*College basketball is here (unlike the NBA), and this year might be one of the best in recent memory. The powerhouse is back, while the Cinderellas believe. That’s a deadly combination. We know some of y’all have been asking for some previews. We have you covered – the top 16 teams in the nation will be previewed individually in the next few weeks. After we broke down two upstarts yesterday, we’ll keep this going with No. 7-ranked Vanderbilt and No. 8-ranked Louisville later today (ESPN/USA Today Coaches Poll).*
Vanderbilt has become a very solid program in their 12 seasons under Head Coach Kevin Stallings. Stallings has led the program to two Sweet Sixteen appearances and six 20-win seasons. He has also coached three SEC Players of the Year in Dan Langhi, Derrick Byars and Shan Foster, as well as former NBA player Matt Freije. However, Stallings has never had the talent that he has this year, as he will be coaching by far Vanderbilt’s most talented team in history. This is a team that is expected to play deep into March and anything less will be seen as a colossal disappointment.
Vanderbilt’s team this year is anchored by its three future pros in John Jenkins, Jeffery Taylor and Festus Ezeli. Jenkins averaged 19.5 points per game last season as a sophomore which led the SEC. He is arguably the best shooter in the nation, and has worked hard to develop his all-around game the past few offseasons. He comes into his junior year having improved his quickness and stamina, as well as working to become more of a multidimensional scorer. Jenkins is a workhorse who will be expected to carry the load offensively for the Commodores.
Taylor is one of the more frustrating players in all of college basketball. His combination of size and athleticism should allow him to take over games at will and dominate his opponents, but he frequently chooses to defer and has played passively in some big moments the past few years. Last season however, his jump shot improved exponentially and he showed an ability to knock down threes which he hadn’t been doing in his first two years. While he is hesitant on offense at times, Taylor’s defense is always tenacious. He is one of the best on-ball defenders in the country and always assigned to shut down the opponent’s top scorer.
Ezeli is the last of the three pros that Stallings has on his roster. He is an absolute force in the post and few players can match up with him effectively. He also moves surprisingly well for a player his size and is a formidable presence in the post on defense. Vanderbilt will be without Ezeli for at least the first month of the season though as he recently sprained a knee ligament that will sideline him for six to eight weeks (during the team he is injured he will also be serving a six-game NCAA suspension), and it will be interesting to see how long it takes before he is back to full strength.
While the Commodores’ will rely heavily on their Big Three, the team has a lot of depth that will help them overcome the loss of Ezeli for the first six to eight weeks. The two other starters are senior point guard Brad Tinsley, who led the SEC in assists last year, and senior forward Lance Goulbourne, an athletic forward capable of playing multiple positions. Steve Tchiengang, another senior, will likely take Ezeli’s spot in the starting lineup at the beginning of the season. He is a mucker who is not afraid to mix it up with the opponent, but also has the ability to step outside and knock down a three or two. Last season, Vanderbilt only played one guard off the bench, but they brought in two highly touted freshmen, point guard Kedren Johnson and shooting guard Dai-Jon Parker, who will help take some of the pressure of Tinsley and Jenkins. Sophomore guard Kyle Fuller, an exciting player who plays recklessly at times, returns to round out the backcourt. In the frontcourt, Vandy is led by forward Rod Odom, a point forward who can shoot, handle and pass the ball like a guard. Redshirt freshman Josh Henderson will be getting big minutes with Ezeli gone, and after taking a year to get stronger should be ready to contribute. Swingman James Siakam and forward Shelby Moats round out the bench for Vanderbilt.
Lance Goulbourne is the team’s X-Factor. For a stretch in SEC play last season, Goulbourne was an absolute vacuum on the glass. He started off conference play with double digit rebounding efforts in five of the team’s first six SEC games, and later had a 17-rebound game against LSU. He is a very athletic and versatile player who can play the three, four and even the five. It wouldn’t be surprising to see him play center when the team decides to go small. While Goulbourne has shown flashes of being an excellent role player, he disappeared often last season particularly after suffering an ankle injury that slowed him down. If he can be consistent all year long, the Commodores can be very dangerous.
Getting Over The Hump
The last two seasons, Vandy has put together two great regular seasons before bowing out to double-digit seeds in the first round of the NCAA Tournament in both years. The Commodores held late leads in both games before failing to hold on, and that inability to get out of the first round lingers over the program. Jenkins, Taylor and Ezeli have all said the chance to do something special this year helped them decide to come back, and doing something special will require getting past the first round. Once the Commodores get that first victory, the monkey will be lifted off their backs and they will position themselves for a deep run. However, if the team is unable to get past the first round, the disappointment would be hard to overstate for a team looking to make history.
What are your impressions of Vandy? Is this the year they finally go deep in March?
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