This year's early-season tournament brought back mixed results but a mostly positive outcome. Vanderbilt out-slopped Nebraska, were outgunned by West Virginia, and out-muscled North Carolina on their way to a 2-1 record against three major conference schools. More importantly, the team didn't crumble against legitimate competition away from Memorial Gym, and gave fans some realistic expectations for the upcoming SEC season. While some questions still remain, last week's action presented a few truths for the college basketball faithful to ponder this holiday season.
1. John Jenkins is going to get his. Jenkins put on a display of leadership and scoring in Puerto Rico that has inspired confidence in this team's season. The sophomore averaged nearly 22 points per game in the tournament despite not really finding his range outside of the second half against West Virginia. He scored from all over the court, doing damage from long range (eight three pointers), inside the arc (eight field goals), and especially from the free throw line (25-28 total).
Jenkins still isn't much for setting up others and his dribbling needs to improve, but the highly touted guard showed that there's more to his game than just three-pointers. Many, including myself, questioned how he would react when teams pressured him at the arc and forced him inside. So far, he's been able to handle the pressure. Though he hasn't been as efficient as he could be, John Jenkins showed that he plans on being the top scoring option for this team in 2011.
2. Jeffery Taylor is going to struggle with consistency. The junior didn't exactly have a tournament to remember, playing poorly against Nebraska and West Virginia, but it wasn't a total loss. Taylor's start to the UNC game was some of the best basketball I've ever seen from a single player. Only Shan Foster's performance against Mississippi State tops it as far as explosive acts of ridiculousness go. In under three minutes, the much-hyped junior drained two threes, made an And-1 layup, and had two insane blocks on what should have been easy North Carolina baskets.
And then, he disappeared.
Taylor was a non-factor offensively for the rest of the half, and though his defense on Harrison Barnes was still impressive, it was tough not to wonder about what happened to the Swedish Eagle as the game wore on. He reemerged in the second half to pick up some easy points, but wasn't the force that he suggested he could be with his flurry of scoring early in the game. Is it a confidence issue? Was Taylor just focusing more on defense? Was it a conscious strategy to defer to others? Maybe it's not that important - Vanderbilt opened up a double-digit lead and played encouragingly while Taylor was his quietest on offense.
3. Brad Tinsley has three months to work on his ballhandling. Kyle Fuller, in the meantime, should get used to taking over against the full court press. Tinsley has been solid at the point so far, making his teammates better with understated play and providing a little bit of everything as floor general. That said, he struggled mightily against North Carolina's full court pressure, and clearly lacks confidence in his ballhandling ability. When pressed, Tinsley struggled with outrunning his defender or finding open teammates coming to help. This failure led to Vandy's 22 turnovers against the Tar Heels.
Fuller, however, showed a greater level of composure when trusted with the ball. Though he's not the passer, scorer, or playmaker that Tinsley is right now, he has the quickness and dribbling ability to keep his head up against the full court press and get the ball into the half court. If he can adjust his offense enough to be effective (I can't count his circus-shot scoring as an asset just yet), he will be a major asset to the team as a freshman. He's already made the case for a Fuller-Tinsley backcourt in extended stretches when John Jenkins is on the bench.
4. Festus Ezeli is going to keep opposing defenses honest - and give opposing coaches nightmares - if he can stay on the court. Ezeli left Puerto Rico on a high note, scoring 15 points with nine rebounds against UNC, but he also left San Juan with 13 fouls in just 58 total minutes for the tournament. Fes proved that he can finish around the rim and that opposing bigs will have to stay with him rather than jump out on double teams - which means that guys like Taylor and Jenkins should get easier looks throughout the season. However, this doesn't have much of an impact if the big Nigerian can't stay on the floor for more than 20 minutes per game.
Part of the problem could be attributed to the Tip-Off's overzealous refs, but the balance between Ezeli's development on the court and the foul trouble keeping him on the bench will be a recurring theme for the Commodores. The more Festus plays, the better this team does. Just as importantly, more court time will help aid his continuing growth - and hopefully affect his gentle touch around the rim on offense.
5. The bench is as good as we thought it could be. Lance Goulbourne, Steve Tchiengang, Rod Odom, and Kyle Fuller have rounded out the team's nine-man rotation, and each player has had their own impressive spurts early in the season. Odom showcased a soft scoring touch against West Virginia. Tchiengang proved that he can handle the duties at center and pull down rebounds in traffic. Goulbourne had a breakout game against UNC and seems to be growing into the potential he showed as a freshman. Even Fuller, who has had some hiccups so far this year, has looked capable of handling the point early in his career.
There will be growing pains, especially with two freshmen getting significant minutes, but it's hard not to like what Vandy has stacked on their bench. As the season develops and these players' roles become more clearly defined, the Commodores will only get stronger. There's still a lot of work to be done, but the actual results so far bode well for the potential results of the future.