Bill Haber, Associated Press
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — The Vanderbilt Commodores have a new NCAA tournament challenge: shake their first-round woes and avoid a championship hangover.
Beating the nation's top-ranked team for the Southeastern Conference tournament title has given them a confidence boost that just might be their antidote.
"We have a really good feeling as a team," senior forward Jeffery Taylor said Sunday night after the Commodores returned to Memorial Gym with Vanderbilt's first SEC championship trophy since 1951. "And we're going to keep on building on that till Thursday when we play Harvard."
The Commodores watched the bracket announcement in New Orleans after beating top-ranked Kentucky 71-65 Sunday for Vandy's first league title in basketball since winning the 1993 regular season title. At least a couple hundred fans met them with such enthusiasm the players had to come back outside for a curtain call.
Coach Kevin Stallings, who lost some of his voice Sunday, said he had hoped for a Friday game in Nashville. The Bridgestone Arena is hosting tournament games Friday and Sunday a couple miles away from Vanderbilt's campus.
He got neither, saying they lost too many games to play so close.
His Commodores (24-10) were seeded fifth in the East Region and play a No. 12 seed in Harvard (26-4) that was ranked in the Top 25 just like Vanderbilt this season. The teams play Thursday in Albuquerque, N.M., with Vanderbilt making its third straight NCAA tournament appearance and fifth in the last six years.
"So I got the wild, wild West and Thursday, but that's OK," Stallings said. "The idea is what it is, and we just have to go play and be ready to go when it's time."
The Commodores have lost three straight first-round NCAA games starting with Siena in 2008, Murray State in 2010 and No. 12 seed Richmond in 2011. As someone wrote on Twitter in February, then-No. 1 Kentucky needed only to write "No. 12 seed" on the uniform to scare Vanderbilt.
"Oh, I think that's pretty apparent that's all anybody has seemingly focused on," Stallings said. "And I really felt like we lost last year's game because we lost the one the year before because our players became so tight at the end of the Richmond game. ... As the game got closer in the end, they got tigher and tighter and tighter."
Stallings said he expects a looser team this time around.
"We obviously all want to win. I guess it's about the only thing now that this group hasn't done," the coach said. "So it would be a nice thing if we were able to accomplish that."
Now a Vanderbilt team that started the season with its highest ranking since 1965 at No. 7 heads into the NCAA tournament having won three straight and four of its last five. That includes upsets of Florida and No. 1 Kentucky.
They struggled at times this season, especially early when senior center Festus Ezeli was out with a sprained right knee. They lost at home to Cleveland State and Indiana State with overtime losses to Xavier and Louisville before going on the road and routing Marquette in December.
Inconsistency was a problem going into the SEC tournament. The Commodores followed up a win over Florida by losing their regular season finale at Tennessee.
But they hit their stride in New Orleans.
And as result they were able to keep their championship hats on inside Memorial Gym, breaking a team rule waived for the night. Senior forward Lance Goulbourne said he'll be wearing his hat and his stinky championship T-shirt around campus for days to come.
The upperclassmen have put their stamp on the program. Taylor said they stuck together as a team through all the injuries and challenges.
"And we're playing good right now when we're supposed to be playing good," Taylor said. "I think every team wants to be playing well in March, not November and December."
Follow Teresa M. Walker on Twitter at www.twitter.com/teresamwalker
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