SEC Transition Basketball: Vanderbilt CommodoresPosted by Brian Joyce on July 10th, 2012
It’s hot out there, and to many of us, college basketball is the last thing on our minds. But here at the SEC Microsite, we’re going to be rolling out mid-summer resets of each of the (now) 14 basketball programs in our league. We’re calling it Transition Basketball, and you can expect we’ll cover three or four teams a week until we’re done. By that time, we’ll actually start to be turning the slight corner into the fall, and from there it’s a smooth slope down to Midnight Madness in mid-October. Today’s update: Vanderbilt.
State of the Program
The reigning SEC Tournament champions appeared to be on a promising streak preceding the Big Dance. After swatting the proverbial monkey off its back and defeating Harvard in the Round of 64 following three straight first round exits, it was heartache once again for Commodore fans as the team settled well short of expectations. With a trio of NBA level talent and an experienced hoard of role players, 2011-12 was supposed to be the year on which Vandy fans had been waiting. Turnovers, a reliance on the outside shot, and difficulty rebounding marred Kevin Stallings‘ club, and now Vandy looks to be heading into a rebuilding year unfortunately situated in one of the SEC’s strongest years in recent history.
With familiar names such as John Jenkins, Jeffery Taylor, and Festus Ezeli all gone, who does Stallings turn to now? In fact, his top six players in terms of minutes played are gone. The Commodores will rely heavily upon talented yet vastly inexperienced and untested players. The leading returning scorer for the 2012-13 ‘Dores averaged just over three points per game last season. To say there are some question marks about next season is an understatement. As Stallings pointed out in the SEC summer teleconference a few weeks ago, “It is certainly going to be a year of transition for our basketball program. Not one guy who is playing will have ever been in the role he will be assuming for next year’s squad.” Vanderbilt certainly underperformed last season, but can it now exceed a lowered set of expectations in 2012-13?
Unfortunately, the major storyline for Vanderbilt’s recruitment was not as much about who it got as it was who it didn’t. Coach Stallings pursued Clarksville, Tennessee, native Alex Poythress heavily before he lost the 6’7″ forward to Kentucky. Poythress was the in-state talent Stallings needed to provide some immediate scoring punch in Nashville. But while the ‘Dores still have three open scholarships, Stallings wasn’t willing to settle for just anyone. “We’re trying to do all we can for next year,” Stallings said. “At the same time that we’re trying to do all that we can for next year, we’re also trying to keep an eye on the big picture and keep an eye on the future. So we’re not going to take someone this year just because it gives us the appearance of filling a need if we think we can help ourselves more with that need later.”
Vanderbilt ended with commitments from 6’5″ forward Kevin Bright, 6’7″ Sheldon Jeter, and a 6’6″ point guard prospect AJ Astroth. All three recruits were two- and three-star prospects, but don’t sleep on Stallings’ ability to develop talent into major contributors by the end of their career. Former standout AJ Ogilvy was a two-star recruit coming out of high school while recent NBA draft picks Jeffery Taylor and Festus Ezeli were three-star prospects.
The Vanderbilt roster saw huge turnover this offseason, but that doesn’t mean it’s completely void of talent. 6’4″ guard Kedren Johnson played in all 36 games last season as a freshman and accumulated over three points and 14 minutes per game. While he struggled at times (34.3 FG%, 1.2 TOPG), he had flashes of solid play down the stretch (6.3 PPG, 2.0 APG, 1.0 SPG during the SEC Tournament title run). Toward the end of the season, his coach noted the freshman’s improvement. “He’s taking better care of the ball and his defense has gotten better,” Stallings said. “I think that those are the two main things. Early in the season we didn’t feel like we could count on him defensively, and his ball care was very erratic. His ball care probably has been the most important thing because when he’s in he has the ball a lot.”
Although he is the primary ball handler, don’t expect the point guard to look to score a majority of the time. He is working on adding to the 1.8 assists per game that he dished out last year. “Most of the time I’m trying to create for my teammates,” Johnson said. “But I’m really trying to make the right play, so I’m not going to be able to foresee me being the leading scorer or anything like that. I know I am just going to try my hardest and do what I can.”
Three Questions With Anchor of Gold’s Christian D’Andrea
Christian D’Andrea is one of the self proclaimed Council of Pain and Awesome, otherwise known as editor and writer of the Vanderbilt SB Nation blog, Anchor of Gold. He has been writing for AofG since 2009. You can follow him on Twitter @TrainIsland for your share of Vanderbilt awesome-ness. We talked with D’Andrea about his thoughts for the ‘Dores upcoming season, and as he put it, next season’s prospects are “grim.”
