Wednesday, October 19, 2011

2011-2012 Top 50 Countdown: No. 13 Vanderbilt Commodores

Over the coming weeks, we will be counting down our Top 50 teams in the country. Teams 26-50 will be posted in groups of five, while we will count backwards from No. 25 to the No. 1 team in the country. You can find a complete schedule of our 2011-2012 Season Preview coverage here. To browse through the rest of the Top 50, click here.

Last Season: 23-11, 9-7 (t-4th SEC), lost to Richmond in the first round of the NCAA Tournament

Head Coach: Kevin Stallings

Key Losses: Andre Walker

Newcomers: Dai-Jon Parker, Kedren Johnson, Shelby Moats

Projected Lineup:

- G: Brad Tinsley, Sr.
- G: John Jenkins, Jr.
- F: Jeff Taylor, Sr.
- F: Lance Goulbourne, Sr.
- C: Festus Ezeli, Sr.
- Bench: Steve Tchiengang, Sr.; Rod Odom, So.; Kedren Johnson, Fr.; Dai-Jon Parker, Fr.; Kyle Fuller, So.

Outlook: Last year was all too familiar for Vanderbilt fans. The Commodores ended up winning 23 games, spent much of the year ranked in the top 25 and eventually earned a five seed in the NCAA Tournament. All in all, things could have been much worse. But they also could have been so much better. Vanderbilt was just 1-5 in games decided by three points or less. They lost another game by four points and also blew a double-digit second half lead before losing to South Carolina in overtime. That is seven of their 11 losses right there.

The good news for Vandy is that they basically return everyone from last season. They only player that isn't back is Andre Walker, who started early in the season but battled injuries late in the year. But beyond that, Kevin Stallings will have exactly the same team he did last year, with the only difference being he adds three talented freshmen.

The first guy you have to talk about with the 'Dores is John Jenkins. Jenkins might just be the most dangerous shooter in the country. As a freshman, he was a spot-up shooter, a deadly three-point sniper that camped out beyond the arc and waited for a shot to be created for him. Last season, however, Jenkins' game really expanded. He became a much more dangerous presence running off of screens and became more adept at attacking a close out, improving his ability to shoot off the dribble and in the mid-range. Jenkins still isn't great at getting all the way to the rim -- and he probably won't ever be -- but he doesn't need to in order to score. He averaged 19.5 ppg last season, and its feasible that number can go up this year.

Joining Jenkins on the perimeter will be Jeff Taylor, who is one of the most athletic small forwards in the conference. Taylor expanded his game as a junior, becoming a threat from beyond the arc, although his jump shot is not yet what you can call consistent. Taylor's best attribute is his ability to make plays on the defensive end of the floor. Starting at the point will be Brad Tinsley, who has a bit of a bad reputation among college basketball fans. He's probably a better player than he gets credit for -- he averaged double figures while dishing out 4.6 apg and shooting 36.9% from deep -- but there are limitations to his game, including his ability to create off the dribble and his limited athleticism, which can make him a liability defensively. Those three all played well over 30 mpg -- Jenkins tops out at 34.6 -- so expect the back court back ups to see limited action, but sophomore Kyle Fuller and freshmen Dai-Jon Parker and Kedren Johnson will be the guys that are called upon when necessary.

The front court will have some question marks, starting with who plays while Festus Ezeli is suspended? Ezeli accepted dinner and a hotel room from booster while he was traveling this summer, which cost him six games to start the season. He'll miss the opener against Oregon, four games in the Legends Classic (the best opponent being Texas), and a visit from Monmouth. The good news is that Ezeli will be back when the 'Dores face Xavier on the 28th of November. Ezeli is one of the most underrated big men in the country. A legitimate 6'11", Ezeli has a solid frame and an even better game. Playing just over 23 mpg last season, he averaged 13.0 ppg, 6.3 rpg and 2.6 bpg. If he can stay out of foul trouble and on the court, he'll put up some impressive numbers. Steve Tchiengang will be Ezeli's back up.

Joining Ezeli up front will probably be Lance Goulbourne with Rod Odom coming off the bench. Both Goulbourne and Odom are versatile power forwards with the ability to knock down a three, which will spread the floor for Vanderbilt and allow Ezeli more space to operate inside.

The question for Vanderbilt is not whether they bring players back, because there is not question that they have as much experience as any team in the country. The question is just what kind of experience they are returning. Vanderbilt was a mediocre team a season ago. They lost 11 games, earned themselves a five-seed in the tournament, and finished in a three-way tie for fourth in a league that went six deep. That's mediocre. And while they are bringing in a couple of freshmen, those freshmen aren't going to have a significant impact until this crop of seniors is gone.

To complicate matters further, Vandy returns a team that does not know how to win games. Performance in the clutch in a skill. Knowing how to win as a team is a learned trait. Being able to execute down the stretch on the offensive end and getting crucial stops on the defensive end is not an easy thing to do, and the Commodores have not proven that they can do it under Kevin Stallings. The poll makers are going to love Vanderbilt because of what they return, but impressing voters and winning games are two very different things.

1 comment:

UltimateVUFan said...

Your write-up needs a little more research. For one thing, you completely omitted the fact that Vanderbilt will also have two redshirt freshmen - C Josh Henderson and F James Siakam - and true frosh F Shelby Moats at their disposal. Given that Tchiengang is still not 100% recovered from an off-season ankle surgery, it is likely that Henderson will be replacing Ezili in the starting lineup while he serves his suspension (by the way, the meal and hotel room were provided by a former college friend/graduate, not exactly a "booster," but still an NCAA violation . . . though I have to wonder if six games is justified given the circumstances: 3-4 seems more appropriate and in line with what other institutions receive, but I digress). However, this may be a blessing in disguise to give Henderson some valuable early experience in preparation for the latter part of the season. As for Brad Tinsley, while you admit that he probably doesn't get as much credit as he deserves it seems like you're being a bit condescending (that may just be my interpretation based on the negative tone of much of the article). I'll just throw out there, however, to supplement the props you do give him, his assist total was tops in the SEC last year and he also was second in the league in assist to turnover ratio. As for our three backcourt starters logging so many minutes last year, that was largely by necessity more so than design, as we were not a very deep team in the midst of battling several injuries and only having one backup guard. The two incoming freshmen guards whom you glossed over were highly recruited and will have an immediate impact, adding depth and spelling our starters with quality minutes, which will aid in our ability to finish games (basically your biggest criticism of the team), which was very difficult given some depth issues.

As for this team's proving its ability to win, I suspect you'll be eating your words down the stretch of the season.