Vanderbilt’s run in the 2016 NCAA Tournament was a brief one. Now the question is whether coach Kevin Stallings is on the hot seat.
Wichita State used a pair of second half runs to defeat the Commodores, 70-50, in Tuesday night’s First Four matchup in Dayton, Ohio. It was a game that ended a once-promising season on a despondent note.
The Commodores can say they made the 2016 NCAA Tournament. But this season was supposed to be about how far they could go in the big dance, not just about receiving an invitation.
But could Tuesday night’s defeat contain more long-lasting ramifications for the program and the man who’s been the face of it since 1999? Stallings said after the game that decision isn’t in his hands.
“I don’t control whether I’m back next year,” Stallings said during his postgame press conference, according to The Tennessean’s Adam Sparks.
The two teams entered halftime tied at 30, but it was all Wichita State after that. The Shockers exploded on an 11-0 run in the first four minutes of the second half. Vandy (19-14, 11-7 SEC) clawed its way back in the ensuing seven minutes and trimmed the deficit to just two points before Wichita State buried three consecutive triples, which pumped its lead up to 12 with 4:08 remaining.
Offense had been Vandy’s forte all season and the Commodores entered Tuesday averaging 76.8 points per game. But Vanderbilt’s strength became its biggest weakness against one of the best defensive teams in the country. The Commodores shot 30.2 percent from the floor and had only two players in double figures, both of whom came off the bench — guards Joe Toye and Riley LaChance scored 10 points each. The cherry on top? Vanderbilt went 3-for-19 (15.8 percent) from 3-point land.
“I’m surprised, disappointed,” Stallings said per Sparks. “Our guys didn’t want to play like that.”
Tuesday’s loss marked the end of what has been a grossly disappointing season for Vanderbilt. The Commodores were expected to contend in the SEC and some pundits even considered them to be Final Four caliber. With a ton of returning talent and a couple of future pros in Wade Baldwin IV and Damian Jones, a special season seemed conceivable.
But the Commodores never got rolling. An injury to big man Luke Kornet hampered them during a rigorous non-conference schedule that left many clamoring for more. Vandy healed and hit its stride briefly during conference play, but it was never consistent enough to be taken seriously.
“We had good chemistry early in season,” Stallings said according to Sparks. “Not sure we ever recaptured that after Luke got hurt.”
Vanderbilt received a gift from the selection committee following an inexcusable loss to Tennessee in the SEC tournament just days prior. The Commodores responded by being quietly eliminated by a better team.
Vanderbilt’s talent was always evident. It just never materialized throughout a season that will leave Stallings and many others wondering what could have been. It could even put Stallings’ job in jeopardy.
“For the most part, we have a very understanding fan base, and a very understanding administration,” Stalling said per Sparks.
But will the fan base and administration understand only one NCAA tournament appearance in four seasons? Stallings’ future will depend on that answer.