NASHVILLE — Vanderbilt’s plane touched down Tuesday in Albuquerque, N.M., as the men’s basketball team began to give its full attention to NCAA tournament opponent Harvard.
The question is whether Vanderbilt’s feet have ever touched down since experiencing the euphoria of a 71-64 upset of No. 1 Kentucky on Sunday in the SEC tournament final.
Coming back to earth after that kind of win can be a challenge. But the fifth-seeded Commodores know they can’t still be in celebration mode when a disciplined foe is seeking to make Vanderbilt an opening-game tournament upset victim for the fourth time in five years.
“We had a long talk about the need to do just that — the need to refocus our energy and refocus our minds,” coach Kevin Stallings said Tuesday. “We were off yesterday so we just got finished practicing this morning. They’ve had a good focus about them. They weren’t hung over from Sunday, I don’t think.”
Tipoff is at about 4:40 p.m. EDT Thursday in “The Pit” on New Mexico’s campus.
“For me personally, it hasn’t been hard at all [to refocus]. That was then and this is now,” junior guard John Jenkins said. “I think we are just so poised right now, on the court and off the court.”
Stallings wanted his team to enjoy Sunday for what is was: a banner day for a program that had only one previous SEC tournament title. Stallings also wants the confidence from Sunday to carry over.
But he doesn’t want any carry-over of the emotional inconsistencies that plagued some of his players throughout this season and past NCAA tournaments. The 13th-year Vanderbilt coach even referenced a Forrest Gump line Sunday night, comparing this squad to a box of chocolates.
“You never know what you’re going to get,” he said. “A coach is supposed to be able to fix everything, apparently. That’s what I hear. But trust me, Dr. Phil couldn’t do it. Freud couldn’t have done it.
“But when things come together, we’re capable of being a good team.”
To be a good NCAA tournament team, the Commodores will need to clean up some of their bugaboos from a 2010 loss to No. 13 seed Murray State and a 2011 loss to 12th-seeded Richmond.
That starts with making free throws.
In 2010, Vanderbilt left 12 points at the foul line (17 of 29) while losing to the Racers 66-65 on a buzzer-beater by Danero Thomas. In a 69-66 loss to Richmond last year, Festus Ezeli and Lance Goulboune accounted for nine missed free throws as Vanderbilt shot 14 of 23.
This season the Commodores are shooting 69.8 percent at the line. Jeffery Taylor (61.4) and Ezeli (59.8), who rank first and third in free-throw attempts, are converting at lower rate.
“We are going to work on it this week,” Goulbourne said. “Shoot a lot of free throws, shoot a lot of shots and get everything right.
“It is a probably a mental thing. We’re all good shooters. You just have to trick your mind to forget about all that stuff and make the shots.”
Vanderbilt has to be encouraged about another past problem: perimeter defense. While quick guards have given the Commodores some trouble off the dribble, Stallings’ team is defending the 3-point arc well. SEC tournament opponents Georgia, Ole Miss and Kentucky combined at 11-of-53 (20.8 percent) on 3-pointers.
Vanderbilt’s 3-point defense was forgettable last year, too, as Richmond made 12 of 24.
“That has a lot to do with our defensive intensity, which I think has picked up,” Goulbourne said. “Last year we had a little slippage. But, like I said, it is a new year. So we’re looking forward to it.”
Vanderbilt (24-10) can’t look beyond 12th-seeded Harvard (26-4), but its East Region path got easier Tuesday when No. 1 seed Syracuse announced it wouldn’t have 7-foot center Fab Melo — the leading rebounder on a team that doesn’t rebound that well — in the tournament because of an eligibility issue.
With two wins in Albuquerque, the Commodores could meet Syracuse in the Sweet 16 in Boston.
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