It was realistic to imagine a world in which Vanderbilt gained the number four seed and a double-bye in the SEC Tournament.
It was realistic to think about a Cinderella run in the SEC Tournament and a possible automatic bid.
It was realistic to expect a high-end seed in the NIT.
It was... but no longer.
It's true that the first season of the Bryce Drew era did not HAVE to meet certain thresholds. This is a honeymoon season for the coach, a "get-to-know-you" season for players adjusting to a new system and coaching style. If Vanderbilt misses the postseason, it will not be a crashing, crushing blow to the program or anything of the sort. Nevertheless, it was reasonable to think VU would hit certain thresholds at different points on its journey. Beating Iowa State and hammering Arkansas (which improved its NCAA Tournament hopes on Wednesday with a huge win in South Carolina...) showed that the Commodores can be very good when on top of their game. Why couldn't this team begin to dream big? Why wouldn't it have been okay to declare the intention of trying to steal an automatic bid and have the NIT as a fall-back plan?
There's nothing wrong about carrying realistic aspirations.
The problem: Those aspirations no longer seem realistic.
Losing to Arkansas at home was a gut punch, but the Hogs are a half-decent team. Losing to Ole Miss was unpleasant, but at least the Rebels lost to Baylor (a possible No. 1 seed) by only three points and have demonstrated that when playing their best, they're a legitimately tough team to beat.
Losing to Missouri by 20 points?
That's a different conversation, one which requires all the above aspirations -- once realistic -- to be shelved, if only for the time being.
It's pointless to discuss higher goals when Vanderbilt can't play two solid games in a row.
It's fruitless to write about a sustained late-season push when a team remains stuck in its propensity to veer from marvelous game to clunker, over and over again.
It was no different for the football team before the Ole Miss-Tennessee pair of home games to close the regular season: Forget any sort of postseason prize; the primary importance of those two games was to establish good habits, such that the team could leave the current season knowing it was capable of doing the things it needed to carry into the following season. That's where the Bryce Drew Dores stand at the moment. Forget the postseason chatter; VU needs to iron out its rough edges and display a greater capacity not just for growth, but for a quality the best students possess in a classroom setting: retention.
Every other game, Vanderbilt looks like a team which understands exactly what it has to do on the court. In the next game, however, VU forgets what it did to become successful. Retaining knowledge -- continuously applying wisdom -- is in many ways the primary secret of the competitive arts which is eluding the Commodores at the moment. Thursday's game against Texas A&M, quickly followed by a Saturday turnaround game against South Carolina, gives Vanderbilt a chance to show if it has grown from the bad loss to Missouri.
A postseason bid -- if attained -- would be great, but at this point, the foremost goal of the season is simply to give next season's players the secure knowledge that they know how to carry themselves in ways that they can carry one good performance into the next contest a few nights later. If these Dores truly arrive at a point of understanding which informs their ability to develop a positive consistency, the program will have established a foundation it can build on under its first-year coach.
Programs in transition -- if they can merely derive that element of progress from a coach's first season -- can be hopeful about the future.
TEXAS A&M OVERVIEW
The Aggies, since we last checked in on them a few weeks ago (before VU's convincing win in College Station), have beaten LSU and Missouri while losing to Florida. One doesn't learn much from a team against LSU or Mizzou to begin with, but since the Florida game happens to be the most recent of the team's three games (this past Saturday), it's that much easier to focus only on that contest as a measurement of where the Aggies stand right now.
Texas A&M defended Florida extremely well and put forth a strong effort in Gainesville. The Aggies held the Gators under 40 percent from the field and under 30 percent from the three-point line, a statistic which should get Vanderbilt's attention. Keep in mind that Florida's John Egbunu played 32 minutes -- he had not yet been knocked out for the season with an injury. A&M competed at a high level; Billy Kennedy got his players to play hard, even in the latter stages of a campaign which has so clearly gone down the tubes. That says something important about the integrity of a program, even in a lost season, which occurs at most places (not at Kansas under Bill Self, but almost everywhere else).
This A&M team won't make the NCAA Tournament, but it showed on Saturday that it can still play on par with a top-tier program in the league (on the road).
Yes, it's true that Vanderbilt -- after losing by 20 to Missouri -- has no reason to be overconfident against any opponent ever again. Just in case, though, A&M's disappointing season should not be a factor for the Dores. Last Saturday's strong showing at Florida should make VU vigilant, despite its relatively uncomplicated win in College Station a few weeks ago.
Let's quickly get a snapshot of each A&M starter:
Robert Williams entered the previous VU-A&M game without a steady string of statistically dominant performances, but analysts have taken notice of his upside and potential. That raw ability was on display against Florida: 18 points, 12 boards, 4 blocked shots, 3 steals, Williams was a monster.
It is worth noting that in the Missouri game, the Tigers' hottest player coming into the contest -- Jordan Barnett -- was by far the man who torched Vanderbilt more than anyone else. VU couldn't stop the hot player this past Saturday. Let's see if the Dores can clamp down on A&M's most in-form athlete on Thursday.
Tonny Trocha-Morelos will never be a frontline scorer for this team, someone who must carry that portion of the team's workload. He must be more of a factor on the glass and in other "hustle-board" stats. He collected only four rebounds versus Florida, with no steals or blocked shots. If his imprint on this game is similarly minimal, VU will be in great shape.
J.C. Hampton didn't register any noteworthy offensive statistics against Florida, but he did play strong perimeter defense. Vanderbilt's foremost concern against Hampton is to withstand his on-ball pressure and produce a low turnover count against the Aggies. A&M can't be allowed the cheap baskets which thwart momentum and enable yet another Memorial Gym visitor to feel far more comfortable than it should.
Tyler Davis should be shooting more than 10 times a game, much as former Vanderbilt big man Damian Jones often didn't get the number of touches and shot opportunities he should have gained under Kevin Stallings. He put up 10 shots against Florida, much as he attempted 10 shots in another showcase game for the Aggies against West Virginia. Davis hit at least 50 percent of his shots in both games, but again, he needs to be fed the ball more often. If opponents double-team him, he needs to pass the ball back to the perimeter to reset a possession, after which he can get the ball in a better position to operate one-on-one.
Admon Gilder continues to be a modest shooter-scorer, an offensive player who is anything but imposing. He was 4 of 13 from the field against Florida. It is hard to be worried about his influence at that end of the floor. However, Gilder collected five steals against Florida. The ball pressure of Hampton and the tenacity of Gilder should serve as ample warning to the VU backcourt when it tries to settle into halfcourt sets.
1) Turnovers. A&M racked up 11 steals against Florida -- those are live-ball turnovers which can lead to transition buckets. Vanderbilt held the Aggies to 54 points in College Station. Live-ball turnovers and easy baskets give A&M its best chance of winning this game. If VU protects the ball on the perimeter, A&M will have to beat Vanderbilt's defense in halfcourt situations.
2) Defend without fouling, at least in the first half. A&M attempted just 11 free throws against Florida. The Gators ensured that a struggling offense didn't get a lifeline. If VU stays out of foul trouble in the first half, it can be more aggressive in the second half if it needs to prevent Tyler Davis or Robert Williams from going wild in the low post. Vanderbilt clamped down on the Aggies in College Station, so both game keys are focused on the need to make sure A&M's offense (you know Kennedy will stress the need for improvement at that end of the floor...) doesn't enjoy a breakout performance.