Stallings, Vandy in second Sweet 16 in four seasons

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- Kevin Stallings had the entire Vanderbilt team, staff and extended members of the traveling party take a tour of Ground Zero in Lower Manhattan Thursday night.

"I wanted them to see it, to have more of a perspective of what 9/11 might have meant to the people around here," Stallings said. "It was a worthwhile experience for all of us."

Stallings' decision to take the Commodores to Ground Zero on the eve of their biggest game of the season -- a Sweet 16 game against Georgetown at the Meadowlands -- should summarize how seriously he takes his job, and how cerebral he must be to run one of the toughest jobs in a high-major conference.

The fact that Stallings' Vanderbilt team is even here, in the Sweet 16, for the second time in four seasons, is amazing.

This is Vanderbilt. The Commodores play in the SEC East with national champion Florida, perennial power Kentucky (even during some lean-by-Wildcats-standards years), surging Tennessee and always-tough Georgia (even if it was on probation).

If you had to pick a team from that bunch to make two appearances in the Sweet 16 in four seasons, would Vandy even cross your mind? That is why Stallings should be applauded for surviving peaks and valleys with this program and what makes this berth even more satisfying.

Let's be honest: Vanderbilt is one of the toughest academic schools in a high-major conference, making the recruiting pool smaller than most. Then toss in an athletic-department reshuffling that gave the (outside) perception of de-emphasizing the athlete in favor of the student, and that makes Stallings' appearances in the Big Dance even more impressive.

"We have a unique set of parameters," Stallings said as he was making his way back from the site Thursday night. "And that's what makes this very gratifying. While we have challenges, we have pluses since we have the best academic school to recruit to, the best city to recruit to, and we have a number of things to sell."

Stallings rallied this squad from a 1-3 start. He said he understood any fans who were on him after a home loss to Furman closed out November. The Commodores also lost their starting center, Alan Metcalfe, for 10 games after he broke his foot two games into the season. In his absence, Stallings changed the plan, going with a more perimeter-oriented attack. That ultimately led to stellar play by SEC Player of the Year Derrick Byars and Shan Foster. The Commodores also got tougher and found ways to win.

"People measure your success by those you compete against most," Stallings said.

Well, if you look at that, the Dores are doing very well, thank you. They finished 10-6 in the SEC East and, after two losses to Arkansas (regular-season finale and again in the SEC tournament), are showing that the NCAA Tournament is a great equalizer. Vandy erased any cloud of a doubt that it belonged (and deserved a 6-seed) by crushing George Washington by 33 in the first round and then outlasting Washington State, the 3-seed, in double overtime in round two.

Stalling said no one outside of the Vandy locker room has the Commodores beating Georgetown, and he doesn't blame the doubters. No one seems to have much faith in Vandy -- outside of Vandy -- and Stallings, with a 4-1 record in two NCAA Tournaments, continues to be unheralded.

He might not be for much longer. Vanderbilt could have competition from Michigan for Stallings' services whenever the Commodores' run ends. Vandy may need to lock up Stallings as he continues to take a program that flies under the national radar above the median every few years -- far enough to prove he's doing one of the best coaching jobs in the country.

Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com.