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When Grantland first approached me about writing this, I was initially hesitant.

Okay, maybe thats not exactly true.1 But what kind of idiot eternal optimist could possibly look at last seasons first-round catastrophe and extrapolate anything that would indicate the Commodores as championship material? Youre looking at him. Maybe the infectious pompousness of football coach James Franklin is getting to me. Maybe all the stress that comes with being a Vanderbilt student has slowly driven me insane. Maybe Im just a horrible evaluator of talent. But I honestly believe that the 2011-12 iteration of the Vanderbilt Commodores basketball team has what it takes to be wearing the net necklace in Nawlins next spring. Now, before you move your mouse towards the big red X in the corner of your screen and contemplate whether or not to read another content-starved Insider article on how Ryan Anderson is the next Dirk2, hear me out. I was there, at the Pepsi Center, in March. Front-row, behind the Vandy bench, directly in front of these folks. I saw the Commodores go absolutely Hoth from the field in the second half. After hitting five straight shots to open the half and push the lead to 48-39, Vandy shot an anemic 4-of-16 the rest of the way, including scoring droughts that spanned 4:29, 3:12, 2:11 and the grand finale: the games final 4 minutes and 53 seconds. In the first half, Jeff Taylor looked like he wanted to disappear. In the second half, he got his wish. Im not going to try to spin the Richmond loss as a fluke. The Spiders spun circles around the Dores in the second half. I will, however, say that Vanderbilt was a victim of circumstance. Richmond simply had no business being a 12-seed. The Spiders were 27-7, boasted two All-A10 players in Justin Harper and Kevin Anderson3, an All-A10 defender in Kevin Smith and an RPI of 41 (placing them ahead of 10 teams that earned higher seeds). The Spiders were ringers; Vanderbilt, the fall guy. More importantly, though, for the first 15 minutes of the game, Richmond didnt even look like it belonged on the same court as the Dores. After all of the pregame hullabaloo, experts and pundits and even the President chomping at the bits to pick Vandy to lose again, the Commodores came out with a fire nay, swag that was never before seen. They came out with a point to prove, and by God Shammgod, they were proving it. Richmonds six half-court 3-pointers kept them within striking distance, but the Commodores appeared to be rolling up their newspaper. John Jenkins was stroking like the Ray Allen clone he is, the Spiders had no answer for Festus Ezeli inside, and the team was grabbing more boards than Shaun White. The part about Grantland. They dont even know Im writing this. When the obvious comparison is Keith Van Horn 3 Harper was the 32nd pick in the 2011 NBA Draft, though the Cavs traded his rights to Orlando for two future second-round picks. Anderson signed with French Pro A team Strasbourg IG in July. Harper has since joined him.
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But as time has proven to be true, the basketball gods reward constant chucking in a single-elimination tournament setting, and so it was that the Spiders followed in the footsteps of Murray State and Siena before them. The looming sense of heartbreak was palpable when I glanced up at the scoreboard with 50 seconds left and saw 66654. The rest was textbook NCAA upset. Fluky shot goes in for the underdog, critical turnover for the favorite, last-ditch effort falls short. <iframe width="560" height="315" src="http://www.youtube.com/embed/OWxABZ3s_0w" frameborder="0" allowfullscreen></iframe> Skip to 1:54 (Bonus points: See the person in black sitting stoically on the end of the row directly behind Stallings as Odoms shot airballs? Thats me, watching a season go down in flames.) Ive been a Vanderbilt fan for far too long5 to believe that things would be any different. So, why will things be different? Well, for one, this team has a sense of urgency about it that has previously been absent in years past. When Taylor, Jenkins and Ezeli announced on the same day that they would all be returning for another year, the implicit message was that they had unfinished business. All three likely would have been selected in the draft had they declared. Taylors defensive skill and raw athleticism would have likely even commanded a first round pick. But none of the three were willing to leave with Vanderbilts legacy in shambles. This isnt Kentucky, where a new year means an entirely different team. Taylor had worked hard to try to become the teams heartand-soul when Jermaine Beal graduated and A.J. Ogilvy left for Turkey. Ezeli had given up his medical aspirations for a potential NBA career. Jenkins entered Vanderbilt as the only 5-star recruit in school history and now he was going to leave it without winning a single game in the NCAA tournament? The departure of all three would have rocked the program. Instead, their return has given Vanderbilt its best shot at a national championship yet. All three alluded to having unfinished business on the court in their statement. I cant leave on that note, Ezeli said. Theres no rush for me to want to leave. I want to play here with these guys. Coach Kevin Stallings knew that he was getting a free pass from the hot seat on which the teams postseason disappointments have placed him. I commend and applaud them for the intelligent and diligent way they approached this process in making their decision, Stallings said. Their return certainly positions our team for an exciting season next year.

