December 18, 2011
Rebuilding Tennessee has dropped six of seven games. Four-loss Memphis hasn't lived up to preseason expectations. Mid-major darling Belmont appears to have regressed despite returning the core of last year's 30-win team.
Yes, it's been a rough start to the college basketball season in Tennessee, especially since none of those three are actually the Volunteer state's most disappointing team.
That honor undeniably goes to Vanderbilt, which checked in at No. 7 in both preseason polls but will surely fall out of the Top 25 on Monday after Saturday's 61-55 home loss to Indiana State. The Commodores squandered an eight-point lead in the final 6:32 against the Sycamores as a result of going scoreless for five minutes, lowering their record to a pedestrian 6-4 this season.
If the argument on Vanderbilt's behalf following previous losses to Xavier, Louisville and Cleveland State had been that center Festus Ezeli was injured, that excuse can't be made for Saturday's game. Ezeli played 22 minutes, though he tallied just four points and four rebounds and appears to still be working his way back into shape two games into his return from a knee injury.
What really cost Vanderbilt on Saturday were recurring issues that do not appear to have been fixed from last year. Despite a senior-heavy lineup that includes pro prospects Jeff Taylor, John Jenkins and Ezeli, the Commodores still struggle to close out close games, still can't defend the perimeter and still turn the ball over at an alarming rate.
One of Kevin Stallings' explanations for Saturday's loss was that Vanderbilt had endured a disjointed week of practice as a result of final exams. It's understandable that would have an impact on the Commodores, yet it's also an annual problem every college basketball team endures.
None of Vanderbilt's losses are unforgivable — Xavier and Louisville are undefeated, Cleveland State is a contender in the Horizon League and Indiana State is a threat to win the Missouri Valley Conference. Nonetheless, a team that began the season with Final Four and SEC title aspirations hasn't played like they belong in either of those conversations.