A Better Outlook for Vanderbilt?Posted by David Changas on November 22nd, 2013
It was a summer to forget for Kevin Stallings. After finishing a relatively disappointing 2012-13 campaign with a run to the SEC Tournament semifinals, there was reason for some optimism heading into the offseason. Then Kevin Bright left to play professionally in Germany. And Sheldon Jeter transferred. And, in the biggest blow to this season’s prospects, star point guard and team leader Kedren Johnson was suspended from school. Without those three key contributors, many wrote off the Commodores’ chances for anything but a disastrous season. Picked to finish 10th by the SEC media, the prediction was only that high because the four teams predicted to finish behind them – Georgia, South Carolina, Mississippi State, and Auburn – are in more dire straits. While the losses of Bright and Jeter hurt — both were expected to be major contributors — Johnson’s departure appeared disastrous. The rising junior would have been an all-SEC selection and was the team’s on-court leader and go-to scorer. With his departures, the Commodores returned only 35 PPG from last season and appeared to be a roster full of complementary players.
Despite all that happened over the summer and a general expectation of a finish near the bottom of the SEC, Stallings remained optimistic about his team’s prospects during the preseason. And while it’s far too early to say that this team will exceed its low expectations, there are signs Stallings wasn’t just engaging in coach-speak when he talked up his squad. Heading into Friday’s game with Providence at the Paradise Jam, the Commodores sit at 2-1 with home victories over Georgia State and Lipscomb, and an overtime loss at Butler on Tuesday – a game in which they fought back from a 14-point second half deficit to force the extra frame. While the team’s defense appears to have fallen off somewhat (ranking 122nd, down from 51st nationally), the offense, according to Ken Pomeroy, is much improved (177th to 65th). The team heads to the Virgin Islands with a chance to build some necessary confidence against quality competition.
It is evident in viewing Vanderbilt’s roster that its returning players are simply not good enough to allow this team to excel. The only returning experience in the backcourt consists of guards Kyle Fuller and Dai-Jon Parker, both of whom have contributed as role players in the past. Senior forward Rod Odom is the team’s most experienced player, but he is not the type of player who can take over a game. Ultimately, it will be newcomers Eric McClellan, a transfer from Tulsa, and Damian Jones, the most highly-regarded recruit Stallings has signed in the past several seasons, who may allow the Commodores to exceed expectations. And the early returns from both are encouraging. McClellan showed in the loss to Butler that he has the ability to take over offensively, as he scored a career-high 29 points and got to the rim with relative ease in the second half. Jones, for his part, has shown why he was so highly-recruited as he is currently the team’s third-leading scorer. The 6’10 freshman is athletic and has been very efficient offensively, hitting 75 percent of his field goals in the early going. The Commodores are also getting good production from Odom (16.0 PPG, 5.0 RPG), Fuller (4.7 APG), and Parker (60% 3FG).
It’s certainly too early for Commodore fans to get too excited about where this team is headed, but nobody who has followed Stallings’ career at Vanderbilt should be surprised that a team little was expected from may be better than anticipated. One of the criticisms that has been leveled against him over the years has been his inability to reach lofty expectations with teams from which much has been expected. Perhaps the tumultuous offseason, the suprising departures, and the lowered expectations will all work in his favor. At the very least, there is reason for optimism that things may not be as dire as many had anticipated.