The 2011-2012 season is one of the most anticipated years of Vanderbilt basketball ever to come to Nashville. The stakes have never been higher for Kevin Stallings and his Commodores, as high preseason rankings and Final Four buzz have permeated through Tennessee and into the national media. The team returns every starter and rotational player from a squad that was a staple of top 25 polls throughout the 2010-2011 campaign. Three of these returnees are prospective NBA first-round picks and Wooden Award contenders. John Jenkins is a trendy pick for SEC Player of the Year.
They'll be surrounded by a mix of heady veterans and promising young athletes. All of these players have one goal in mind; to shake off the disappointments of the team's past three NCAA Tournament losses and advance where no Vanderbilt team has ever gone before - to a men's national championship.
The Commodores have six months to prepare for March Madness. Their journey will start in November with a home game against Oregon before opening up a tough non-conference slate. We'll break down the roster leading up to their season opener, starting with the team's three point guards and moving up the positional chart through all the way to center.
Point guard has been a position of strength for the Commodores in recent years. Mario Moore, Alex Gordon, Jermaine Beal, and now Brad Tinsley have all been capable overseers at the point. Beal stands out as the team's best player and strongest leader as floor general during this span, but each of these four players have been a driving force behind some very strong Vanderbilt teams. Kevin Stallings has typically used his point guards as shooters and scorers rather than pure passers, utilizing other members of the offense to create ball movement as well. Andre Walker's strong play as a passing forward is a strong example of how the Stallings' offense has been successful in recent years without relying on a pass-first guard.
The Starter: Brad Tinsley - Tinsley is more of a combo guard than a natural point, but he's performed admirably after stepping into Beal's starting spot in 2010-2011. He's solid in all aspects of the game but excels in none, which makes him a great background starter for this team. Tins can shoot, pass, rebound, and defend well enough to fill whatever gaps this team has had in the backcourt in the past. In 2011-2012, he'll be counted on to provide the leadership that could drive this team to a Final Four berth.
However, Tinsley's lack of natural point instincts have occasionally hurt this team. While he does a good job of protecting the ball and led the SEC in assists last season (4.5 per game), his inability to improvise at the end of games contributed to a stagnant Commodore offense and a handful of last-minute letdowns in 2010-2011. Too many games that season ended with Tinsley dribbling patiently while John Jenkins futilely tried to pop off screens, then settling for a weak pass or long, ineffective jumper.
Tinsley is a solid player who can knock down some big shots and distribute well, but he won't overwhelm anyone with flashiness. He plays hard and has outpaced the expectations put on him as a starter following one hell of a sophomore slump in 2009. He could be even more effective in 2011 with a pair of young point guards behind him. This will allow him to play off the ball in spurts and revert back to his more natural 1/2 combination. Though he'll never get the accolades of Jenkins, Taylor, or Ezeli, his importance to the team can't be overstated. Look for him to earn a spot on Seth Davis's All-Glue team in 2012.
The backup: Kyle Fuller - Fuller's new nickname for this season is "Zoommy," but Vandy fans may know him better as "OH GOD KYLE FULLER" after a freshman campaign that was equal parts awesome and terrifying. The sophomore had a rough season acclimating to SEC basketball, where the speed and size advantages that made him a prolific scorer in high school were no longer available. Though he was capable of running the point in stretches in the middle of halves, his uneven play was a big part of Brad Tinsley's career-high 32 minutes per game last season.
Fuller's high-intensity play made him a tenacious defender, but it also made him vulnerable to overcommitting against the league's better guards. He also struggled to find his shot throughout the season, finishing with just a 30.8 FG% and a disappointing 24.1 3PT%. While Fuller was often able to use his driving abilities to get past his defender and into the lane, NCAA defensive rotations were too much for him to handle. This led to a high number of blocked shots against the youngster.
Despite last year's problems, Fuller should show significant improvements in 2011-2012, especially with Kedren Johnson pushing him not only for the backup role this year, but for the starting position in coming years. Fuller is a scoring point guard in the Alex Gordon mold and there's plenty that Kevin Stallings and his crew can do with him, especially if he maintains his commitment to defense. Though it's unlikely he'll ever develop into a pure point, he's a capable player who can fit into this system with ease if he continues to improve throughout his Vanderbilt career.
The new guy: Kedren Johnson - Of the three guards listed today, Johnson may have the best passing instincts of them all. The 6'4" freshman turned down offers from Florida and Louisville to come to Nashville, where he'll have the chance to impact this team immediately. His size gives him an advantage on both ends of the court, as he can see over most opposing PGs offensively and use his body to defend 1s and 2s at the NCAA level.
Johnson's game relies on his ability to penetrate, and his use of the dribble-drive will help change things up for the Commodores this season. However, he's not the pure shooter that Tinsley is, and he may struggle to keep defenders honest through the use of long jumpers during the season. Defensively, he'll have to improve his lateral quickness to keep the SEC's better guards in front of him.
Johnson should earn plenty of minutes if he can be the player that his high school scouting reports make him out to be. He's a big, physical guard that gives Vanderbilt a change-of-pace option off the bench behind Tinsley. Expect him to seriously challenge Fuller for the primary backup spot and even earn minutes in a three-guard set alongside Tinsley and John Jenkins as the season wears on. If he can consistently connect from long range, he's got the potential to be the best point guard Kevin Stallings has coached at Vanderbilt.