The long wait is over; SEC games are almost here. Vanderbilt will work to parlay a hot streak in out-of-conference play into Southeastern Conference success Saturday when they face off against South Carolina in Columbia. 2010 showcased another year of Commodore domination when it came to their non-SEC slate. However, despite their early successes in the past, the team has yet to be able to roll this winter momentum into a springtime title. Vandy has often played the role of paper tiger under Kevin Stallings before falling just short of a conference banner.
2011 provides the promise that things will be different. Unlike years past, these Commodores faced a significantly tougher road to get to league play. The days of playing in the Cancun Challenge and avoiding legitimate teams are over, as Vanderbilt faced five Top 50 squads scattered amongst the usual OOC patsies like Grambling, Presbyterian, and Southeastern Louisiana. Despite these challenges, the team pulled with an 11-2 record and a Top 25 ranking in both major polls.
The early returns suggest that national media types now understand what Vandy fans have been saying all along; that this team is one of the best in the SEC. When preseason predictions put the 'Dores in the bottom half of the conference and fifth in the East, we collectively shrugged it off; we knew what these guys could do. Despite some hiccups against West Virginia and Missouri, the mens' basketball team has played up to the potential that the Vanderbilt faithful knew they were capable of.
The scary thing is, despite being 11-2, they still aren't firing on all cylinders - and haven't yet this season.
So what have we learned in the first two months of the season, specifically? Let's take a look at some of the answers the first 13 games have given us.
1. Jeffery Taylor: Still Inconsistent. Taylor is this team's biggest draft prospect and its best athlete. At 6'7", 225 lbs and with the ability to jump out of the gym, the sky is the limit for his future as a basketball player. Coming into this season, two questions surrounded his play; would he be able to improve his shooting range, and would he be able to consistently translate his skills against top opponents?
The answers were yes and no. While Taylor has shown more confidence and better range when it comes to his long distance shooting, his minutes on the floor have become feast-or-famine when it comes to impacting the game. This was on full display during the team's November win against North Carolina; Taylor started the game with a four-minute burst that included nine points, two three-pointers, two rebounds, and two huge blocks. Then, he faded into the background for his next 20 minutes of court time.
Much of his season has been like this, and though he's come on a bit stronger as the season has progressed, it will be tough to rely on him to set the pace for this team offensively. For now, Commodore fans will have to expect outstanding defense and erratic offense out of the Swedish Eagle. However, if he can string together a collection of dominating 20+ point performances in league play, Taylor might be able to lead this team deep into the NCAA Tournament and become a 2011 NBA Lottery Pick.
2. Brad Tinsley is neither this team's hero nor its goat. Tinsley had huge shoes to fill when Jermaine Beal left Nashville, and for the most part the junior point guard has played admirably. He's been a jack-of-all-trades and stable presence for this team while providing as a steady influence on freshman Kyle Fuller. However, his in-game performances have made him a volatile figure amongst fans and critics. Few players could pull off the highs and lows that BT reached as this team's quarterback in the early season, going from recording the school's first ever triple-double to singlehandedly robbing the team of a marquee win in a month's span.
Tinsley's fate in 2011 lies somewhere in the middle of the two extremes. The 6'3" combo guard will never be a NBA prospect, but he's a solid player with great basketball instincts who has shown that he can handle the point - and that he's learning on the job. Just look at his growing ability to handle full-court pressure late in games for evidence of his in-season progression. He'll pepper the team with some amazing and terrible performances throughout the season, but mostly he'll keep an even keel at point guard for a team that desperately needs stability. Much like Andre Walker, Tinsley's play will prove to be the glue that holds this team together.
3. This is the best defending team Kevin Stallings has had in Nashville. Coach Stallings has kept opponents off balance by throwing a combination of man-to-man and zone defenses at opponents, but its become clear that Vanderbilt's strength on their own end comes from a zone defense anchored by Festus Ezeli. The combination of Ezeli, Walker, and Taylor gives the 'Dores one of the best defensive frontcourts in the SEC. Tinsley and John Jenkins on the perimeter are sufficient defenders as well, and the help defense on the interior has been brilliant at times.
This team still has trouble securing missed shots, but has a wealth of long, athletic forwards to throw at opponents in the paint. Rod Odom, Steve Tchiengang, and Lance Goulbourne are all skilled defenders who give the team the flexibility to throw a lot of different looks at rival teams. Though depth in the post is an issue, this team is stacked with solid defenders.
