The ghosts of 2007 hang over Memorial Gym, and they can only be exorcised by a NCAA Tournament win. The Commodores haven't won a game in the big dance since the glory days of Shan Foster, Derrick Byars, and team MVP Ted Skuchas. The memories of these Vanderbilt standouts haunt the hallowed halls of America's greatest basketball gym, sustained by the raising of banners that merely say "NCAA First Round" rather than "Sweet Sixteen" or better. It has been almost four years since two SEC Players of the Year brought the 'Dores within a Jeff Green travel of heading to a first-ever Elite Eight. While there have been some good moments in the interim, there hasn't been a single shining moment in March.
However, Byars and Foster may have left the blueprint for success behind with them in 2007. They took a team that ran two-deep with all-SEC talent and packed with veteran role players and rode them through a turbulent regular season and into the Sweet Sixteen. Now, the question that the 2010-2011 'Dores will have to answer is this: Can John Jenkins and Jeffery Taylor lead this team to NCAA Tournament success?
Certainly, it's asking a lot of the two young players, but athletically the pair are built to exceed the accomplishments of the dynamic duo before them. However, they have a lot to do before they can catch up to the output that Byars and Foster created. The biggest stretch may be hoping that Taylor can match the production that Byars provided for the 2006/07 team, as the Virginia transfer put together one of the best all-around seasons in Vanderbilt history in his last year. Optimistically, similarities exist for the two players that suggest this is possible.
Byars used his outside shooting, complemented by a NBA-ready body and athletic all-around game to become an offensive force. Taylor has grown into a similar beast, only using the opposite combination to get where he is today - starting with athleticism and growing his shot from there. While it's unlikely that JT can become the consistent three-point threat that Byars was, his slashing game and bulked up frame gives him the opportunity to attack the basket more aggressively than his predecessor could.
The key to this transformation will be whether or not Jeffery Taylor can embrace the number one option like Derrick Byars did. As Vanderbilt dealt with early struggles, Byars put the team on his back and the ball in his hands as he led the team to one of the most memorable seasons in school history. He took 180 more shots and got to the free throw line nearly twice as often as he did during his junior year, allowing his confidence and scoring ability to open up the floor for his supporting cast. Despite losing some efficiency, he made that team better through his leadership. His final stat line of 17 points, five rebounds, 3.5 assists, and 1.5 steals per game showcased his all around performance - though Vandy's 22 wins was the better indicator of his talent.
Can Jeffery Taylor make this jump? Physically, all signs point to yes. The most encouraging sign that Taylor could fill Byars's shoes at small forward is a look at their statistics. Here's what Byars did in his first season as a 'Dore compared to Taylor as a sophomore:
The two produced at a similar rate in their seasons before taking over as the primary scoring option on their team (as Taylor is expected to do in 2011). While Byars had a more diverse overall game, Taylor was the more efficient scorer and defender. Talent-wise, you can make the argument that the Swedish Eagle is in better position for a breakout than Byars was. Mentally? No one knows but Taylor himself.
However, he can't do it alone, and much like Byars he'll have a sidekick pushing the team's surge to the top of the SEC. Shan Foster was supposed to be the alpha dog of that 2007 team, but ceded to his backcourt mate as option 1B on offense. His usually solid three-point stroke was glitchy that year, but he still kept opposing defenses honest by using his quickness to drive inside and expanding his game within the perimeter. As the season progressed, there was no doubt who the team's two leaders were, and despite having similar strengths, the pair carried the 'Dores deep into the NCAA Tournament.
Like Foster, John Jenkins is a silky smooth shooter who was a headline-grabbing recruit for Kevin Stallings. However, he's been shown to be more one-dimensional early in his career than Foster (who played as a big man in high school) had been. Jenkins, so far, has been brought along as a pure shooter without the length or interior game that Foster possessed - but is still very young. While the 6'4" sophomore has shown tremendous poise and value in his time in Nashville, he needs to develop a more polished all-around game in order to become a star. While shooting is a huge part of entrenching yourself in Vanderbilt lore, he needs to expand his horizons in order to have the type of impact that lifts both himself and his teammates up.
Shan Foster used his sophomore and junior seasons to create a name for himself while strengthening his leadership abilities. Jenkins has the same opportunity ahead of him in 2011. He's already shown that he's ready to take big shots, and this season promises more chances for JJ to play the hero. Thanks to Sugar Shan, a pretty successful blueprint has already been laid out for him - and his coaching staff - at shooting guard.
Jenkins has the talent to get there, and he's already showing promise as option 1B for this team. Behind him, this team has all the ability of the 06/07 squad, just appropriated differently. While the '07 team was stocked with more pure shooters (Alex F-ing Gordon, Dan Cage, Jermaine Beal, Alan Metcalfe...sort of), this team is more athletic, stronger in the paint, and better suited to run the floor. Behind the two stars, here's a breakdown of the rotations:
|PG||Alex Gordon||Brad Tinsley|
|PF||Ross Neltner||Andre Walker|
|C||Alan Metcalfe||Festus Ezeli|
|Rotation:||Dan Cage||Lance Goulbourne|
|Ted Skuchas||Steve Tchiengang|
|Jermaine Beal||Kyle Fuller|
|JeJuan Brown||Rod Odom|
The talent is there, and these Commodores have a similar mix of veteran glue guys and young athletes that can shake up games throughout the year. In fact, it's no stretch to say that this squad, from top to bottom, is comprised of better basketball players than the 06/07 team. What it doesn't have right now - as far as we can tell - are leaders. Can Jeffery Taylor and John Jenkins step into that role? Will glue guys like Andre Walker and Brad Tinsley be enough to drive this team like Alex Gordon or Ross Neltner could when the stars' shots weren't falling? Most importantly, can this collection of young athletes - with 12 players returning from last year - come together as a team to rebound from a bitterly disappointing end to the 2010 season?
The weight of this team has been passed down from Jermaine Beal and A.J. Ogilvy. Jeffery Taylor put on 25 pounds of muscle in the offseason just to help him carry it. He can't do it alone, and if no other Commodores can step up and help him shoulder the burdens of leadership, we'll be watching another hollow "First Round" banner get raised to the Memorial rafters.