Saturday, March 10, 2012
Vandy aims to end 61-year tourney drought
By David Helman
NEW ORLEANS -- Kentucky coach John Calipari has made no bones about it; he does not like the SEC tournament.
It's an aggravation, and an understandable one at that. The Wildcats have spent the past three months making their case as the nation's best team, they've secured the league's regular-season title and, regardless of what happens in Sunday's championship game against Vanderbilt, they've secured a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament.
Calipari's disdain for conference tournaments is well-documented, but that disdain is a luxury he can afford. Dating back to his days at Memphis, he has won six consecutive conference tournaments -- 2006-09 with the Tigers, and two in a row with Kentucky, with designs on a third.
As a program, Kentucky has no overwhelming need for another SEC tournament trophy, either. The Wildcats have claimed to 27 of the 52 SEC tournament championships, including the inaugural event in 1933 and the two most recent tournaments.
That attitude doesn't fly with Vanderbilt, which, after downing Ole Miss 65-53, enter the weekend's final game with hopes of ending the Wildcats' stranglehold on the tournament. In a jubilant post-semifinal locker room, despite the fact that they knew the NCAA tournament awaited in just five days, the Commodores insisted to a man on the importance of a tournament title.
The reason? The last time Vanderbilt was on this stage was 1951, the date of their lone tournament championship -- a full eight years before Calipari was born.
With history like that on the line, Commodores coach Kevin Stallings said it's easy to get motivated.
John Jenkins turned in another solid game for Vanderbilt, which can win its first SEC tourney title since 1951.
"You play to win. That's why you play. Our players actually informed me, because I didn't know this, but Jeffery Taylor informed me yesterday that it's the first time since 1951 that Vanderbilt's been in the championship of this conference tournament," Stallings said. "We appreciate that. We're proud of that. We're excited about that."
The excitement for a tangible milestone was evident in the Commodores' locker room. This program has made big advances in recent years, reaching five NCAA tournaments in the past decade with designs on a sixth next week. But Vandy hasn't lifted a championship trophy since it won the SEC regular-season title in 1993, and 1951 remains its lone tournament triumph.
"We know that it's really special to play for a championship. Not a lot of teams get to do that," said Vandy guard Brad Tinsley.
Tinsley, one of four senior starters to help Vanderbilt on its run of two (going on three) consecutive NCAA berths, said the chance to pick up some hardware is one the Commodores take seriously.
"When a lot of teams sit down and make their goals at the start of the season, it's to win a championship -- conference championship, NCAA championship, whatever it is," he said. "We have the opportunity to compete for one, and I think this team really looks forward to this opportunity."
As Stallings pointed out, his players were more aware of what's on the line than he was. Whether it was John Jenkins, who has been the Dores' heartbeat all season, Tinsley, or fellow senior Lance Goulbourne (who posted 10 points and 12 boards against Ole Miss), it seemed Vanderbilt's entire roster was focused on Sunday's possibilities rather than next week's tournament.
"We knew going into the game that Vandy hadn't been to the championship game since 1951, which was the only year they won the tournament," Goulbourne said. "It's pretty cool for us to be the team to break that streak, but it's not over for us yet. We want to win the championship -- just getting to the championship is not enough for us."
To pull that victory off, the Dores are in for 40 minutes of toil against one of the biggest, baddest rosters in the nation. Vanderbilt's date with the Wildcats will also be the both teams' third game in three days -- a careful stat to consider when the pair open their NCAA tournament runs late next week.
Regardless of that fatigue factor, Stallings said the Commodores will throw everything they've got at Calipari's Cats. Regardless of public perception, the chance at a championship isn't something to pass up.
"It's tough in every way when you play Kentucky. But we'll rest for a day or two after that and try to get ready to play on Thursday or Friday or whenever we get to play," Stallings said. "We can't worry about fatigue right now; we'll worry about fatigue when we're done. And hopefully that won't be for awhile."