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SEC Hoops Preview Series: Vanderbilt

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To get everyone up to speed on the upcoming basketball season, AOG is running down all fourteen teams in the SEC. Today's preview: our own Vanderbilt Commodores.

Hopefully a frequent scene in 2015.
Hopefully a frequent scene in 2015.
Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

Basketball season is less than a month away.  You've probably forgotten about basketball since March, so to get everyone back up to speed on the state of hoops in the SEC, I'm writing previews for each of the 14 teams.  All work is my own, though I am relying on kenpom.com and sports-reference.com for some statistics.  Teams will be previewed in reverse order of their projected finish (according to me, anyway), so as this is the fourth of 14 previews, this is the team I project to finish 11th in the conference.

And yes, I am sure most readers here are familiar with this team.

Vanderbilt Commodores 2014-15 Basketball Preview

How Did We Get Here?

I probably don't need to rehash it for you.  Following the graduations of Jeffrey Taylor, Festus Ezeli, Steve Tchiengang, and Lance Goulbourne, and the departure of John Jenkins to the NBA, Vanderbilt struggled through an expected rebuilding season.  But with (at least on paper) everybody coming back for 2013-14, Vandy was expected to push their way back toward the top of the SEC.

It didn't happen.  2013-14 can only be fairly termed a Murphy's Law season, where basically everything that could possibly go wrong did, in fact, go wrong.  A.J. Astroth, who played sparingly in his freshman year and didn't really seem to fit into Vanderbilt's future plans, transferred in April, which at the time barely merited a footnote... though Vanderbilt sure could have used him as it turned out.  Then Sheldon Jeter transferred out of the program, with Kevin Stallings drawing some heat for blocking Jeter's transfer to Pitt.  Jeter ultimately did end up at Pitt after a year at a JuCo.

If it had stopped there, Vanderbilt still could have had a fine year.  But then, toward the end of the summer, Kevin Bright -- who had shown promise as a freshman -- decided to go pro in his native Germany, and Kedren Johnson got suspended from the university for a year.  Now things were teetering on the edge: Vandy would enter the season with only nine players on scholarship, and only three of those were guards.

But in case you thought that was bad enough, Josh Henderson tore his ACL eight games into the season and would miss the rest of the year.  Eight scholarship players.  And as a final knife to the season, Eric McClellan, who led the team in scoring through twelve games, got kicked off the team.  Vandy went through the SEC schedule with only seven scholarship players -- and two guards on scholarship.  Stallings played Kyle Fuller and Dai-Jon Parker 40 minutes a night for a while, before deciding later in the season to give extended minutes to walk-ons Carter Josephs and Nathan Watkins.

Now, I don't want to get into the eternal Kevin Stallings debate here, but I would point out that much of what happened last year was outside of Stallings' control.  And, in terms of preparing for such a situation, Stallings is hemmed in by the Vanderbilt administration, which (and I have this on good authority) doesn't allow oversigning to prepare for the possibility of personnel losses, nor does it allow coaches to cut players' scholarships in order to get below the limit.  Obviously I'll get to this in a later preview, but Andy Kennedy at Ole Miss could watch four players leave the program with eligibility remaining and already have their replacements on hand.  Stallings simply isn't allowed to do this.

Projected Depth Chart

Quick note: For starters, I'm using the five "traditional" positions on the floor even if the players may be otherwise listed on the roster, so you may see guards listed as forwards, forwards listed as centers, etc.  Recruiting rankings are the composite rankings from 247sports.com.

