NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Standing outside a despondent Vanderbilt locker room, coach Kevin Stallings summed up in one word what these next couple of days will be like for his Commodores.
"Brutal," Stallings said, shaking his head slowly.
Maybe Vanderbilt was already in the NCAA tournament even before a 67-65 SEC tournament loss Thursday to Tennessee after what appeared to be a potential tying drive by Wade Baldwin at the buzzer was wiped away when officials reviewed the play and ruled he didn't get his shot off in time.
ESPN bracketologist Joe Lunardi still has the Commodores in the field, but precariously so as one of the last four in. That means these next few days leading up to Selection Sunday will, for Vanderbilt, seem more like years.
Kevin Stallings says his Commodores are in for a "brutal" few days ahead of Selection Sunday after losing Thursday to Tennessee. Jim Brown/USA TODAY Sports
"You can't afford to have a bad half in tournament play. You have to be able to play both halves," said Stallings, whose club trailed by as many as 15 points in the first half and missed its first nine 3-point attempts. "I didn't think it was a lack of energy. It was more nerves. Our guys were a little tight. We played hard and tried hard. It just took us until the second half to hit any kind of stride."
So now, the Commodores wait. One of the more enigmatic teams in college basketball this season, Vanderbilt (19-13) had won six of its previous eight games entering the postseason. But there were also maddening stretches of inconsistency and some head-scratching losses for a team brimming with talent, size and shooters.
Baldwin didn't mince words about the Commodores' poor start.
"It's just not being ready to play, which has been a huge problem, a very huge problem for us, and that's unacceptable," Baldwin said. "It's sickening thinking about it, coming out in the first half and me and Damian [Jones] having two fouls and not playing with any sense of urgency, and in the second half, we did and came back from 12, but we should have never been in that position."
Even with a pair of 7-footers in the lineup, Vanderbilt couldn't take advantage of a Tennessee team that doesn't start anybody taller than 6-7. But the Vols (15-18) scrapped their way to a 34-22 halftime lead and repeatedly beat the Commodores to long rebounds and 50-50 balls.
"Last year, we played the same team and lost in the same round [to Tennessee]. That's unacceptable," Baldwin said. "It's about the NCAA tournament, but it's also about winning a conference tournament."
Senior Armani Moore said there was never any discussion about playing spoiler against their in-state rivals.
"It was going to come down to who wanted it the most, and our guys came out and showed just who did," said the 6-4 Moore, who played point guard on offense and guarded the 7-foot Jones in the post at times on defense. "We came out and knew we didn't have anything to lose and came out and played like we wanted to be here for a couple more days."
The Commodores will make the short trek back to West End Avenue from Bridgestone Arena and try to make the best of the next few days.
"We'll have to figure out what our best approach is and what all the possibilities are, and then we'll have to address it," Stallings said. "I haven't thought to tomorrow. I expected to be playing tomorrow."
There's no doubt in Baldwin's mind that the Commodores are an NCAA tournament team, but that doesn't mean he or anybody in black and gold won't be sweating out these next few days.
"My word means nothing," Baldwin said. "We'll sit back and wait."