When Vanderbilt's freshmen arrived in Duluth Tuesday night for the 2013 SEC Tournament, they all had ideas and visions in their heads about what they thought the experience of playing in their first postseason tournament would be like. Three nights later as the team packed up their belongings and boarded sleeper buses back to Nashville after being eliminated by Kentucky, it set in that much of what they thought they knew, they really did not know at all.
Postseason college basketball is just different from the regular season on so many levels and until it is experienced first hand, there is no way to fully prepare for it. From November through February, every team is able to learn from its loses and look to improve the next time on the court, but once the postseason begins in March, a single loss can mean the end of a team's season.
Vanderbilt freshmen Morgan Batey, Heather Bowe, Jasmine Jenkins, Rayte'a Long and Kendall Shaw got their first taste of tournament play this week, and the highs and the lows of it. Although Vanderbilt's stay at the tournament came to an end sooner than all had hoped, the freshmen still departed Duluth with a large amount of experience that could very well help the group for years to come.
For the first time this season, Vanderbilt started two freshmen in a game, and the Commodores did so in both SEC Tournament games with Batey and Bowe. As a unit, the five freshmen played in both games, with three of them playing at least 15 minutes each game.
But almost as soon as it had begun, their SEC Tournament debuts were over. The three days flew by for the Commodores, who tried to make sense out of the whirlwind they had just experienced shortly after the final whistle had sounded Friday.
"I've been to many SEC Tournaments, but I guess I never really got the gist of how intense it was being in the game as far as the atmosphere goes, and I feel like the level of each team just goes up to another notch, as if the SEC wasn't already competitive enough," Jenkins said.
Batey, who played 24 minutes against Missouri and 29 against Kentucky, agreed with Jenkins' evaluation of the heightened intensity level.
"It wasn't just regular SEC play, which is already tough enough," Batey stated. "It's another level. It's win or go home and everybody has to bring their A-game."
For Batey, the experience will be something that will last with her for a lifetime. Not only did she make her first-career start at the SEC Tournament, but she did so in her hometown of Atlanta in front of her family. Growing up, she had attended a number of postseason college tournaments, but no number of games viewed from the stands could have prepared her for what she experienced this week.
"Ive been to a lot of SEC Tournaments and NCAA Tournaments so it was neat to actually be out on the floor this time and play," Batey said. "We obviously would have liked to have done better, but it is an experience that we've gained for years to come."
It is also an experience that Head Coach Melanie Balcomb believes is a valuable ingredient to continuing to improve her program.
"I think (the experience) is really important," Head Coach Melanie Balcomb said of the playing time her freshmen received. "I was really pleased with their progress over the last month. Since the last time we played Kentucky, we look like a different team because we've been playing the freshmen more."
For the majority of both games, Vanderbilt had at least two freshmen on the court, and at times as many as three freshmen played together at once. The added reps together can go a long way toward developing the class.
Part of the playing time the freshmen received near the end of the season was out of necessity due to injuries, but a larger reason was because of their growth as the season has progressed. All five players have seen significant increases in their minutes over the course of the season, and continue to make it difficult for the coaching staff not to play them, in spite of the typical freshman mistakes.
"I'm pleased with their progress," Balcomb said. "At key times they made some mental mistakes that hurt us, but I think they are going to keep getting better and hopefully we will continue to play and get them even more experience."
The additional playing time together on the court has also given the freshman class more confidence in one another.
"It definitely helps bring our chemistry along and we know that we can trust each other, and by junior or senior year, even next year, we will be able to count on each other for specific things and it will help us in the long run," Bowe said.
After playing major minutes in the SEC Tournament, that progression is only expected to continue the rest of the season as the Commodores eye another trip to the NCAA Tournament. "I think it is really going to help us help the team be better," Jenkins said.
"It's definitely going to be good for us," Batey added. "I think just in future tournament games we will be able to understand what to do differently in different situations and be able to stay composed a little more, and just know how to waggle ourselves out of different situations."
Batey and her fellow freshmen may not have to wait long in order to see where they can put their newfound tournament experience to the test. Selection Monday will be on March 18, and there would be no better time for the class to assert themselves than when the national lights shine the brightest.