KNOXVILLE -- The coach of the best basketball team in the Southeastern Conference could finally smile late Wednesday night.
"This was a fun one to win," said Vanderbilt's Kevin Stallings after the Commodores' 85-76 road victory over Tennessee. "But this league is so tough. We get finished with this one and now we've got to play that one (at Kentucky)."
Stallings is right that a 5-0 SEC record (16-3 overall) does not guarantee an NCAA bid. Kentucky started 5-0 in league play a year ago and wound up in the NIT. But the Commodores aren't coached by Billy Gillispie, either.
Now in his 11th season, Stallings has already guided Vandy to three NCAA appearances in the last six seasons, including two Sweet 16 appearances.
Yet before anyone says this season can't top those runs, consider the words of senior point guard Jermaine Beal, who led VU with 25 points without committing a turnover in 38 minutes, then said, "This is the best team I've been on here."
Better than the team that was cheated out of an Elite Eight appearance in March of 2007 when the referees failed to call a travel against Georgetown in a regional semifinal game?
"Yes," he said, "because we have a deeper bench."
Tennessee may be in deep trouble. After stunning the college hoops world by knocking off then-No. 1 Kansas with just six scholarship players, then following that with three straight SEC wins with those same half-dozen heroes, the Vols have now dropped two straight league games.
Those losses may be for no other reason than the quality of competition improved by playing at Georgia and at home against the No. 21 Commodores. There is also senior post player Wayne Chism's tender knee to consider.
"He just didn't seem himself," said Commodore post player A.J. Ogilvy, who finished with 12 points and five rebounds.
But one must also wonder if UT coach Bruce Pearl lifting the suspensions on wing Cameron Tatum and Melvin Goins last week hasn't also been a factor. These Vols don't look quite as cohesive and passionate as when Tatum, Goins, Brian Williams (still suspended) and Tyler Smith (dismissed) were all off the team for getting pulled over in a car containing drugs, guns and alcohol.
Without those four, UT played with a sense of camaraderie and hustle not seen inside Thompson-Boling Arena since Pearl's first two years on the job. Everybody was one, us against the world.
Against both Georgia and Vanderbilt the Vols looked much more like the dysfunctional bunch that got blown out at Southern Cal before the suspensions.
Coincidence? Maybe. Or maybe not.
What is clear is that Vanderbilt, and not No. 1 Kentucky, may be the toast of the SEC, regardless of what happens on Saturday inside UK's Rupp Arena.
For proof, just look to both program's games at South Carolina. Vanderbilt won 89-79. Kentucky lost 68-62 at USC on Tuesday night.
"Everybody says Vandy is just a good home team," said Beal. "We want to prove those people wrong. This win and South Carolina prove we can win on the road."
According to Pearl, Beal is the biggest reason for the Commodores becoming road warriors.
"Beal was special," said Pearl. "Everybody talks about A.J. Ogilvy, but in my mind Beal has always been the guy that has made the team go. Tonight he was dominant, he was focused."
Against the Vols, the entire Vanderbilt roster appeared dominant and focused, what with five players finishing in double-figures and a sixth scoring nine. But then that's what the SEC's last unbeaten team should look like after its third conference road victory.
As for the Vols, their senior point guard Bobby Maze said it best when he noted, "Everybody's happy when you're winning. Now we'll see what kind of character we have."
Especially now that half their four characters have returned to the team.
E-mail Mark Wiedmer at email@example.com