A year ago this election week, two days before Barack Obama began his own era of "change" in Washington, the Vanderbilt men’s basketball program aimed to author its storybook prelude in the cradle of its sport’s civilization, roughly 300 miles to the south of D.C.
Kevin Stallings kicked off his 10th year as Vanderbilt head coach by taking the most impressionable squad of his tenure, complete with his most impressive incoming recruiting class, to the Smith Center in Chapel Hill, N.C.
The purpose? A secret scrimmage in the heart of the lion’s (i.e., Tar Heels’) den against arguably the most dominant program in college hoops.
For those keeping score at home, college basketball teams are now allowed one closed-door exhibition at the outset of each season versus a team of their choosing, and Kansas coaching alums Roy Williams and Stallings chose this informal setting for their first coaching match-up and their programs’ first rendezvous since North Carolina beat Vanderbilt 71-63 at the Maui Invitational to open the 1995-96 season.
But this wasn’t just any North Carolina team; they were the first unanimous preseason No. 1 since the Associated Press poll began in 1981-82.
UNC returned its starting lineup, including reigning National Player of the Year and emotional leader Tyler Hansbrough, eight seniors, and seven of its top nine statistical leaders from a platoon that went 36-3 and lost to eventual national champion Kansas in the Final Four in March ‘08.
Simply put, it was one of the best teams ever on paper for the school that introduced Michael Jordan and is on pace to overtake Kentucky as the winningest program in the next five years.
Meanwhile, Vanderbilt’s recent success relative to this most relevant hardwood goliath is modest, although it does mark the Commodores’ first sustained run of NCAA berths since the last time they toppled the Tar Heels, who were also ranked No. 1 when they lost 78-76 at Memorial Gym on Dec. 5, 1987.
On the backs of back-to-back SEC Player(s) of the Year Derrick Byars and Shan Foster, Vandy came out of nowhere three years ago to record their first winning SEC season under Stallings, finish second in the SEC East, and earn one of the most hard-fought victories in the 2007 NCAA Tournament in a 78-74 double-overtime shocker over No. 3-seed Washington State to reach the Sweet Sixteen for the second time in four seasons.
Two years ago, despite meager preseason expectations, Vanderbilt churned out a 26-8 record, going undefeated in non-conference play and at home, copying their previous 10-6 SEC record, and defeating No. 1-ranked rival Tennessee in Memorial Gymnasium en route to the program’s most successful regular season ever.
Unfortunately, VU’s electric attack, led by Foster, started malfunctioning towards the end of the season due to senior inconsistency and roster inexperience, resulting in a quick exit from the SEC tourney and a one-and-done in the Big Dance, despite a No. 4 overall national seed.
With the 2004 recruiting class gone, which formed the bulk of the Commodores’ core during the previous two campaigns, Stallings once again started from scratch.
In addition to losing three of its top four scorers, the returning experience on the 2008-09 squad amounted to two juniors and six sophomores, three of which were walk-ons.
But hope came to Nashville in the form of seven freshmen, including four top-100 recruits (a first for Stallings), two redshirts and a preferred walk-on with several D-1 offers who eventually redshirted last season.
Stallings, who is accustomed to rebuilding campaigns following successful years with senior-laden teams, and who historically hasn’t been one to lavish praise on his squads, was cautiously enthusiastic about his youngest and rawest team to date.
“I don’t expect us to be ready to contend for a national championship in November or December,” Stallings said. “But once we get these guys some real experience, I think we have a chance to have an outstanding team, one that may be as good as any we’ve ever had here.”
Whether Stallings meant that "outstanding team" would come to fruition last season, roughly half the team got its first legitimate college game experience against the prohibitive national title favorite on Nov. 2, 2008.
At the time, All-American locks Ty Lawson and Wayne Ellington gave backcourt counterparts Jermaine Beal and Brad Tinsley fits, showing fellow VU newcomers Jeffery Taylor and Steve Tchiengang what the golden standard of competition is supposed to look like.
One-time Vandy recruit Danny Green, five minutes after catching up with a coaching staff he hardly knew, catches Lance Goulbourne out of position and drains a three from the left side, prompting a whistle and brief tongue-lashing from Stallings.
It was unfortunate that Hansbrough was out indefinitely as UNC’s Halloween scare came in the form of a stress fracture to their star’s shin.
Unfortunate to Vandy only because it was an exhibition that didn’t count in the standings, and a test against the 6-9 senior’s rabid style would have been a significant boon for VU star A.J. Ogilvy’s rapid development.
Then again, if there ever was a green Vanderbilt team that could run with such a blue-collar (pardon the pun) bunch of athletes and give them a shocker in a game which actually did count, it was this one, even considering that UNC brought in its own respective true frosh recruiting haul (Rivals ranked both four-man classes just outside the top ten overall).
