Frank Sinatra and other crooners throughout the decades have sung about last drinks and sad stories in bars late at night, "One For My Baby" being a foremost example.
The Vanderbilt men's basketball team needs to complete the most recognizable stanza from that song. Similarly, the Commodores need to lend a measure of completeness to this incomplete season, which offers ample reason for optimism but is nevertheless limited. This season has picked up steam in recent weeks, but it remains nothing more than a prelude to the 2018-2019 season. It will not offer anything in terms of meaningful postseason prospects next month.
What is Vanderbilt trying to complete? Phrased differently, what is the box the Dores have not yet checked at any point since this season began on November 10, 2017?
Not counting neutral-site games (Virginia and Seton Hall), Vanderbilt has played nine true road games this season. The Commodores haven't won any of them. True, the Kentucky game in Rupp Arena should have been a win, but it's funny how playing on the road can create a nervous reaction which doesn't happen at home. Vanderbilt stole a home-court win when Mississippi State lost focus (and prematurely hushed the Memorial Gym crowd) in the final seconds. Again, playing on the road can shake a team in ways which don't apply to home games. No one hands out medals for almost-victories on the road, especially in places such as Rupp Arena, so Vanderbilt is still stuck with an 0-9 true road record heading into Tuesday night's visit to Baton Rouge to face the LSU Tigers in the second game of the season series.
The SEC Tournament, of course, is a neutral-site event. This means Vanderbilt has just two chances left to pick up a road win in 2018 and leave this season with a sense that it can win away from Memorial Gym. The seniors want to win for the sake of personal achievement. The underclassmen on the roster could sorely use this experience -- at the very least, to prove to themselves that they can thrive once in an enemy lair before reinforcements arrive next fall.
Consider the start to next season: Wouldn't it help at least a little if the role players on the roster (supporting the elite recruits Bryce Drew is bringing in) took the court in November for a road game knowing they could point to a road SEC win in late February? It might seem pointless to speculate this far away, but stop for a moment and absorb the point being made: Though next season's longer arc might not be affected very much by what happens this season -- given that the roster will be appreciably different -- a road win this season could make the team slightly less restless and uncertain when it ventures away from Memorial Magic next November. One game won -- one moment seized -- could make the difference between the 2019 NCAA Tournament and the NIT if Vanderbilt sits on the bubble.
Realize this as well: One game in November can have a ripple effect on an NCAA Tournament resume. Ask the Nebraska Cornhuskers this season. Nebraska's loss to UCF at a holiday tournament in November caused the Huskers to play Marist instead of West Virginia. The fact that Nebraska played Marist and not WVU could easily become the reason the Huskers' strength of schedule and other computer numbers are not robust enough to give Tim Miles' team an NCAA berth.
One game can matter. Vanderbilt needs one road win -- either at LSU or Ole Miss -- to relieve certain tensions and reduce certain doubts heading into the 2018-2019 season. It won't change 4.5 months of play, but it could change a resume just enough to make a difference with next season's team. Bryce Drew -- against two of the more beatable teams in the SEC -- needs to sell his team on the importance of grabbing a road win before this season concludes.
It is therefore pointless to complete the Frank Sinatra song by saying, "and one more for the road."
One cannot claim "one MORE" road win when sitting on zero road wins.
Vanderbilt just has to "make it one for my baby" against LSU. One more could come against Ole Miss, but that's getting ahead of the matter. Start with the streak-breaker in Baton Rouge.
The encouraging aspect of this matchup against LSU lies not in the fact that Vanderbilt won the first meeting. That game was played in Memorial Gym, and yet it was no breeze, suggesting that a change of venue will greatly benefit the Tigers.
No, what should give Vanderbilt real hope for this contest is that LSU depends too much on two players for essential offensive contributions. Coach Will Wade's team has gone through long sequences in which Duop Reath plays well and few others on the roster manage to support him. LSU is also a group which occasionally receives dynamic performances from guard Tremont Waters, but doesn't receive them often enough to gain any traction in the SEC. LSU requires Reath and Waters to play well in order to function. If Vanderbilt can take both away -- or at the very least, take one away while effectively containing the other -- it stands a very good chance of winning.
Tennessee and Auburn are the SEC's two best teams because they have the most balance. Arkansas sometimes approaches that level of balance -- in its best moments -- and Florida offers a lot of different scoring threats. Kentucky can swarm the glass with waves of bodies. Alabama and Missouri play great team defense and, accordingly, are not overly reliant on any one player. (Alabama has Collin Sexton but wouldn't amount to much if Donta Hall's low-post defense wasn't accessible.) Depth and balance exist on a number of good teams in this season's improved iteration of SEC basketball, so in comparison with that identity, LSU lags behind... which is exactly why the Bayou Bengals trail most teams in the standings and have no shot at an NCAA at-large bid in a league poised to get a majority of its teams (8 of 14) to Bracketville next month.
Vanderbilt has a great chance of being able to limit LSU's offense. Putting the clamps on an opponent -- thereby showing that "defense travels" even if offense doesn't -- is the best way to win on the road in any team sport.
We will see if the Commodores can "make it one for my baby" on Tuesday in Red Stick.
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