Basketball season is approaching, but if James Franklin has his way, Festus Ezeli and his team will have to wait to earn front page headlines.
Vanderbilt football's hot start has been the focus of middle Tennessee's media coverage, and rightfully so. Franklin's hard work on the recruiting trail and three straight wins have helped elicit a buzz that the team has only duplicated once in the past decade. However, with a bye week disrupting the flow of coverage surrounding the gridiron 'Dores, our attention will briefly flip to those tall guys who have been at Dudley Field for every game of the season so far.
Memorial Madness, which marks the first official day of team practices, happens October 14th. Less than a month later, the team opens up their 2011 campaign at home against Oregon. In between, we'll either be gearing up for a Vanderbilt football bowl bid or slowly turning our attention towards the most talented basketball squad to ever play in Memorial Gym. The team returns all five of their starters from 2010. Every player who logged significant minutes, with the exception of Joe Duffy, will be working to bring the Commodores to their first ever Final Four in 2011-2012.
These returning players are bolstered by a pair of impact recruits. Kedren Johnson and Dai-Jon Parker will immediately address the team's lack of depth in the backcourt. Both are considered high-level prospects and each will be given the opportunity to earn rotational minutes from the second that they step on Ingram Court. A third recruit, Shelby Moats, could end up prying his way into playing time at the team's very deep power forward position. The additions of redshirt freshmen Josh Henderson and James Siakam will pad the team's depth as well.
The end result is the deepest and most talented team (on paper) to ever call Memorial Gym home. The expectations will be high as Kevin Stallings's touted recruiting class of 2008 will make their last run at legendary status. Here's what our depth chart looks like in preliminary form. Expect changes to occur as the preseason wears on, though Ezeli, Taylor, and Jenkins's spots in the starting five are basically locks.
Brad Tinsley is this team's steady hand at point guard. He's proven that he can calmly control an offense and score when needed from anywhere on the court. He's not an All-SEC talent, but he's the kind of player any elite team needs to make a deep run in March. Behind him, sophomore "Oh God" Kyle Fuller and freshman Kedren Johnson will battle for backup minutes and occasional stretches alongside Tinsley. Johnson is the more explosive talent, but Fuller's experience and development will give him the edge at backup for now. However, don't be surprised to see the first-year player's minutes increase as the season goes on at OGKF's expense.
John Jenkins will be looking to lock down the SEC Player of the Year award this season, which could be his last in Nashville. The team significantly upgraded their depth behind him with the addition of Parker, ESPN's 33rd ranked recruit in 2011. The freshman is touted as a strong, but streaky, shooter whose slashing game will complement Jenkins's work from behind the arc. Kedren Johnson could see minutes here as well thanks to his size (6'4", 215lbs) and his penchant for physical defense.
Jeffery Taylor will have the opportunity to prove that he's reconciled his immense physical talent with his erratic killer instinct in his senior season. Air Sweden is one of the country's best defenders at the 3 and performed capably at power forward in small-ball lineups. Behind him, the lithe Rod Odom will earn minutes as a key rotational player after a solid freshman year in 2010. James Siakam, a redshirt freshman, is a tenacious defender and rebounder who is more of a natural 4 than a true 3. Unfortunately, his lack of size suggests that he'll spend more time at small forward in 2011.
Oddly enough, Lance Goulbourne is listed as a Guard/Forward on the official Vanderbilt roster despite playing the bulk of his minutes in 2010 as the team's starting power forward. His rebounding ability improved immensely last season, and if Goulbourne can continue to develop his game he'll give the Commodores an all-star starting five. Versatile big man Steve Tchiengang looks like he'll be at full strength in 2011 after offseason ankle surgery, and he will get the chance to stretch defenses at both PF and C this year. Odom, thanks to his height and some added bulk, will likely get some minutes as a finesse 4, while freshman Shelby Moats is another shooting big man in the classic Vanderbilt mold.
C: Festus Ezeli | Tchiengang | Josh Henderson
Festus Ezeli will look to cap his fifth year on campus with a SEC title. The big Nigerian was perhaps the NCAA's most improved player in 2010-2011 and has elicited early buzz as a potential lottery pick in the 2012 NBA Draft. Tchiengang, despite lacking the height of a true center, has the girth and grit to spell Ezeli for stretches on the court. Josh Henderson, a redshirt freshman, brings a true face-up game to the post for Vanderbilt, and could be a good change-of-pace player for the team if foul trouble becomes a factor for the Commodore big men. He still needs to add bulk to be effective in the NCAA, but he'll have chances to contribute throughout the 2011-12 season.