As October rolls to a close, magic has begun to fill the air. Memorial Magic, that is.
Yes, the season is upon us for cheesy introductions and hardwood action. The college basketball season is less than two weeks away, and Vanderbilt will try to improve on a strong finish to their 2012-2013 season despite losing four players from a team that didn't have a single player graduate last May. The Commodores enter this fall with two starters, one key rotational player, and one up-and-coming role player struck from their active roster. This includes leading scorer and starting point guard Kedren Johnson, who will sit out this year due to undisclosed disciplinary reasons.
Johnson will leave a big offensive gap for the Commodores. He represented the team's best threat to get into the lane and score at the rim while maintaining a solid outside shooting game. However, he'll leave behind an otherwise-strong guard rotation that should drive Vanderbilt to some victories this winter. Veterans Kyle Fuller and Dai-Jon Parker will team with transfer Eric McClellan to give the 'Dores a talented rotation in the backcourt.
Today, we'll kick off the 2013-2014 Vanderbilt Men's Basketball Season Preview by looking at the floor generals who will be tasked with keeping the Commodore offense afloat. Two point guards will take over ballhandling duties this winter, and they're a pair of steady athletes who will complement each other well in Vandy's guard rotation. One is a heady veteran who has experienced the best and worst of what this team has had to offer over the past four years. The other is a Vanderbilt newcomer with a year of NCAA play under his belt. Let's take a closer look at the two guys who will man the point for Kevin Stallings.
Kyle Fuller: Fuller has become a fan favorite with his headstrong style of play, and he'll have the opportunity to take the reins as this team's leader by virtue of being one of only two seniors on the team. The Californian paired with Rod Odom to help drive Vanderbilt's late-season resurgence last spring, but a streaky 2012-2013 left questions about his consistency and his ability to be this team's go-to player night in and night out. He proved last year that he is well suited to be a change-of-pace player off the bench, and his 25-point outburst against Xavier single-handedly led this team to their biggest out-of-conference win that year.
Fuller is a big, strong guard who can defend well thanks to his willingness to cover every inch of the floor. His stocky build makes him tough to back down, and he has great lateral movement that makes him a tough assignment for any opposing guard in the SEC. He's not a traditional distributor, but he works as a scoring point who can handle the ball and stand up against full court pressure - something that's especially useful for a Commodore team that has been tripped up by the press in the past. He has the speed and strength to get into the paint, but he's a streaky scorer who can make bad decisions with the ball in his hand. His 38.7 FG% was the best of his career last season, and while his three-point attempts went up to three per game in 2012-2013, he made less than 30 percent of those shots.
The senior leader will have to prove that he can play a smarter offensive game if he's going to lead this team to the postseason. He can't allow himself to be forced into bad shots late in the shot clock, and he'll have to become a better distributor to create an efficient offense in Nashville. The second part of that equation could get easier in 2014 with a health Josh Henderson and promising freshman Damian Jones working up front. Even so, it may be fair to say that Fuller's play will be the biggest factor in Vanderbilt's wins and losses in 2013-2014.
Eric McClellan: McClellan was a contributor for Tulsa as a true freshman before leaving the Golden Hurricane to play for Kevin Stallings last season. Though he's only been able to contribute in practices and scrimmages so far, he's earned high praise for his ability to lead this team from the backcourt. Vanderbilt student manager Daniel Marks was effusive with his praise of the transfer guard last season, pointing out his smooth shooting stroke and vocal tendencies on the court.
The 6'4" point guard can replace the size that Johnson had brought to the point over the last two seasons. While he's leaner than Johnson and more prone to being pushed away by stronger guards, he has the length to cover either position in the backcourt, which means that he can play alongside Fuller for stretches. Along with Dai-Jon Parker, the trio should combine to give the Commodores a strong backcourt on both sides of the court in 2013-2014.
McClellan didn't shoot a ton of threes in his one year at Tulsa, but he connected on 38 percent of them. Look for him to get the green light from the perimeter much more often in Kevin Stallings's three-heavy offense. In terms of passing, the redshirt sophomore has slightly better assist-per-minute numbers than Fuller (one every 10.5 minutes for McClellan, one every 13.1 minutes for Fuller) but a worse AST:TO ratio (2:1.4 for Fuller, 2.2:3.1 for McClellan) despite playing against lesser opponents. That's something that should improve with a full year of practice and growth under his belt, but the Commodores will still have to prove that they can function with a pair of point guards who are better scorers than distributors.
Overall: Vanderbilt's point guard position could be a real strength in 2013-2014, even without standout Kedren Johnson. McClellan has earned rave reviews since arriving in Nashville, and Fuller will now have the opportunity to apply everything he's learned in three years as a Commodore. Since Fuller had a greater impact for this team off the bench in 2013, don't be surprised if the former Tulsa starter earns the first-team nod in his first eligible season in black and gold.
The two will make an underrated duo for Vandy, and while they won't be perfect, they'll be the catalyst behind a few significant wins this winter. Unfortunately, an injury to either player would be potentially devastating for this team. Let's hope they stay healthy for an undermanned Commodore squad.