Losses
  • Rod Odom (36.0 mpg, 13.6 ppg, 5.2 rpg; graduated)
  • Kyle Fuller (31.7 mpg, 11.0 ppg, 4.2 apg; graduated)
  • Dai-Jon Parker (34.4 mpg, 8.3 ppg, 3.2 apg; transfer/University of Indianapolis)
  • Eric McClellan (12 games, 30.8 mpg, 14.3 ppg, 3.2 apg; transfer/Gonzaga)
  • Kedren Johnson (DNP 2013-14; 31.7 mpg, 13.5 ppg, 3.6 apg in 2012-13; transfer/Memphis)
Starting Five
  • PG Shelton Mitchell (6'3", 186 Fr., Waxhaw, NC); #19 PG and #92 overall
  • SG Wade Baldwin (6'3", 195 Fr., Belle Mead, NJ); #35 SG and #132 overall
  • SF Matthew Fisher-Davis (6'5", 173 Fr., Charlotte, NC); #30 SG and #106 overall
  • PF James Siakam (6'7", 225 Sr., Douala, Cameroon)
  • C Damian Jones (6'10", 248 Soph., Baton Rouge, LA)
Top Reserves
  • F Luke Kornet (7'0", 240 Soph., Lantana, TX)
  • G Riley LaChance (6'2", 194 Fr., Brookfield, WI); #33 SG and #124 overall
  • G Carter Josephs (6'0", 180 Jr., San Antonio, TX)
  • C Josh Henderson (6'11", 240 Sr., Roanoke, VA)
Bench
  • G Nathan Watkins (6'5", 195 Jr., Brentwood, TN)
  • F Jeff Roberson (6'6", 206 Fr., Houston, TX); #82 PF and #312 overall
  • F Shelby Moats (6'8", 221 Sr., Waconia, MN)
Sitting Out 2014-15
  • G Nolan Cressler (6'4", 204 Jr., Pittsburgh, PA); transfer/Cornell

At the very least, with 11 scholarship players available, the depth issues from 2014 are likely gone.  On the other hand, the Commodores return just 43 percent of their minutes from 2013-14; among SEC teams, only Tennessee and Missouri return a lower percentage.  But those two schools lost a lot of reserves in addition to losing a bunch of starters.  In Vanderbilt's case, the low percentage of minutes returning is almost entirely tied up in the three iron men from last season (Odom, Fuller, and Parker) who played a ridiculous number of minutes, because...seven scholarship players.

While the Commodores struggled overall last year, they did pretty well at both scoring inside (47.7 percent on twos in SEC play) and defending the paint (44.0 percent opposing twos in SEC play), and those responsible for that are back.  Damian Jones showed a ton of potential as a freshman, averaging 11.3 points a night while shooting 54.3 percent from the floor, in addition to 1.4 blocks per game.  Paired with senior James Siakam, who averaged 1.3 blocks per game while shooting 60.3 percent from the floor, and Vandy has a very effective inside combo, though both need to get better at defensive rebounding.  This is what separates Vanderbilt from the bottom three teams in the conference: unlike Auburn, Tennessee, and Mississippi State, Vandy has few question marks in the frontcourt.

If there are question marks, it has entirely to do with the depth behind Jones and Siakam.  Seven-foot sophomore Luke Kornet is versatile enough to play alongside Jones and allow Stallings to go big.  But while his ability to take jump shots is nice, it would be even better if Kornet could do big-guy stuff like rebounding and defending the paint.  That's where he struggled last year, but if the official roster is to be believed, Kornet is up to 240 this season after playing his freshman year at 216.  Hopefully the added strength will allow Kornet to become a more effective inside player.

Also available in the frontcourt: Josh Henderson and Shelby Moats, who are Josh Henderson and Shelby Moats.  In case any non-Vanderbilt fans are reading this, Henderson is 6'11" and can hurt you if you leave him alone four feet from the basket, but sadly this is not a unique skill.  Moats is good at diving for loose balls and, uh, I'm really at a loss for what else he does well.  (But he did graduate from Vanderbilt in three years, so if you're a Vols fan, that will be premium in the Jaguar, thank you very much.)  If there's good news with these two, it's that sometimes players like this do become useful role-players in their senior year.  And the other good news is that, really, quality minutes from one of Kornet, Henderson, and Moats will take the Commodores a long way.

While the inexperienced backcourt would seem to be a problem, in truth, Vanderbilt did not get very good guard play last year, at least on the offensive end.  In SEC play, Vandy committed turnovers on 20.5 percent of its possessions (only South Carolina was worse) and shot 30.7 percent from three (better than only Mississippi State.)  While at least some of the latter number might have had to do with fatigue, it shouldn't be asking too much for all the newcomers to at least equal what Kyle Fuller and Dai-Jon Parker were able to provide last year, though of course Parker's defense will be tough to replace.

