March 13, 2007
By Will Matthews
NASHVILLE - When Vanderbilt senior Derrick Byars first enrolled at the University of Virginia prior to the 2002-2003 season, he never could have imagined that it would take almost five years for him to get an opportunity to play in an NCAA Tournament.
The Cavalier team that he joined as a freshman had spent time ranked in the top-10 in the country the previous year, and even spent some time in the top-25 rankings during his first collegiate season. He expected nothing less than perennial participation on college basketball's grandest stage.
But after Virginia dropped seven of its final eight regular season games, that season - like each of Byars' subsequent seasons - ended in disappointment.
"I wouldn't have imagined that it would have taken five years to get to the NCAA Tournament," Byars said Sunday night. "It has been a long journey."
The journey finally came full circle Sunday when Vanderbilt - to which he transferred in 2004 after two years of disappointment and unfulfilled expectations at Virginia - was announced as the East Regional's sixth seed in this year's NCAA Tournament.
The Commodores will face Atlantic-10 Conference champion George Washington in Sacramento, Calif. Thursday afternoon.
"This has been a great year," Byars said. "For it to come my last year, and to be going out in this manner, in this fashion, I couldn't be happier right now."
After three seasons in which his teams were in legitimate contention for an NCAA Tournament berth only to be denied on Selection Sunday, Byars knows all too well what it is like to have one's proverbial tournament bubble burst.
Byars can rightly be called an NIT veteran, having played in the postseason consolation prize three times.
"It has been extremely frustrating," Byars said. "Not only was I struggling on an individual basis at Virginia with trying to find some consistent treatment from my coaching staff, but we weren't winning as much. That makes it worse. If it would have been just individual struggles and the team had been winning, then I would have been happier. But that, combined with NIT appearances just made it more frustrating."
With this being his senior season and his one last shot at having his team earn a spot in the NCAA Tournament's 65-team field, Byars seemingly was unwilling to leave anything up to chance.
In putting together a spectacular season in which he scored 16.8 points per game, led Vanderbilt to its best conference record in nearly a decade and was voted by conference coaches as the SEC Player of the Year, Byars virtually assured himself and his Vanderbilt team that Selection Sunday this year would not be another stinging disappointment.
"When I heard our team's name called, I can't even describe the feeling," Byars said. "It is something that I have always dreamed about, even if it is just one time. I can't complain about the past. But we are definitely trying to take advantage of the present right now and so when were called, I just hugged some of my players. I am just real happy."
Vanderbilt Head Coach Kevin Stallings said Sunday that there are few things that make him happier as a coach then seeing his players get the opportunity to enjoy college basketball's ultimate experience.
"My number one goal is for these guys to have a great experience," Stallings said. "For a guy like Derrick, competitive as he is and as good a player as he is, it takes an NCAA Tournament to consummate that experience. That's why I'm thrilled for all of our upper-classmen because this is part of the process that really ties together their experience. You can have a close relationship with these guys, and they can have a great experience off the court, but if they don't have that experience on the court than enables them to look back and say, `that was the best' then there is a hole. I don't want them to leave here feeling like there was an emptiness in one facet of their experience here."
Cognizant of just how difficult earning an NCAA Tournament bid can be, Byars said his past frustrations leave him well positioned to take advantage of the one opportunity he has been given.
"I will just be trying to enjoy every minute of it, soak it all in and just try and get as far as we can," Byars said. "This is my first and last go-around with this so I am just going to try and make the most of it."