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February 20, 2007As metaphors go, this is about as good as it gets.
The bizarre incident -- and really, that's about all you could accurately call it -- between Vanderbilt head coach Kevin Stallings and Florida forward Joakim Noah has been the talk of the sports world. From local talk radio, to VandySports.com, to ESPN's Pardon the Interruption, Stallings' "I'll give you the ball when I'm good and ready to give it to you" scene has almost stolen the headlines from what has been the biggest upset of the SEC season thus far.
Though the little morality play clearly wasn't planned, in retrospect it perfectly demonstrated the character of two teams that arrived at the same destination from opposite sides of the NCAA tracks.
Florida, of course, is the defending national champ. On a 17-game winning streak, and on the verge of streaking through the SEC schedule undefeated, the Gators' brash style has been on proud display for most of coach Billy Donovan's time in Gainesville. Whether Donovan's teams have oodles of talent, or are just competitive, his teams always do most of the talking.
Matt Walsh never seemed to miss a chance to show and tell you how great he thought he was -- and drew great ire from the Vanderbilt student section whenever he came to town. The last time Walsh played here, he flipped off the student section near the end of Vandy's upset of the Gators.
Anthony Roberson, certainly one of the most talented players in the SEC two years ago, often felt there was in fact an "I" in TEAM. If you didn't think he was the best thing since sliced bread, have no fear: he'd be ready to tell you.
Nashville native Corey Brewer is arguably the best wing defender in the SEC. But he has never seemed to have a foul called on him that he agreed with. Brewer isn't just brash, he's worse: he's a whiner. (He can bring it on the court, though.)
Noah takes talking to a whole new level. Saturday's "incident" may have been bizarre, but was not all that unusual for anyone who has followed this most unique athlete on this most unique team.
One parent of a current Vandy basketball player told me recently that Florida has the reputation as the league's most physical -- and, dare I say it, dirtiest -- team. Elbows fly early and often when the Gators come to town, and especially when the officials aren't looking.
Right or wrong, most believe SEC officials give the benefit of any doubt to the league's glamor teams. If you are going to beat the Gators, you'd better come prepared take it -- and dish it out.
Vanderbilt received two bench technicals in the first game between these two teams. Word from those sitting around the Vandy bench is that they came after a Florida player verbally taunted the VU coaches from the court. There's an unwritten rule in athletics: Players never address the opposing coach. But these rules simply don't apply to the Gator hoops team.
Put simply, Donovan's teams play like they are entitled. To official's favorable calls. To winning. To titles. And yes, to the basketball--whenever and wherever they may demand it.
Florida can afford to carry themselves this way because they are the singularly most talented college hoops program on the planet. If you watched the Gators at Memorial Saturday, you were essentially watching an NBA franchise in college clothing. And whether you are a UF fan or not, they are fun group to watch. They play the game with aggression, energy, and passion.
Those last three words have also been used to describe one Kevin Stallings. But Stallings hardly came into Saturday's game with anything resembling Florida's gaudy success.
Kevin, we have a problem
When Stallings arrived at Vanderbilt, he was the darling of the mid-major coaching world. Thought to be too hot for Vanderbilt to handle, then VU athletics director Todd Turner admitted he never even bothered to enquire as to Stallings' potential interest in coaching the Commodores. It took an unofficial call from a Stallings representative to Turner to get things rolling.
If Stallings came to Nashville with visions of hoops grandeur, he surely hadn't reached them. After being snubbed by the NCAA tournament selection committee in his first season, Stallings has struggled to keep his head above water since.
Over his first seven years in Nashville, Stallings had the worst SEC won-loss record of any Vandy men's basketball coach in two decades. He has been to the Big Dance just once, when SEC Player of the Year Matt Frieje put the team on his back and took them to the Sweet 16.
Last year was supposed to be the year for Stallings. Stocked with two four-year senior starters, with tons of young talent and a promising new transfer, things went into the toilet long before fans had realized.
Without rehashing the past, suffice it to say last year was at best the most forgettable season in Stallings' entire coaching career. An embarrassing first round NIT loss to Notre Dame was as much a mercy killing as anything.
Heading into this season, Stallings was clearly the SEC coach on the proverbial hot seat. After seeing rising junior starter DeMarre Carroll and redshirt center Kyle Madsen transfer, and seniors Julian Terrell and Mario Moore graduate, Stallings' eighth season in Nashville appeared to be heading toward an ugly end.
The SEC returned two teams that made the Final Four, and at least seven others that were expected to be better than last year. Stallings, it appeared to almost anyone with a lick of hoops sense, was heading into a gun fight with a water pistol.
