March the 17th was painful. Very painful. I couldn't figure out what exactly happened, but I knew I had seen it many times before during the course of the season. On the bright side, there were flashes of brilliance from Jeffery Taylor, solid scoring from John Jenkins, and a dominating performance down low from Festus Ezeli.
On the (very) ugly side, Taylor disappeared when the team needed his talent and leadership the most, Jenkins couldn't get open nor could anyone get him the ball, the bench had four points TOTAL, and Ezeli was, yet again, taken out of the game by Coach Kevin Stallings for far too long when the team desperately needed his post presence. Of all the second half performances I've seen this year, this may have been one of the worst, with poor substitutions, blown leads, lack of scoring leadership, and a complete dearth of poise in the clutch.
However, I can't say that I was surprised. We've seen the 30-some games our boys have played over the past six months, yet somehow I thought they'd learn how to hold a lead and shut down teams in time for a magical tournament run. I was wrong this year, just like I was wrong last year. With that being said, I woke up this morning slightly hungover and extremely excited for next season.
Here's what we get:
New recruits, redshirts, and improved bench playing!
First, one of the biggest problems Vanderbilt faced this year was a lack of scoring options and size behind SkyNet. Next year marks the start of Josh Henderson's career at Vandy and his 6'11" height and 220lbs frame will help fill out the middle and provide some much needed points when CKS inexplicably decides to take Festus out of games for extended periods of time. Henderson will allow Stevie Thunder to slide over to the 4 position, where he seems most comfortable and able to succeed. Josh will also bring some much needed help to our rebounding game.
Second, Vandy will receive the services of two four-star recruits in SG Dai-Jon Parker and PG Kedren Johnson. Both Parker and Johnson are excellent scorers, with Parker being the more dynamic athlete on both sides of the court. While I enjoy OGKF's ability to play behind Brad Tinsley, I've never been completely satisfied with the way Fuller handles the offense and his lack of scoring prowess (though his ridiculous scoop shots are growing on me). Johnson will remedy this problem with his large size (6'4", 215lbs) and explosive ability to get to the rim when needed. Dai-Jon will make a nice backup to Jenkins/Threesus/Flamethrower, with his solid three-point shooting and willingness to play defense.
Third, our bench players got a lot better as the year went on. I know I already called them out for not scoring or holding onto leads in the past month, but who thought Rodom, Stevie, and Fuller would play as well as they did for most of the season? I certainly didn't. I'm also quite sure that these players will work hard over the off-season on bulking up and being more consistent shooters. With the threat of SPINMOVE! leaving for the NBA, Stevie will need to step up and start at the 4, allowing Siakam to come off the bench for support. From what I've seen, Siakam is a big (6'7", 210lbs) and physical player, who has a killer instinct and can get to the rim when it matters. I have a good feeling about the Siakam/Thunder combo, as well as the Lance/Odom, Jenkins/Parker/Fuller, and Tinsley/Johnson combos.
Fourth, if Jenkins and Ezeli come back (which I believe they will), we're going to have a very good and experienced starting five. As the nation's most improved player, Ezeli can only get better. He has that killer instinct needed to take over the paint, with the size and strength to match. Jenkins realized half way through the season that he was more than a three-point shooter, learning how to get to the basket and create opportunities.
Although Tinsley started the season off poorly, he quickly became a solid scorer, excellent passer and ball handler, good defender, and memorable slam artist. Lance Goulbourne (or OGLL when he decides to shoot a three from the corner) showed that he had the toughness to crash the boards and tirelessly defend opponents, which is something the rest of the guys need to model. Stevie definitely made opponents pay with his surprisingly high three-point percentage and he could also get to the rim regularly. It's my belief that CKS did not fully utilize Steve's talents and we'll see a more consistent, confident player next year at the power forward position. With these guys at the helm, we have a great chance of winning the SEC outright next year.
Here's what we lose:
First, I'm 99% certain that Taylor will leave for the NBA. I'm also 99% certain that he won't make an NBA roster. He is undoubtedly a great player, but his lack of consistency on the offensive side of the ball will ultimately do him in. Taylor is a truly marvelous defender but I think he suffers from a complete lack of confidence at times, which lead him to shoot 1-10 and score 4 points in the biggest game of the year.
Second, I spent the entire season wondering what happened to Andre Walker. First it was the mono, then it was the ankle, and then he seemed to get better and was not played at all by CKS. Poor coaching? Bad attitude? Still injured? I have no idea. I'm really not sure whether or not he'll be back at Vandy next year. Walker is a solid ball handler who can distribute the ball nicely, so I would be sad to see him go, but with all of the new players, I'll be able to live with his departure. The same can be said for Darshawn McClellan.
Third, Joe Duffy. He's clearly the best ginger in the SEC. That is all.
With the wealth of talent at Vanderbilt next season, I have a hard time believing even CKS can screw this up. I'm excited for the emotional spark that Fuller brings, something I see in Johnson and Parker as well. Now we only have seven months to wait...