Job number one for Stallings will be sorting out all the newcomers.  Figure on Shelton Mitchell, the only true point guard (aside from former walk-on Carter Josephs) on the roster, starting at the point, with Wade Baldwin and Matthew Fisher-Davis playing on the wings.  Even an inexperienced Mitchell should be an improvement over Fuller, who was a natural two-guard, while Fisher-Davis and Baldwin can be eased in with Jones drawing most of the attention from defenses.  Riley LaChance, who can play both guard spots, will probably be the first guard off the bench.  Josephs, who averaged 11.8 mpg over the last eleven games of the season, should fade into a smaller role as the freshmen come along; while he won't embarrass you in short stretches, he's still a limited player who probably won't play much unless somebody gets hurt.

Jeff Roberson, who's 6'6" and can run and jump, has potential but probably won't play a major role this season.  Nolan Cressler, who averaged 16.8 ppg on 36.4 percent shooting from three last year, will help the team in 2016 but won't play this year after transferring from Cornell.  Nathan Watkins, like Josephs, played key minutes down the stretch last year but will fade into a bench role with the newfound depth in the backcourt.

Schedule

Non-Conference
11/6 Illinois-Springfield (exh.)
11/11 Sewanee (exh.)
11/16 Trevecca Nazarene
11/20 Lipscomb
11/23 Tennessee State
11/25 Norfolk State
11/28 vs. Rutgers
11/29 Barclays Center Classic
12/4 Baylor
12/13 Purdue
12/16 Western Carolina
12/20 at Georgia Tech
12/22 Pennsylvania
12/31 at Saint Louis
1/3 Yale
Conference Home-and-Home

Georgia, Mississippi State, Florida, Tennessee, Alabama

Conference Home

Auburn, LSU, South Carolina, Missouri

Conference Road

Arkansas, Kentucky, Texas A&M, Ole Miss

The non-conference schedule is clearly designed to allow all the freshmen to adjust to the college game.  After starting the year playing non-D1 Trevecca and local powerhouses Lipscomb (a decent A-Sun team, but still an A-Sun team) and TSU (a bad OVC team), the Commodores will wade through a mix of likely power-conference cellar dwellers (Rutgers, Purdue, Georgia Tech), a rebuilding St. Louis squad, a pair of Ivies, a pair of middling mid-major teams (Norfolk State and Western Carolina), with only a potential neutral-court game against Virginia and a home game against Baylor presenting any real substance.  Shorter version: if Vandy has any more than three losses going to SEC play, this is going to be a long year.

The SEC schedule isn't too daunting other than drawing Florida twice and avoiding Memorial Gym turning into Rupp Arena South drawing Kentucky on the road.  Drawing Mississippi State twice and the hated Vols headed for a rebuilding year helps matters a bit.  But overall, the schedule should do quite a bit to prevent Vandy from having its third straight sub-.500 season.

Outlook

While some around here may disagree, I actually think 11th is a pessimistic projection for Vanderbilt.  Barring a repeat of 2013-14, having Damian Jones and James Siakam, by itself, should be plenty to keep the Commodores out of the cellar (also: Tennessee is going to be rebuilding, and Mississippi State still exists), and while there's obviously almost no experience in the backcourt, the freshmen are talented enough that Vandy should be able to get some pretty decent guard play.  And if they don't... well, they could always just pound the rock inside to Jones over and over again.

An NCAA bid probably isn't a realistic goal for this season (particularly with the likely horrendous non-conference SOS), but if at least some of the freshmen become solid contributors and Vanderbilt gets better play out of the backup bigs, this team could manage to go as high as sixth or seventh in the conference.  The best-case scenario, then, is that Vanderbilt is at least an NIT team and could push for 20 wins with the soft non-conference schedule.

The really good news for Commodore fans?  There are only four upperclassmen on this year's roster, and three of those are Shelby Moats, Josh Henderson, and Carter Josephs.  What's more, Vandy has another solid recruiting class coming in next season.  If Stallings can keep this group together (and if Jones isn't tempted by the NBA), Vanderbilt could have a very good team in 2016 and 2017.

SEC Hoops Preview Series

14.  Mississippi State

13.  Tennessee

12.  Auburn

11.  Vanderbilt