ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. – In the world of college basketball, where being 22 is considered ancient, Vanderbilt is stockpiled with AARP members.
The Commodores start – hold onto your Poligrip – four seniors and a junior, in stark contrast to Kentucky, the tournament's No. 1 overall seed, which has just two seniors on its roster and is led by 18- and 19-year-old freshmen.
Kentucky coach John Calipari has no problem recruiting a player he knows is NBA-bound after only one year of college ball because one year is all it takes to be a championship contender. Calipari proved it with Derrick Rose in 2008, with John Wall in 2010, with Brandon Knight last season, and is doing it now with Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist.
Conversely, in a time when raw talent is all the rage, Vanderbilt proves that experience still counts for something.
"A lot of teams are running with the Kentucky model, where players kind of come and go, but we wanted to leave a mark on our program, leave something behind," senior forward Jeffrey Taylor said. "Our first three years here, we won a lot of games but we hadn't really left any kind of legacy, and that was our goal at the start of the season. I think we're getting ready to do that now."
Step one was avoiding elimination in their opening round of the NCAA tournament, a fate that had befallen them each of the past two seasons. Last season, it was losing to 12th-seeded Richmond; in 2010, there was a loss to 13th-seeded Murray State. And in 2008, Vandy lost to 13th-seeded Siena in its first game.
Facing a dangerous Harvard team playing in its first NCAA tournament since 1946, Vanderbilt proved two things Thursday: Taylor, Festus Ezeli (a fifth-year senior) and John Jenkins (a junior) are a stout inside-outside triad; and experience, when needed, is a valuable asset.
Jenkins and Taylor combined for 42 points, while Ezeli snagged a game-high 11 rebounds, including three consecutive offensive boards in a furious second-half sequence that helped stem a Harvard run.
Only the deadly shooting of Harvard's Laurent Rivard (6 of 7 from 3-point land) kept things close in an eventual 79-70 Vanderbilt victory. The Commodores play fourth-seeded Wisconsin on Saturday.
"They're an experienced team," Harvard coach Tommy Amaker said of the Commodores. "They handled the ball well. They inbounded where they needed to get to. They made their foul shots. They're an outstanding ballclub, and as I said, I think a team that's built to make a strong, deep run in this tournament."
That wouldn't come as a surprise, even with Vandy being a five seed.
Jenkins (19.9 ppg) has led the SEC in scoring in each of the past two seasons. Taylor (16.4 ppg) was second this season. In Ezeli, the Commodores have an inside presence who Thursday rebounded like a post-Brad Pitt Jennifer Aniston.
They haven't always been this good, but they are now – three, four and five years into their tenure in Nashville. When asked if he'd take experience over raw talent, Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings said it depends on the level of the raw talent.
"If it's better than the age and experience, I'd rather have the youth and talent," he explained. "But in our particular case, we've got some young, talented guys, but our older guys are better. So they've grown up with the program. They have built our program to a level that Vanderbilt's not accustomed to."
Built – it's a word used with far less frequency in these days of immediate gratification. It's a word the one-and-doners aren't interested in, which is OK. Not many players would turn down a million-dollar paycheck sooner than later.
But there is satisfaction in being a part of a journey, in watching one, too, and in building a relationship with the college you play for and the players for whom you root. Butler gave that to the tournament in the past two seasons. Now it's Vanderbilt turn.
"We just made the decision in time to stay in school – a Vanderbilt education is nothing to take lightly and just the fact we enjoy these four years," Taylor said. "You know, when you leave, it's a different world. When you become a professional basketball player, people aren't treating you like they treat you in college; it becomes more of a business.
"You know, we just want to stay in school and enjoy each other and enjoy the time we have."
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