As evidenced by their stellar showings in open conference play in 2012, Tennessee and Vanderbilt are seizing the opportunity to declare a fresh start for their respective men’s basketball programs as they put the dreary rear view of 2011 officially behind them.
And why not? The first year of the new decade marked a period of humbling lows for the in-state SEC rivals.
The ticking time bomb that was Bruce Pearl’s NCAA entrapment was allowed to mire the Vols’ season, ending with a 30-point thud against an improving Michigan team in the first round (now officially known as the Second Round thanks to the “First Four” play-in games) of the NCAA Tournament.
Once it became clear from the NCAA investigators following the season that retaining Pearl would mean enough sanctions to make UT regret they hadn’t, administrators reluctantly canned him. The Vols lost most of their core roster, headlined by Scotty Hopson, to graduation as well as stud freshman Tobias Harris to the NBA Draft.
Enter a solid but unspectacular successor in Missouri State coach Cuonzo Martin, the most lackluster recruiting stretch since the outset of the Pearl era and a stumbling .500 non-conference record with no notable wins prior to their home upset Saturday over No. 13 Florida.
Meanwhile, a rising Vanderbilt program kept banging its head on a glass ceiling of Black-and-Gold design, with perhaps the most heralded signing class in program history clearly chafing with discomfort any time they were surrounded by positive hype.
Despite wins over elite programs like North Carolina and Kentucky, the Commodores built a frustrating habit of jumping out to big leads only to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory with second-half collapses on both ends of the court.
Tennessee was the beneficiary of the "Dores" second-half softness twice last season, Florida thrice, along with notable road meltdowns at Missouri, South Carolina and Kentucky for good measure.
So far this season, the same bug has bitten the Commodores in collapses against Xavier, Louisville and Indiana State. All in all, 2012 adds up to a last stand for a talented but underachieving senior class that has zero NCAA wins on its résumé and has tallied a historic amount of consecutive Big Dance losses for a top seed facing double-digit seeds.
Hot on the heels of a 17-point surprise win at Marquette and a 30-point drubbing of Auburn to kick off SEC play Saturday, there may still be reason for optimism regarding Vandy’s preseason top-10 ranking.
So after years of correlated hardwood ascendancy in the Volunteer State, 2011 was a disappointment across the board.
Memphis won its first Conference USA tournament under yuppie upstart Josh Pastner before bowing out in the NCAA second round to Pastner’s alma mater, Arizona, but that result is still a far cry for the Tigers fan base from the recent, relatively stratospheric glory of John Calipari’s regime.
Even mid-major darling Belmont, fresh off a record 30-4 regular season, couldn’t muster any Music City magic to live up to their “trendy upset” billing against No. 4 seed Wisconsin, leaving them still winless in NCAA openers.
How long will it be before another mid-major makes the Final Four?
It may not surprise you, then, to learn that the most successful Tennessean on the 2011 college hoops scene came not from these squads, but from the most improbable of scenarios.
Virginia Commonwealth assistant coach Will Wade, a 2001 graduate of Nashville’s Franklin Road Academy, helped spearhead one of the greatest Cinderella stories in NCAA Tournament history, making the Rams one of only three modern era mid-major teams to reach the Final Four.
“Will Wade is not only one of the top young assistant coaches in college basketball,” Hunter College (NY) head coach Shay Berry said, “he is a 'do-it-all utility guy' that will be a head coach sooner than later.”
If not for Butler’s back-to-back National Championship Game appearances, VCU would have surely attained unprecedented upset status in the annals of March Madness lore. In any other year, they never would have made the tournament.
As perhaps the most controversial pick (23-11 record as Colonial Conference runner-up entering the Dance) to join the inaugural bracket of tournament “play-in games” in Dayton, Ohio, VCU not only made it out of the first round over Southern Cal, but fired on all cylinders as they barreled through a murderer’s row of Georgetown, Purdue, Florida State and finally, tourney favorite Kansas to become the first team to go all the way from the First Four to the Final Four.
Even more notable was the jarring style in which they dispatched their post-First Four opponents: VCU beat Georgetown and Purdue by 18 points apiece to reach the Sweet 16.
“If it wasn’t for Will Wade, VCU would not be where they are now,” Berry said. “More specifically, if it wasn’t for Will Wade’s experience at Harvard defending the Princeton offense, VCU would not have been able to beat Georgetown.”
