Unexpected survivors Vanderbilt, Alabama headed to Phoenix - East Valley Tribune: Sports

Unexpected survivors Vanderbilt, Alabama headed to Phoenix

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Posted: Tuesday, March 23, 2004 6:02 am | Updated: 5:22 pm, Thu Oct 6, 2011.

Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings and Alabama coach Mark Gottfried shared an unexpected laugh on the phone Monday morning.

"It was a little bit of ‘who would have thought this?’ " Stallings said.

Certainly not the folks at Kentucky and Mississippi State. Those two teams won a combined 53 games and dominated the Southeastern Conference all season. Yet when the NCAA tournament’s first weekend ended, the Wildcats and Bulldogs headed home.

In their place, blinking from the bright lights, stood Vanderbilt and Alabama, a pair of SEC also-rans that must now carry the drooping standard for their storied conference.

"Probably no one really thought this would happen, but that’s the beauty of the NCAA tournament," Gottfried said. "It’s not just one or two teams playing for the national championship. Sixty-five get a chance."

Alabama (19-12) and Vanderbilt (23-9) were probably one conference loss away from missing that sizeable party.

After a 12-0 start, the Commodores went 9-9 the rest of the season and finished tied for third in the SEC’s East Division with an 8-8 record.

Adding to the feeling of malaise was the decision by Chancellor Gordon Gee to restructure Vanderbilt athletics last fall by eliminating the position of athletic director and combining the athletic department with student recreational activities under the curiously named Office of Student Athletics, Recreation and Wellness.

While Gee insisted the move was made to improve student-athletes’ integration into the greater student population, the perception among those very athletes and school recruits was that the academically inclined school was deemphasizing athletics.

"The way in which it was presented really left a lot of questions to be answered and a lot of uncertainties," Stallings said. "When you start reading things like intramurals in the same sentence as varsity athletics it caused great concern for many people and there were a lot of fires we had to put out."

Stallings said the season hit its defining moment in an 82-75 Valentine’s Day loss at South Carolina that dropped the team to 4-6 in the SEC.

"In the locker room that night we decided it was time to either make a run or quit talking about it," said Stallings, whose team has gone 8-3 since, including an SEC tournament win over Mississippi State and NCAA tournament wins over Western Michigan and North Carolina State.

"I never had the feeling we were OK," Stallings said of the club’s standing heading into selection Sunday, "but after the South Carolina game, we went and won at Alabama, and that started a positive thinking and flow for us."

Ironically, that 70-67 loss to Vanderbilt — the Crimson Tide’s sixth in seven games — was the night Gottfried felt his club finally figured out its Rubik’s Cube of a season.

Alabama, which played the nation’s toughest schedule, trailed Vanderbilt by 20 at the half before roaring back to tie the game.

"They started rolling, and we started rolling," said Gottfried, whose club is 7-2 since.

Neither team is impressive on paper.

Alabama managed fewer field goals than either of its first two tournament victims, Southern Illinois and Stanford.

Vanderbilt appears to rely too heavily on its starting five, particularly SEC Player of the Year Matt Freije.

Both clubs will be underdogs in Thursday’s Phoenix Regional at America West Arena — ninth-seeded Alabama against fifth-seeded Syracuse and sixth-seeded Vanderbilt against secondseeded Connecticut. A season of trials makes that fact seem trivial to both clubs.

"We’ve played well against everybody. We’ve seen just about everything that you feel like you can see," Gottfried said.

"We’ve been in some close games for about the last month and our guys just keep playing."

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