanderbilt, the five-star recruits and renewed buzz might be new, but the Vanderbilt Basketball legends of the past still say the team can’t forget what it means to be a Vanderbilt Man.

“I think there has to be more to it as far as hunger, as far as heart,” Byars said. “I think me and some of the older guys, we look over the last few years, you just want to see that competitive nature. You want to see guys laying it all out there, and I think that’s what you got when you saw Dan Cage, he gave you his all. When you saw Ross Neltner, he gave you his all, Alex Gordon. As excited as I am to see the McDonald’s All Americans and the other guys coming in, and they’re freshmen. They’re only freshmen, but I would love to see them compete and just lay it all out there.”

On top of that, Foster added that there has to be a community component as well. Players like Garland, Shittu and Nesmith bring the hype, but they can earn the support of the Vanderbilt community by being out in the Vanderbilt community.

“I think it’s going to really be determined by how well this team is able to do and how well they’re able to really embrace the community,” Foster said. “One of the things that I believe contributed to how much support we got from the community was that we were in the community. I was out speaking at schools. Every single time I got asked to go somewhere and do something, take a picture or go spend time with a family, I went. It was more than just going to support Vanderbilt Basketball.”

Perdue agreed with Byars wants to see the next generation of Vanderbilt athletes come out with the same chip on their shoulders that he did as a Commodore.

“Because of what it says on the front, you’re not going to get the same respect as if it said Kentucky or Florida or somebody else that would be considered a better basketball institution than Vanderbilt,” Perdue said. “It’s not going to be given, you’re going to have to go get it.”

When you talk to Vanderbilt’s historic crop of five-stars, you quickly realize that those concerns will be mitigated quickly. The trio of freshmen know what they are tasked with doing, they understand the history that wearing the black and gold carries, and they understand how to be successful on and off the court.

As for having a chip on their shoulder, that shouldn’t be a problem either.

“I feel like all of us coming here, we all feel like we’re still underrated or we still have something to prove,” Shittu said. “Especially as a team since we haven’t been to a tournament or had winning seasons in, not a long time, but in a couple of years. We want to come here and just change everything and prove everybody wrong.”

Basketball pundits are making it even easier to start the season with a chip on their shoulder. ESPN’s preseason BPI rankings puts Vanderbilt 55th in the nation with a 4.7 rating, which is below the SEC average.

For Garland and his new teammates, the only opinion that matters is their own. And that’s the attitude they’ll bring as a new dawn begins on West End.

“There’s a lot of people that are going to doubt us,” Garland said. “Vandy hasn’t had a winning season in a couple of years, but with the recruiting class that we have now, the returning players, it’s going to change tremendously. We’re not looking at rankings, we’re not thinking about any of that.

“We just worry about us and what we’re going to do.”

Photo by Cutler Klein

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About the Writer
Cutler Klein, Sports Editor

Cutler Klein ('19) is the Sports Editor of the Vanderbilt Hustler. He previously served as Assistant Sports Editor. He is majoring in Communication Studies...

1 Comment

One Response to “Reboot or Revival? Vanderbilt Basketball and the new era of Memorial Magic”

  1. Jeff Gould on September 15th, 2018 5:32 am

    Good article and I enjoyed all the Byars, Freije, Perdue, Foster eras as well. However, certainly the equal of all those was the mid-70’s F Troop era of Fosnes, Feher and Ford and the Clyde Lee teams of the mid-60’s and most of the Roy Skinner coached teams that linked the Lee teams to the F-Troop. I know that was a long time ago, but of the ten times that Vanderbilt was in the Top 10, Roy Skinner coached seven of those teams. Roy Skinner was also the coach who brought Perry Wallace to Vanderbilt. He was a great coach and a great person.

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