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Not to be confused with 66-65 Four years

But will the mix of a hyperathletic forward, a guard with a penchant for making big plays and an imposing foreigner who elevated his role as a junior be enough for the Commodores to win it all? Why not? It worked for 94 UCLA. The 1993-94 UCLA Bruins tore through the early part of their schedule, racing to a 14-0 start before suffering their first loss at the hands of Cal6. The Bruins exhibited immense talent against many of their opponents but struggled to finish out close games and performed much better at Pauley Pavilion than they did anywhere else. UCLA dropped four of its last seven games before an uninspired defensive effort put the Bruins on the wrong end of a 12/5 upset at the hands of Tulsa.7 One year later, Jim Harricks squad came out with a vengeance, nearly running the table to earn a coveted 1-seed in the 1995 NCAA Tournament. The Bruins crushed an overmatched Florida International team in the opener but found they had a fight on their hands against 8-seed Missouri. Trailing 73-72, Mizzou freshman point guard Kendrick Moore found an open Julian Winfield in front of the rim for a go-ahead layup with 4.8 seconds left. Newspaper writers were already writing an all-too familiar lede about Harricks teams late collapse this time, one that could potentially cost the coach his job. Then, this happened: <iframe width="420" height="315" src="http://www.youtube.com/embed/pHceOvR464s" frameborder="0" allowfullscreen></iframe> A wiser fella than myself once said: Sometimes you eat the bear8; sometimes, the bear well, he eats you. Tyus Edney going coast-to-coast saved Bruins season from yet another heartbreak, and Ed OBannon played the best basketball of his life, as UCLA navigated a minefield that claimed many of the other would-be favorites. The championship game matched UCLA against defending national champion Arkansas (looking at you, UConn), led by SEC Player of the Year Corliss Williamson (I can go one of two ways with this one, but lets say Jeremy Lamb). Playing all 40 minutes of his final collegiate game, OBannon dominated Williamson on both ends of the floor, going for a monster 30 points and 17 rebounds, while limiting Williamson to a mere 12 and 4. UCLA reached the top of the mountain because its stars played together with a chip on their shoulder, led by the superbly athletic OBannon, who played the best ball of his life in leading the Bruins to the championship. No pressure, Jeff Taylor.

