NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — The Vanderbilt Commodores are choosing to be optimistic, looking at their season as a glass half full.
Yes, they're mired in a stretch where they've lost five of their last seven games. Yes, they're 2-5 in the Southeastern Conference play and in a five-way tie at the bottom of the league. And yes, Alabama (13-7, 5-2), tied for third in the SEC, is coming in Saturday afternoon.
Still, coach Kevin Stallings noted that the Commodores have lost three one-possession games and easily could be 5-2. Now the key is fixing mistakes that keep costing Vanderbilt (8-11, 2-5) when the game is on the line to avoid coming up short yet again.
"Our team has gotten better, and there's time for everybody on this team to rewrite and reroute the direction of the way the season has gone," Stallings said. "I still think we will. I think we'll continue to play better and get better, and hopefully that will show up in the win column."
It's been a tough season for Vanderbilt, busy rebuilding after losing its top six scorers from last year's SEC tournament championship team. They are young enough to rank 321 out of 347 Division I schools in terms of experience and really have been oh so close to notching some big SEC wins.
The Commodores rallied from 16 points down Jan. 10 against Kentucky at Memorial Gym only to lose 60-58 after officials failed to realize the shot clock already had expired before the Wildcats hit the winning shot with 17.3 seconds left. Kedren Johnson's 3 to win hit the rim just before the buzzer.
On Jan. 15, Vanderbilt was up by 13 against now-No. 22 Mississippi in the second half. But the Commodores failed to hit even one of five free throws down the stretch before hitting their 17th 3-pointer with 3.2 seconds left to take back the lead only to fail to defend Marshall Henderson, who hit a 35-footer at the buzzer to force overtime. Ole Miss left with an 89-79 overtime win.
It happened again Tuesday night when Vandy didn't make a bucket in the first eight minutes at Tennessee and trailed by double digits in the second half. Yet Josh Henderson, demoted to the bench for his sporadic play, matched his career-high with 13 points that helped the Commodores have an improbable chance to win at the end.
But Johnson's drive to the basket didn't go down, and Kevin Bright's putback attempt missed allowing Tennessee to escape with a 58-57 win.
Those games are why Stallings thinks his young Commodores have improved "light years" since the start of this season.
"We could have should have beaten Kentucky, could have should have beaten Mississippi, could have should have beaten Tennessee," Stallings said. "I mean you're not talking about chump teams, you're talking about good teams."
Stallings has been switching up his lineups trying to find a combination that works, even if it's by pricking egos. He said Thursday he'll keep changing lineups the rest of the season if that's what it takes to get production.
"I'm tiring a little bit of the inconsistencies, and I'm certainly tiring of the inconsistencies from guys who've been around here for a while," Stallings said.
That includes Henderson, the 6-foot-11 redshirt sophomore who insists he's flawless at the free throw line in practice only to shoot 44.8 percent in games. He's not alone with Vandy averaging an anemic 59.3 percent at the line.
Henderson's also averaging a mere 2.9 rebounds per game despite getting the chance in previous seasons to practice against Festus Ezeli, a first-round draft pick by the Golden State Warriors last June.
Henderson said his performance against Tennessee was a confidence builder that he hopes to keep going Saturday. But he said the Commodores know they're hurting themselves before games reach the final minute.
"We could be 5-2, just a couple plays here or there," Henderson said. "It wasn't necessarily those final shots. We missed some free throws, we had some turnovers we shouldn't have done. Just minor mistakes that we can make up for, and that's how you win those games. Definitely it hurts losing those close games, but we know we can win them, and we need to build off that."