On top of that, Stallings was the prime benefactor of Vanderbilt's new commitment to athletics. After renegotiating his contract a year earlier, Stallings found himself making more in one year -- reportedly $1.3 million -- than former national Coach of the Year Eddie Fogler made during his entire Vanderbilt coaching career. After dumping $23 million into Memorial Gym renovations, many Vandy fans began to feel that perhaps Stallings was wearing out his welcome on West End.
Vanderbilt started the season looking all the world like the SEC's patsy. The team looked earnest, but woefully outmatched. A surprising upset of Georgia Tech did little to calm the emotions of fans that sat through Vandy's embarrassing loss to Furman -- coached by none other than Stallings' former recruiting coach, Jeff Jackson.
Stallings said in preseason that he thought this would be his best rebounding team ever. By the end of the pre-conference season, the results said otherwise.
Heading into the SEC schedule, Vanderbilt was at or near the bottom of the league in almost every statistical category. And, its RPI was below 200--hardly the kind of resume-builder a coach on the hot seat wants.
This was one bad basketball team.
Many in the media were secretly wondering if this team could go winless in the SEC this year. And if so, there was at least a good chance Vandy would be going through its first basketball coaching search in nearly a decade.
What a turnaround
But a funny thing happened on the way to the gallows. Vanderbilt, almost overnight, looked strikingly like a team that belonged in the SEC. Stallings, just as Bruce Pearl did last year at Tennessee, took his basket of lemons and made a mighty tasty pitcher of lemonade. Pearl fascinated the hoops world by successfully moving Dane Bradshaw to power forward; Stallings did the same thing with former role player Dan Cage.
Incredibly, the result was almost identical.
In his first seven years at VU, Stallings' teams consistently struggled to string together enough wins to get on a roll. But over a four week span--just weeks after losing to Furman and Appalachian State--Vandy beat five nationally ranked teams. One of those wins was a decisive 72-67 victory against Kentucky in Rupp Arena.
In December, you could walk into Memorial Gym and sit on the front row, and still have room to stretch out. Saturday, Vanderbilt's students lined up at the front doors two hours before tip off, and nearly 15,000 fans -- and a live nationwide television audience -- watched the Commodores dominate the No. 1 ranked team in the nation.
Six weeks ago -- yes, six weeks ago -- Vanderbilt wasn't even an NIT contender. On Saturday, incredibly, they punched their ticket for the Big Dance. Many feel Vandy is the second best team in the SEC, which is currently rated by the RPI as the toughest conference in the land.
But there is still no mistaking the obvious. If you lined up Florida's and Vanderbilt's players and picked sides, there's little doubt that most of Florida's players would be early picks. There certainly is no "I" in this Vanderbilt team. Furman took that vowel out of their vocabulary last fall.
Instead, this is a Vanderbilt team that has won the old fashioned way: they earned it. After Saturday's game, Stallings addressed the obvious. "Everybody that played for us had to play well or we wouldn't have won."
Derrick Byars echoed his coach's words. "To play Florida, you can't slack in any area. You have to be not perfect, but you have to be virtually perfect. You have to play as good as you've played all season.
"We got a lift from the bench, and that's what it's about: Everybody stepping up and being accountable for what their role is, and that's what happened out there tonight."
Shan Foster followed suit. "We talked a lot this week that a lot of people don't even get the opportunity to play a No. 1 team in the country. We had the opportunity to play them and we seized the moment. It was a total team effort. Everybody went out there and gave their all and contributed as they have all season."
They know the drill. But this is no drill. This is for real. This team can't afford to buy that vowel. And after Furman, after Appy State, after Auburn... they know it.
Let's say it now: Stallings deserves his due. This is hardly the most talented team in the SEC, but you'd be hard pressed to discover a better coached team anywhere, at any level. Stallings should win SEC Coach of the Year, and he deserves mention for similar national honors.
So cut to "The Incident."
This basketball -- the figurative one -- didn't just fall into Stallings' hands. He is not Donovan. He didn't have a national title to motivate his team. He has no Al Horfords, no Joakim Noahs. He has had to scrape, crawl, scratch and claw his way through the season one game -- heck, one practice -- at a time.
Of course, you can't blame Noah for being Noah. He wanted the ball. He demanded the ball. If you wouldn't give him the ball, well, he darned well was going to take it from you. That's why he's one of the most competitive players in the nation. That's the "entitlement" attitude that has made Florida what they are.
But when Stallings' team had No. 1 ranked Florida on the ropes, and his team was getting ready to deliver the knock-out blow--considering where he's been, and what he's seen and heard this season, and what his team was about to accomplish, with the whole world watching--perhaps now we should understand why Stallings wasn't about to give it up.
At least not without one heck of a fight.