SAN JOSE, Calif. (AP)—Before Murray State coach Billy Kennedy could really start talking basketball, he had an important injury update: Starting guard B.J. Jenkins is just fine after slicing his finger while cutting down the net following the Ohio Valley Conference tournament.
That’s no joke.
“I hope he’s all right,” Vanderbilt star Jermaine Beal said, shaking his head and unable to avoid a chuckle.
Kennedy knows he’s going to need every one of his players at full strength for Thursday’s NCAA tournament opener against Beal and his fourth-seeded Commodores. Jenkins required staples to close the scissors wound on his non-shooting left hand but is now 100 percent.
“I think he was embarrassed. He hid it,” Kennedy said. “I didn’t know about it until the next day, but it was a pretty good gash. I wasn’t aware it was as bad as it was in the hype of winning the tournament.”
Not everybody thinks this will be a walkover for the Commodores (24-8, 12-4 SEC).
President Barack Obama is among those picking the 13th-seeded Racers to pull off a first-round upset in the West Regional, even if they haven’t won an NCAA game since 1988 and are 1-13 all-time. Kennedy figures Obama probably got a few more votes from the folks in Murray, Ky., than from those in Republican-strong Nashville.
Vandy’s 12 victories in the Southeastern Conference were its most in league play since 14 in 1992-93. And it also was the best showing for 11th-year coach Kevin Stallings.
“Out of respect for the position of the president of the United States, I won’t comment on his predictions,” Stallings said, somewhat good-naturedly.
Murray State’s players are here with heavy hearts. The mother of reserve guard Picasso Simmons was killed in a car crash Monday, a day before the team flew West to California.
Simmons still accompanied the team for its first NCAA berth since 2006, but Kennedy said the walk-on junior guard would not speak about his mom’s death.
“He’s here and he doesn’t want it to be about him and his situation,” said Kennedy, whose team hasn’t played since beating Morehead State for the conference tournament crown March 6.
Not only is Vanderbilt making its third NCAA appearance in four years, the Commodores like coming to California. They are 2-0 in the state—and it was a couple of hours northeast in Sacramento where they reached the ’07 regional with a thrilling 78-74, double-overtime win over Washington State in the second round.
Beal and Co. also have something to prove. Two years ago, Vanderbilt also earned a No. 4 seed and was stunned by 13th-seeded Siena—and in an 83-62 rout no less.
Beal doesn’t care about those who are predicting an upset, even the president himself.
“Last time we came out West we won some games. Hopefully we can do it again this year,” he said. “It’s fine. Those people who say that, it’s their job. We don’t really pay too much attention to it. So we listen to it, say ‘OK,’ and we do everything we got to do.”
Murray State doesn’t have one player to focus on, with nobody averaging more than 10.6 points. Four starters score just more than 10 per game while the fifth is at 9.5.
The Racers’ margin of victory this season was 17 points. They have won four straight coming in and Murray State became the first team in conference history to win 30 games. That included 23 in a row, missing the league’s longest winning streak by two.
The Racers also won 13 games by 20 or more points against Division I opponents.
This marks the school’s 14th NCAA tournament appearance. Last time, the Racers nearly shocked North Carolina in a 69-65 first-round loss in ’06.
“We take it as motivation, hopefully this is our year to do that, to get past that,” center Tony Easley said. “We’ve had a blessed season, knocked off a lot of records at our school and this is one more we want to add on to it.”
Vanderbilt will have to reckon with the 6-foot-9 Easley in the paint.
The senior center broke the school single-season record for blocks and has 93 going into the game. He needs four to become the school’s all-time leader. Easley also has 900 career points and is one rebound shy of 600.
“We actually kind of feel like the underdog,” Stallings said, “because you have all of the experts saying that we’re going to lose.”