4. The freshmen have potential, but we can't count on them yet. Rod Odom and Kyle Fuller are the team's only active freshmen, and both have had their moments while wearing the black and gold. Odom, to date, has had the more successful transition from high school ball, but Fuller has also shown spurts of solid ballhandling and flashy play.
Fuller's growing pains can be directly attributable to his decision making. Though he sees the court well, he too often settles for bad shots or circus-style drives. The kid is exciting to watch, no doubt, but his style of play is equal parts thrilling and cringe-inducing. Despite these issues, his defense and ballhandling is solid and his struggles aren't due to a lack of ability, suggesting that improvement is imminent for the youngster..
Odom has been pressed into the spotlight more due to injuries, and has shown that he can play across three positions for the Commodores (SG/SF/PF), though it's clear he's most comfortable as a small forward. He's a lengthy athlete with range and good one-on-one defensive abilities. Unfortunately, he still seems to be adjusting to the team's defense and can be a liability on the floor.
Both players have had their moments, and they'll be counted on to fill small roles as part of this team's rotation. However, if injuries pop up and either has to start, Commodore fans better hope that they can adjust to the SEC's steep learning curve quickly.
5. John Jenkins is going to make Alex Gordon's shot selection seem conservative. Jenkins doesn't care about streaks. He doesn't care about defenders. He doesn't care if he's standing still or coming off a screen. He just wants to shoot the ball.
Jenkins has been given the green light in his sophomore year, and alongside some 5-10 and 5-8 three-point shooting nights have been some 0-6, 1-5, and 2-15 (!) stinkers. I guess you have to take the good with the bad, but maybe Coach Stallings can limit JJ's 15 shot nights to games where he's connecting on more than 13% of his shots from the field. Jenkins's shooting reminds me of a piece I wrote about Alex Gordon's glory days a few years back. Maybe we should start calling him John Fucking Jenkins.
Still, even on his off nights Jenkins can be counted on for double-digit points, and he seems like a pretty safe bet to lead this team in scoring. Even in a short-term slump he's still shooting 37.5% from long distance, and he's going to be Vanderbilt's most dangerous scoring threat every night.
6. A forward for every occasion. As previously mentioned, the Commodores boast a deep roster of forwards who have been the foundation of this team's success. Every player brings a unique skillset and value to the squad, and Kevin Stallings has done a good job of managing their talents. Alongside Jeffery Taylor, Vanderbilt needs at least two out of the Walker-Goulbourne-Tchiengang-Odom group of forwards to perform well in big minutes to have their best opportunity to win games. We saw this flexibility while Walker was out with mono and while Goulbourne was suspended; when one player falls, the others step up.
This is one of the most talented rotations that Stallings has ever had at Vanderbilt, and this depth in the frontcourt is a huge part of that. They can bang underneath with Stevie Thunder, defend on the perimeter with Walker and Odom, or throw Goulbourne's athleticism into the paint for some high-flying dunks. That's a lot for any opponent to have to gameplan against.
7. Festus Ezeli: Potential Realized? We saved the season's best development for last. The only reason I put a question mark there is because we're still a long way from seeing the best Festus Ezeli Vanderbilt coaching can craft. Ezeli went from being a foul-prone, offensively-challenged backup to a legitimate post threat once the reins were handed to him at center in 2010-2011.
Festus had long been considered a prospect with massive upside, but few predicted (credit to KingJamesIV on his prediction) he would make fans forget about A.J. Ogilvy so quickly. Ezeli has improved every aspect of his game, from adding post moves and a softer baby hook, to moving without the ball on offense to facilitate easy points, to even - gasp - free throw shooting. 2011 looks like it will be the year that "Big Fezz" makes the leap from cult hero to household name. Ezeli looks like a surefire pick for the SEC's All-Defensive team this year; if he keeps improving that this rate, he could just be a darkhorse All-American in 2012.
So what do we know? We know this team is flawed, but talented - and in an equally flawed SEC, that may put the 'Dores in line for their first conference title since 1993. Kevin Stallings and his Commodore crew have rebuilt on the fly after the departures of Beal and Ogilvy, and appear to be even stronger as a result. For a team that finished 12-4 in league play last year, that should be enough to put the rest of the Southeastern Conference on notice.