In terms of attributable success in the calendar year overall, Wade also deserves belated dividends for his work prior to joining VCU as Harvard’s recruiting coordinator under Tommy Amaker. Berry, a former Dartmouth assistant who recruited many of the same prospects that fit the Ivy League profile, witnessed Wade assemble arguably the best class in Harvard history at age 25. The Crimson’s 2008-09 haul in Wade’s first year was ranked as one of the top 25 classes in the country according to ESPN.com.
Even after Wade departed as VCU head coach Shaka Smart’s first hire, the foundation he set at Harvard flourished. Harvard set school records for total and conference wins each of the last two seasons, led by a core of Wade-recruited players.
In that span, they also reached the postseason both years (CollegeInsider.com Tournament in 2010 and the NIT in 2011), falling short of league champion Princeton, and an accompanying NCAA Tournament automatic bid, by one game last season.
“Will Wade played a big part in the building Harvard's 23-7 record and share of their first Ivy League title,” Berry said.
Wade started his coaching career the old-fashioned way: from the ground up. Despite not lettering for FRA’s basketball team in high school, he worked several basketball camps during his summers home from college, including a girls’ camp at Vanderbilt.
“I still follow Vandy as that is where my mom went,” Wade said. “Coach Stallings and staff do a tremendous job and I thought they had another great season.”
Early on as an undergrad at Clemson, he joined Oliver Purnell’s program as a student manager before being named a graduate assistant on staff in 2005-06. After a season in that capacity, he was promoted to Director of Basketball Operations in 2006-07.
It was during this time, where his duties largely revolved around monitoring student-athletes’ academic progress, when he bonded with Smart and foreshadowed a strong working relationship at VCU.
“There’s that saying, ‘don’t work harder, work smarter.’ Well, Will works harder and smarter,” Smart said. “He struck me as the hardest working guy I knew. His attention to detail is second to none, and he’s really good at developing relationships. I knew that Will was someone we had to have on staff here.”
“We hit it off,” Wade said. “We were both very involved with our players, so our paths just crossed a lot. We have a lot of the same core beliefs and many of the same ways of doing things.
“We wanted to be a pressing team that put a ton of pressure on teams for 94 feet on both ends.”
They were just that from the get-go at VCU. After just falling short of the Colonial Conference tournament title, the Rams handled four straight opponents to win the College Basketball Invitational postseason tournament to cap the 2009-10 season.
Despite wins over UCLA and Wake Forest in the 2010-11 season, most national basketball analysts cried foul when VCU was let in to the NCAA field of 68 over more visible “Big Six” conference teams. VCU had fallen short of its conference tournament title for the second straight year and many felt the NIT would have been a generous postseason invitation for the Rams.
The rest, as they say, is history. Cross-town rival Richmond also reached the Sweet 16, so the local atmosphere was as contagious as ever this past March.
“Our campus at VCU is extremely fired up as this is the first time in school history we have made the Sweet 16 (and beyond),” Wade said. “Without football at VCU, basketball is our big sport so this means the world to a lot of our alumni.
“Both schools could not be more different. We are an urban campus and state school while they are tucked away in the west end and a small private institution. The city is very excited about both teams as each school has a ton of alumni in the general area.”
While VCU ultimately fell short of Butler in their Final Four battle of the Cinderellas, they won just as many games (five) in the tourney thanks to their play-in win, good enough credentials to equate as the unofficial bronze medalist of the 2011 Dance.
“It’s something I will remember forever,” Wade said. “Our players have really bought in and are playing at a high level."
“We have great chemistry and really share the ball on offense. Our improved defense has helped us the most as we have guarded the ball better and kept things even on the boards.”
Long past midnight now, VCU’s Cinderella glory has faded back into the relative malaise of the regular season. Currently sitting at 11-5, Smart, Wade & Co. are exactly where they were at this point last season, with perhaps their most notable win coming against Richmond.
But as teams from the Volunteer State can attest from recent experience—it’s not a sprint, it’s a marathon.
After slipping through the entrance by the skin of their teeth last year, Butler and VCU both stunned critics with virtuoso runs of glory when it mattered most.
And while regular season résumés may not mean much to them, Smart and Wade better keep their real ones ready. Both coaches have all kinds of opportunities open to them now, and it’s only a matter of time before Smart joins Anthony Grant (Alabama) and Jeff Capel (ex-Oklahoma) as the latest Rams coaches to jump into a much bigger, more lucrative spotlight.
“VCU has been a launching pad for head coaches to move on to higher-rated conferences and bigger-paying jobs,” Berry said. “Will Wade should move upward as part of this process."