Forwards Taylor, Tchiengang and redshirt freshman center Festus Ezeli gave Vandy three more international athletes who can compete with anyone in the vein of Ogilvy, their own All-American candidate. Taylor has drawn comparisons to former Virginia Tech star and human highlight reel Deron Washington.
An AAU coach told me last summer that Goulbourne is the type of player that will play in the NBA because of how seemingly effortlessly he fills the stat sheet.
And Stallings himself had already labeled combo guard Tinsley as the best shooter and passer on the team; a dubious distinction on a team that lost its top three outside shooters.
Between them, the incoming class of 2008 chose Vandy over offers from Texas, UCLA, Arizona, Kentucky, Gonzaga, Oregon, Virginia, Marquette, Baylor, Georgia Tech, Notre Dame, Oklahoma, USC, Wake Forest, Arizona State and Butler, among many others.
About the only program which didn’t offer any of them was North Carolina, which flirted with Tinsley late in the spring before he donned the Black-and-Gold at his press conference.
In fact, Ezeli alone (who was originally listed as a member of the 2008 class) received offers from three of the 2007 Final Four teams (Florida, UCLA and Ohio State) in the summer prior to enrolling at Vanderbilt a year early because of the opportunity to redshirt at a premier academic institution.
Despite a thoroughly sparse resume in organized basketball, Ezeli was named VU’s Most Improved Player at this past spring’s team banquet.
“I think Festus is going to be a great player here,” Stallings was quoted in Athlon’s season preview last season. “He has an incredible future that will begin sooner rather than later.”
One of the most important chapters of that "future" was written that Sabbath in the hallowed halls of the college hoops elite, where the young nucleus of a traditionally also-ran program found no rest in learning what it means to be a champion from the best.
A consensus of the unofficial whispers reported that the eventual national champion Tar Heels beat the young Commodores by about 20, even without the services of Hansbrough. That young Vandy team went 19-12, just narrowly missing the NIT in the weakest SEC in 30 years and turning down an invite from the fledgling CBI (College Basketball Invitational), a postseason tournament that would have made them pay to travel for the privilege to extend their season.
While Stallings must have been beside himself for his upstart squad to be left out of an NIT that included several other SEC teams with similar records (most notably Kentucky at 20-13), he fast-tracked his young squad’s development this August in Australia, paying 100K out of his own pocket for Aussie native Ogilvy and his teammates to get five extra exhibitions in against professional and semi-professional squads Down Under.
Vanderbilt finished the tour 3-2 against teams with much more experience but not quite as much natural talent, while the Commodores’ lone senior, a steadily improving point guard, seemed to take his game to the next level over the summer.
“Jermaine Beal was incredible for us,” Stallings said at the time, “making a number of big shots. AJ, Brad, and Jeff continued their solid play.
“Overall, the trip was extremely beneficial for us and I am anxious to get to work again this fall."
As the fall workouts started, Vandy only lost mildly contributing redshirt senior George Drake (as a graduate transfer to UAB) but added a lone piece to replace him in the lineup: five-star shooting guard John Jenkins, the most decorated recruit in the Stallings era and generally regarded as the best shooter in the incoming national freshman class.
A local recruit from Station Camp High School who led the nation in scoring (42.3 ppg) and has been hailed as the missing piece that will take the underdog SEC program to new heights, playing his home games in possibly the most gunner-friendly gym in the country.
When the Tar Heels visited Memorial this past Sunday as part of the home-and-home scrimmage agreement between Williams and Stallings, the tables were turned.
In the first domestic litmus test for the most heralded Vanderbilt team in recent memory, the ‘Dores apparently thumped the defending national champions by double-digits (an estimated 12-13 points). And top Commodore Ogilvy, like Hansbrough last year, didn’t play this time around.
According to unofficial score sheets that have been leaked, Vandy was down at the half to the reloaded Tar Heel squad. However, while the Tar Heels struggled out of the gate in a second half plagued with turnovers for UNC, the ‘Dores came out guns-a-blazing, with Beal picking up right where he left off in Australia by hitting 5-of-6 threes to extend a black-and-gold lead to as much as 20 points.
Jenkins supposedly did not miss a shot, hitting a few other treys. Taylor had a few dunks, posterizing top-five UNC forward recruit John Henson at one point.
The (alleged) final score? Vanderbilt 82, UNC 69. The closest thing to confirmation? Tweets.
MG1NYARD (UNC G/F Marcus Ginyard): "there's something to be learned from every experience. be aware and willing to learn. goodnight"
But for all the lessons, there would be no official reflection of the games. No comments from the coaches or players. No game reports. No spectators. No souvenirs. Only private scorebooks, individual instruction, the re-evaluation of untested egos, and the memories of the coaches, players, referees and ball boys.
For Vanderbilt, they were sacred building blocks in bringing a proud, underrated program to what they believe to be new heights of potential. The revolution that wasn’t televised.