Russell's Photos: Team Sendoff | Tuesday Sights and Sounds
"Just like old times."
That's what Vanderbilt basketball assistant coach Dan Muller said to me as we crossed paths in the security line at Nashville International Airport Tuesday afternoon.
Yes, the band is back together. But this time the destination is Albuquerque.
|by Brandon Barca (Archive)
Twitter updates @brandonbarca
And with that, the blog makes its return as the Commodores hope to discover NCAA Tournament bliss. Some of the content will hopefully be interesting and informative. But let's be honest, most of it will probably only be entertaining to my warped sense of humor (Yes, I laugh at my own jokes if that tells you anything.)
Last season, I missed the Big Dance because of a four-month sabbatical from athletics. Of course, I only reminded Muller about my good luck in Sacramento in 2007, which resulted in a Sweet 16 berth for Vanderbilt. I forgot to mention the trips to San Jose and Tampa Bay in recent years.
Norman Vincent Peale would be proud of my ability to focus on the best of memories. After all, the power of positive thinking is the first step to a successful week.
So let's start the Day 1 journal...
Before departing for Albuquerque, N.M., Head Coach Kevin Stallings held his first practice of the day on the Commodores' hardwood at Memorial Gym. After practice, the team loaded its luggage onto the bus outside the players' entrance, the same place hundreds of fans crammed 40 hours earlier to get a glimpse of the SEC Tournament champions' return to campus. The crowd wasn't as big Tuesday as it was Sunday, but it gave the team another boost before heading west.
Speaking of the West, former Commodore Willy Daunic, who hosts the Sports Revolution on 102.5 the Game, was at the sendoff and made a good point about how the NCAA selection committee hasn't done any favors for the Commodores when it comes to opening round locations. Since 1988, VU has been sent to Colorado, California (twice), Florida (twice), Michigan, Utah, Arizona, Rhode Island and Nebraska.
Daunic and other Nashville media had an opportunity to conduct final interviews with the team before the buses left for the airport. Stallings was asked if he had to worry about heightened expectations since pundits have labeled the `Dores as a dark horse to make a deep run in the tournament.
"It's like I told the players (Monday), you either deal in truth and reality or you deal in perception and prediction," Stallings said. "We choose to deal in truth and reality because there's somebody out there picking us to lose in the first round, too. It doesn't make any difference what other people say. It matters how we play, think and perform. That's all that matters right now. All that matters is what you do. People may doubt what you say but they'll always believe what you do."
The most asked questions this week will be about the Commodores needing to get the "first-round monkey off their back." Junior guard John Jenkins calmly responded to the topic today. "We got to do that for sure. We're going to go out there and give it all we got," he said.
Senior center Festus Ezeli thinks the team has different ingredients compared to previous squads. "We've worked so hard up to this point," he said. "Just come out there and lay it all on the floor is the mentality. We feel a lot more confident about our abilities. Defense is a lot stronger than it was last year. It's a different year."
By the way, how many local reporters do you think will make it to Albuquerque to cover the Commodores? Apparently some guy named Peyton has Nashville in a tizzy.
Other supporters at the pep rally included women's basketball head coach Melanie Balcomb. Balcomb knows a thing or two about succeeding in Albuquerque. Her teams went 4-0 there in 2008 and 2009 to advance to the NCAA Sweet 16. "The town adopted us as their team," she recalled.
After interviews concluded, the team boarded the bus to catch a Southwest Airlines charter flight at 1 p.m. With a higher number of staff traveling for postseason basketball, the ride was tighter than normal. I sat across from Ezeli, whose 6'11 frame spilled into the aisle. Ezeli stayed busy by playing a game of "Words with Friends" on his phone.
When we hopped on the plane, Vanderbilt's band and cheerleaders were already seated in the back. Coaches and family occupied the front, followed by staff and players.
Andrew Boggs, assistant director of communications in charge of men's basketball, demanded the window seat (just like Glenn Goulia in The Wedding Singer), so I was stuck in the aisle. Moments later, Boggs passed out, giving me the opportunity to use my favorite (and overused) catch phrase of the year... "He gone!" Boggs deserved the rest after the short turnaround from the SEC Tournament to the NCAA Selection Show. It should be noted that he snoozed to the soothing sounds of Mr. Kitty's iPod playlist, which included Toad the Wet Sprocket.
At the front of the plane, coaches studied game film of opponents on their computers. The staff has to scout multiple teams at once since there isn't a lot of time to prepare due to the tournament setup. All of the information ends up on a server so it can be shared and stored in an organized format. Coaches use the data to develop game plans and pinpoint player tendencies.
Another news item discovered during the trip... Curtis Turner, the strength and conditioning coach for men's basketball, was mentioned in the April issue of Men's Health magazine. Turner offered tips on how fitness challenges help build the body of a champion. "I want the centerfold next year, though," Turner quipped.
The flight to Albuquerque lasted just under three hours. We also benefited from the one-hour change backwards to Mountain Time Zone. The weather was perfect with clear skies and temperatures reaching the 70s.
Albuquerque looks flat like a desert in the city but is surrounded by mountainous terrain. Student manager Rob Cross offered his first impressions in a tweet stating "the only green out here is the street signs."
ABQ's elevation is listed at over 5,000 feet. The Convention and Visitors Bureau recommends that people stay well hydrated and warns "the mild temperatures can be deceiving and the high elevation may take its toll on unsuspecting adventurers."
Altitude was also the most popular topic with locals. Our bus driver said teams usually adjust to it after one day of practice. The team host offered a less optimistic view. "You guys might feel the thin air," he said.
The Commodores checked into the Sheraton around 4 p.m. MT and picked up a snack before heading to Eldorado High School for the second practice of the day. Everyone seemed loose but focused during the one-hour session as coaches continued to prepare players for the Harvard matchup.
Following the session, Jenkins was practicing threes at the top of the key by himself. Stallings strolled by the sharpshooter and waved his arms to block the shot. Jenkins adjusted in mid-air and still hit an off-balance three to the delight of his teammates.
On his way to the bench, Jenkins spotted me and asked,"You get that on video?"
Unfortunately I did not. Chalk that one up in the Barca loss column.
On the bus back to the hotel, word spread quickly about the unbelievable comeback in the first game of the NCAA Tournament. Western Kentucky erased a 16-point deficit in the final five minutes to eliminate Mississippi Valley State in the First Four opener. The chatter among the team reinforced that March Madness has officially arrived.
During the 15-minute ride, players jumped on their electronic devices to pass the time. Senior forward Steve Tchiengang decided to have fun with Jenkins by trying to get the All-SEC player to retweet him on Twitter. (You see, fans regularly ask Jenkins for retweets, which is sort of like a digital autograph for today's youth.)
Tchiengang joked: "My bro @JohnnyCashVU23 n I are the best 1,2 punch in college bball. Can I get a retweet?"
Jenkins happily approved his biggest fan's request and sent it back out to his 4,860 followers.
But the tweet that best summarized the excitement of the week came from Ezeli.
Yes, it's good to be back in the Big Dance.
Well, that's it for Tuesday. Make sure you watch the sights and sounds video. We'll have another busy day Wednesday. The Commodores have a morning practice and will get their first look at The Pit, one of the most unique venues in college basketball. It's also media day for the eight teams in Albuquerque, so stay with VUcommodores.com for complete coverage and the latest news.