November 13, 2011
Vanderbilt will no longer be the nation's most criticized top 10 team when the new polls are released Monday.
Unfortunately for the Commodores, that's not because they've silenced the skeptics but rather because they're likely to tumble down the rankings.
A humbling 71-58 home loss to Cleveland State drops Vanderbilt's record to 1-1 and fuels the perception that the Commodores' preseason No. 7 ranking was far too high for a team that lost in the first round of the NCAA tournament last March. Granted Vanderbilt was playing without suspended center Festus Ezeli, but a lack of low-post presence in his absence wasn't the primary reason the Commodores lost.
They turned the ball over 22 times. They shot a mere 36 percent including 4-of-17 from three-point range. And despite plenty of preseason chatter about an increased emphasis on staying in front of opposing guards, they continued to look allergic to perimeter defense, surrendering a combined 39 points to Cleveland State's three top backcourt players.
The good news for Vanderbilt is that this loss won't mean a whole lot assuming it turns out to be an aberration and not the start of a trend. Not only do the Commodores have ample opportunities left on their schedule to register marquee non-conference wins, the NCAA tournament selection committee will also take into account that whatever Vanderbilt does in its first six games came without Ezeli.
What will be challenging for Vanderbilt is that the pressure to live up to its preseason hype will increase with every early-season loss. Cleveland State is a quality Horizon League team expected to contend with Butler and Detroit for the conference title, but the Vikings should not be able to lead senior-heavy Vanderbilt from start-to-finish anywhere — let alone on the Commodores' own floor.
The team that will be rooting hardest for Vanderbilt the rest of the season should be Cleveland State, which greatly needs this victory to be a resume-booster in March should the Vikings require an at-large bid. Not only is Vanderbilt the only preseason top 25 opponent on Cleveland State's schedule, the best non-conference opponents the Vikings will play besides the Commodores appear to be above average Atlantic 10 foes St. Bonaventure and Rhode Island.
The question about Cleveland State entering the season was how would it respond to the graduation of star guard Norris Cole. With four starters back and guard D'Aundray Brown returning after missing all of last season due to injury, it looks like the Vikings won't miss Cole as much as many thought.