The school, not the coach Yep, 12/5 upsets happened even back then. 1988, 2000 and 2007 are the only years it hasnt happened since the tournament expanded from 52 teams in 1985. 8 Or bar, if you will
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If the Commodores are to legitimately contend for and possibly win the national championship this year, it will happen because of Taylor because it cannot happen in spite of him. Last season, Taylor proved that he could sink enough jumpers to keep opposing defenses honest, but Vandy is at its best when Taylor spends the majority of the game sharing airspace with the rim. The man can do this, but he has too often been content to allow his defender to keep him out of the lane. Its no small wonder that in Vanderbilts losses, Taylor averaged 3.2 free throws, while in the teams wins, he shot nearly twice as many. A dynamic Jeff Taylor draws extra defenders, meaning more open looks for the sharpshooting Jenkins and easy dunks for the powerhouse Ezeli. The other issue seems to be with Taylors varying levels of confidence in himself. A fellow sportswriter and friend of mine commented that Taylor seems more comfortable being Scottie Pippen than Michael Jordan. A frequent knock on Taylor is that he has never seemed to exhibit the killer instinct that scouts rave about. This criticism actually manifested itself late last season when Taylor actually began to struggle finishing on easy dunks and layups. Taylor is only going to be as successful as his mental game allows him to be, and therein lies the key for the Dores. Though many still look at the Commodores as Taylors gang, John Jenkins has continued to assert himself as Vanderbilts emotional lightning rod on the court. It started against Kentucky in 2010, when Jenkins, then a freshman, nailed a momentum-changing 3 and pounded his chest at the Vandy student section. Since then, its been a whirlwind of chest-bumping, fist-pumping, and 3-goggles. Watching the Dores at Memorial Madness, it was clear that the impact Jenkins personality has had on the culture of the team has been monumental. <iframe width="560" height="315" src="http://www.youtube.com/embed/NYXNM73Qtys" frameborder="0" allowfullscreen></iframe> Jenkins bridges the gap between the goofiness of players like freshman Dai-Jon Parker9 and the quietly intense Taylor. In a way, he defines the personality of this Vanderbilt team. All smiles off the court, but when the game begins, he plays with a chip on his shoulder. Jenkins carries himself with a certain swag that, for all their scoring, Shan Foster and A.J. Ogilvy never possessed. Not since Derrick Byars in 0607 has Vanderbilts biggest producer doubled as its emotional leader. Byars led the plucky 6-seed Commodores to the Sweet 16 before Jeff Green traveled the Commodores lost a heartbreaker to Georgetown.10 #24 in the video, Parker endeared himself to Vandy fans at Memorial Madness by: (in order) Having the Fresh Prince flat-top, staging an impromptu dance contest against the womens teams Jasmine Lister, winning the dunk contest and swishing a half-court pull-up jumper on his first possession of the defense-free scrimmage. 10 Have I mentioned 66-65?
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Vanderbilt has more talent on its roster than ever before. And in a climate in which NCAA experience is a rare commodity, the Commodores have it in spades. Parker will likely find a role as a defensive stopper, while redshirt freshman Josh Henderson is expected to back up Festus Ezeli at center. Beyond that, the Commodores rotation will look nearly identical to last years, with the only key subtraction being forward Andre Walker, who transferred to Xavier.11 Senior Brad Tinsley, who led the SEC in assists last year, can also knock down the 3. Fellow senior Lance Goulbourne played his way into the starting lineup midway through the year and recorded double-digit rebounds in nine games. Cameroon native Steve Tchiengang12 is also back for his swan song. The 6-9 forward began as a center, but a knack for knocking down 3-pointers has forced Stallings to completely rethink his role. Combo guard Kyle Fuller and forward Rod Odom each return for their sophomore season and should be better for the years experience. What this all adds up to is a Vanderbilt team that has the talent, experience, depth and a certainty that none of the other contenders have. Regardless of what happens with the NBA labor dispute, this is it for these Vanderbilt Commodores. For three years, they have been made out to be the epitome of the athletic profile of this Southern institution, whose only national championship to date is in womens bowling.13 The football Commodores have long been a laughing stock in the super-competitive SEC. The baseball team has seen #1 picks and #1 seeds but only last year did the Dores advance to the College World Series for the first time and even then, they fell in the semifinals to bitter rival Florida. Even the womens basketball team, which has made 12 consecutive NCAA tournament appearances hasnt been to the Final Four since George H.W. Bush was in office. Taylor, Jenkins and Ezeli came back because they knew what was riding on the success of this team. Their NBA futures are each a little less certain than their counterparts on UNC and Kentucky. There is no tomorrow for the Dores. 1995 UCLA played each game like it was their last so as to ensure that it wouldnt be. In March, theres nothing more dangerous than a team that lives and dies on every possession. If the Commodores can lock into that mindset, they will have the competitive edge to ensure that they keep on dancing well into April.

Interestingly enough, the Commodores play Xavier at Memorial Gym on Nov. 28. Due to NCAA rules, Walker will be able to play for the Musketeers this season, so the already anticipated game will have an emotional subplot. 12 Pronounced Chain Gang How is there not a Tchiengang Chain Gang? 13 2007. Damn proud of it
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