After their heartbreaking loss to Ole Miss in the SEC Tournament last March, few people surrounding the Vanderbilt basketball team were sad to see the season end. The 16-17 record was their worst overall since the 2002-03 season, and included 2 games where they only managed 33 points (50-33 L to Marist, 56-33 L to Arkansas) as well as losses to small conference teams like Davidson and MTSU. Though the season as a whole will be quickly forgotten by most of the fans on West End, it did lay the groundwork for what looked like a promising 2013-14 campaign. Vanderbilt managed to beat both Arkansas and Kentucky (by 16!) in the SEC tournament, and won 6 of their last 8 overall. The team also did not graduate any Seniors, and was looking forward to adding 3 promising new players to the active roster in Tulsa transfer Eric McClellan (after a redshirt year), Freshman Center Damian Jones (#81 in the ESPN 100), and fellow big man Luke Kornet (though Kornet had not committed yet). At that point, it would have been reasonable to assume that the expected roster for 2013 would look something like this:
In a relatively weak year for the SEC, that team could have done some real damage. It is hard to argue against Florida being the class of the conference this year, but that Vanderbilt team would have had the potential to make a solid tournament run. Johnson, Bright, and Jeter had all been making huge progress in the second half of the season, and the addition of Jones as well as the Senior leadership of Odom and Fuller could have made all of us forget the days of John Jenkins and Jeff Taylor much sooner than we ever thought possible. Unfortunately, soon after the season ended the team started to unravel.
Near the end of April, news leaked out that Vanderbilt's promising young guard AJ Astroth had decided to transfer to Towson. Astroth had taken a redshirt year during his first season, and transferred in order to get more playing time. While no team likes to see a player transfer this early, the news was obviously not devastating as Astroth did not fit into the team's plans for this season. He was a great high school shooter and could have turned in to a solid contributor for us, but was unlikely to get off the bench anytime soon. Luckily for Vanderbilt, that same week Luke Kornet committed, so overall the team still seemed in good shape.
Total Scholarship players: 12
Just one month later, more bad news rolled in - this time, Sheldon Jeter, the Freshman forward who had averaged 5.5 ppg for the 'Dores, had decided to transfer to Pittsburgh. This announcement led to an ugly situation between Jeter and Stallings as CKS blocked Jeter from going to Pitt amid rumors of tampering, resulting in Jeter having to spend a semester at Polk State College. Ultimately, Jeter was able to land with Pittsburgh and will play there next year. For Vandy this departure hurt, but again seemed manageable considering their depth and experience on the wing.
Total Scholarship players: 11
The biggest hit that Vanderbilt has taken in the last year came during the last week of July. Within a few days, Kevin Bright announced his intention to return home to play professional basketball, and Vanderbilt announced that it had suspended Kedren Johnson from the university for a year. Just like that, Vanderbilt had lost 2 of its projected returning starters. These losses, on top of the departures of Jeter and Astroth, seriously affected Vanderbilt's depth moving forward. A once-promising season now seemed over before the fall semester had even begun.
Total Scholarship players: 9
Despite those four big losses, Vanderbilt started off a respectable 5-3 in 2013. Their three losses (Butler, Providence, and Texas) were all to quality competition, and they had managed to avoid laying any 33 point eggs. A part of their decent showing up to that point was due to the strong play of Junior Center Josh Henderson off the bench. He was finally showing some flashes of the potential that he had brought to campus four years earlier, averaging career highs in points (6.6), rebounds (4.3), and field goal percentage (.488). Unfortunately, Henderson went down against Marshall and suffered a torn ACL and MCL. These injuries required surgery and put him out for the rest of the season.
Total Scholarship players: 8
Just when it seemed like things couldn't get any worse for the 'Dores, Coach Stallings announced that starting guard and leading scorer Eric McClellan would not play in the first SEC game - a January 7th match-up against Alabama. Soon after, word came out that McClellan was no longer a part of the team. After all that the program had been through, this felt like the last straw. Not only did McClellan's departure rob the 'Dores of his 14.3 points, 4.4 rebounds, and 3.2 assists per game, it also left them with just 2 scholarship guards on the whole roster. Despite sitting at a decent 8-5 in the first week of January, fans in Nashville were ready to pack it in for the year early.
Total Scholarship players: 7
The Magnificent Seven
Although some fans may have abandoned the team during those dark days, the ones who remained have been rewarded with one of the most exciting seasons in recent Vanderbilt history. Against all odds, this Vanderbilt team has seemingly improved with each scholarship they have lost. Already this season Vanderbilt has beaten Missouri, Texas A&M, and Tennessee, and currently sits at 13-9 (5-5) within easy striking distance of all but the top two teams in the conference. Their recent 4-game winning streak gained them national praise, and Coach Stallings' reputation has never been higher. This new team, affectionately known as "the Magnificent Seven," might not look like much in warm-ups, but they have shown that they can go 40 minutes with any team in the conference. Their new lineup, while not nearly as impressive as it could have been, has been wreaking havoc on opposing teams.
One of the reasons that this team has enjoyed so much recent success has been the new opportunities provided by the many holes in the lineup. Rod Odom, Vandy's current leading scorer, has found a more natural fit on the wing and is shooting a career high 44.1% from 3 while averaging 15.2 points per game. Last week, he scored 26 in a win against Tennessee and 22 in a close loss to Arkansas, leading to him being named SEC Player of the Week. Kyle Fuller, Vandy's other Senior, has had an equally successful season. He posted double-doubles against both Kentucky (17 points and 10 assists) and UT (12 and 10), and has topped the 20 point mark three times already. James Siakam, the Junior who played just 8 minutes per game last year, is averaging 24 mpg this year and pushed Vanderbilt to a big win recently with his 22 point, 10 rebound game against Texas A&M. Damian Jones, the Freshman star, is averaging 11 points and 5.3 rebounds per game and posted a double-double against potential #1 pick (and his former AAU teammate) Julius Randle. Even a walk-on, Sophomore guard Carter Josephs, has contributed some big minutes against tough competition.
Overall, it doesn't matter that we have a 6-foot-nothing manager suiting up for us, or that we probably won't make the NCAA tournament this year. The Magnificent Seven have brought the old magic back to Memorial. I am sure that I will see many more talented teams in my remaining years as a Vanderbilt fan. We will continue to bring in some of the top players in the country and compete with the best that the NCAA has to offer. But regardless of how many 4 or 5 star players we have, regardless of how many SEC games we win or NCAA tournaments we make, I doubt that I will enjoy watching many other teams as much as I have enjoyed watching the Magnificent Seven play this year.