Rush the Court: With three players selected in the NBA draft and another three contributors graduating, who is going to score for this team? 88 percent of the Dores’ scoring walked out the door.
Christian D’Andrea: Kevin Stallings is going to have to turn to a cache of unproven players in 2013 thanks to this year’s exodus of graduating seniors (and John Jenkins’ early entry to the NBA Draft). They’ll have to replace all five starting positions and their sixth man, leaving the team perilously thin in the frontcourt. That leaves junior Rod Odom as this team’s elder statesman. He’s a long small forward (6’9″) who struggles to defend opposing big men but has the range to be a matchup problem at the three or four. After playing behind Jeffery Taylor for two years, he’ll have the chance to break out in 2012-13.
However, a pair of less experienced players could be the ones who emerge to keep this team relevant. Kedren Johnson and Dai-Jon Parker were both big recruits in the class of 2011, and each had their moments in 2012. Johnson, in particular, was impressive. He came on very strong towards the end of the season to play crunch time minutes in the postseason, and he had a huge layup against Kentucky that helped seal the SEC title. Johnson is a solid distributor that plays like a taller version of former Commodore standout Jermaine Beal. He’ll have to improve his shooting to be a legitimate threat, but he has the brightest future of any young Commodore.
Parker is a more impressive athlete and lock down defender at the two, but he struggled to adapt to the NCAA game last season. He’s a solid shooter with great lateral quickness, and he’ll have plenty of opportunities to get into the lane and score next season. The learning curve is going to be pretty big, and there are going to be lots of frustrating moments as a result, but Parker has the potential to develop into a high-level starter for the ‘Dores.
Elsewhere, bigs like Josh Henderson and Shelby Moats will have to prove that they can score around the basket. Henderson showed off a nice mid-range game when he was healthy as a redshirt freshman, but neither one looks to be a focal point of the team’s offense next season. Incoming freshman Sheldon Jeter, who continues to grow, could end up making an impact for the team as well.
RTC: Vanderbilt won only its second SEC conference tournament title ever and advanced to the round of 32 in the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2007. However, expectations were high for a team with a lot of senior contributors and NBA talent. Happy with a good year or disappointed that this team could have done more?
CD’A: Winning the SEC Tournament – a place that has been Vandy’s Waterloo for the past 60 years – relieved a lot of the pressure from last year’s team. Losing to Wisconsin in the NCAA Tournament, especially on a missed three from a wide-open John Jenkins, was painful, but raising that SEC banner to the rafters of Memorial Gym this fall will ultimately trump any disappointment there.
Did this team underachieve? Ultimately, yes. That wasn’t a result of players slacking off or team dysfunction, though. The culture around Vanderbilt basketball last year was incredible – those guys worked hard through and through and came together stronger than any Commodore team in recent history. Unfortunately, the season ultimately came down to some bad breaks (Ezeli’s injury, for example).
RTC: What are reasonable expectations for a young team this year? Any chance the ‘Dores can repeat as SEC tournament champions? Or should we set the bar a little lower at just making the NCAA tournament? What is this team capable of?
CD’A: Vanderbilt’s last rebuilding year came in the 2008-09 season, when the team went 19-12 and failed to reach the postseason. Those ‘Dores relied heavily on newcomers like Jeffery Taylor and Brad Tinsley in a year that alternated bad losses and solid wins. However, that team also had veterans like A.J. Ogilvy and Jermaine Beal around to right the ship when things got rough.
This year’s team won’t have that same veteran guidance, and things could get even tougher for Vandy. They’ll lack an inside presence for the first time in five years and rely heavily on small ball, which is a style that many SEC teams match up with well. They’ll need big performances from players who have very limited experience to survive. It may take breakout years from Johnson and Parker for this team to play their way into the NIT.
It’s going to be a tough year for the Commodores. The loss of six major contributors, coupled with a below average recruiting year, has left the team with an unproven group of young players. A dearth of good shooters should fit well into Kevin Stallings’ system and keep the team from collapsing, but it’s tough to see how these guys can repeat as SEC Champs based on how they look right now. They’ll have the horses to pull a few big upsets, but make no mistake – this is going to be a massive rebuilding project in Nashville this season.
Twitter Style 2012-13 Outlook
Expectations are quite a bit lower this year for Vanderbilt after a mass exodus in Nashville. Expect to see some growing pains in a tough SEC.
Brian Joyce is a writer for the SEC microsite and regular contributor for Rush The Court. Follow him on Twitter for more about SEC basketball at bjoyce_hoops.