Eli Horowitz | Medium Talk Co-Creator
At a Vanderbilt vs. Kentucky game in Nashville my buddy from college asked former Vandy player Shan Foster if Stallings is a good coach. Shan, a storied player from Stallings’ best teams, paused, and then said something like “he draws up great plays.” Having watched Vanderbilt for eight years now I can’t argue with Shan. Stallings draws up some of the best sideline out of bounds plays I’ve ever seen. And yet, isn’t that something that an assistant can do? If one of the best basketball players in Vanderbilt history only has out of bounds plays to credit to his coach (not motivational tactics, not adjustments, not recruiting), then that’s saying something. But above the disappointing tournament performances and lack of consistent recruitment lies the pervasive lack of hustle and heart from Vanderbilt teams. And so as I sit here watching the waning moments of Vanderbilt’s defeat to South Carolina, I wonder, why do I keep putting myself through this?
Vanderbilt’s 69-65 loss to South Carolina incited a particularly unpleasant version of déjà vu for me. For those who haven’t watched the Commodores this year, I’ll save you the trouble: Vanderbilt gets off to a nice lead against a good team, they start turning the ball over, they stop hustling and rebounding, Damion Jones fouls out, Wade Baldwin turns the ball over, Riley LaChance tries to be a hero, and they end up losing by 2 to 10 points. This has happened seven times. They’ve squandered seven opportunities for resume building wins. And each time I tell myself it’s going to be different.
This particular loss drops Vanderbilt to 8-7 overall and 0-3 in SEC play. This is the same Vanderbilt team that returned everyone and started the year ranked 18th in the nation. The season is halfway over, and barring an impressive winning streak with wins over top SEC foes like Kentucky, Texas A&M, and Florida, the NCAA tournament is likely a hope of the past.
As I try to process how this team keeps losing in the same manner over and over, I have to question the coaching. And no, not the out of bounds plays or the schemes. But the inability to motivate and inspire young men to play hard. Admittedly, I am not at practice, in the huddles, or the locker room. Having said that, every single game (against relevant opponents) the other teams are playing visibly harder. This year, Kansas, Baylor, Dayton, Purdue, LSU, Arkansas, and now South Carolina all wanted to win more than Vanderbilt did. You shouldn’t be able to tell that just from watching on television. You shouldn’t be able to tell that from the body language of the coaches and players. You shouldn’t be able to say, NO, they didn’t leave it all on the court. And while I could sit here blaming this inexcusable lack of effort on the current players, I think back to the disappointing efforts of teams of the past. I think about always wanting more from Jeff Taylor and Festus Ezeli. I think about losing in the second round with three NBA players to a Wisconsin team with none. I question the heart of Vanderbilt teams. I question the desire to win. And that comes from the top.
Kevin Stallings is a respected basketball mind, and there is a place for him in the coaching ranks of the NCAA. But as Vanderbilt reaches the midway point of his 17th season as head coach, it’s time to see something different. If Vanderbilt wants a whining, bald, X’s and O’s guy, I hear Tom Thibodeau is available.