Football season is three-quarters of the way done and the Vanderbilt offense has devolved into a pile of smoldering cinders, and that can only mean one thing; basketball is nearly upon us.
The No. 18 Commodores will kick off the 2015-16 season this Friday when they host Austin Peay (and assistant coach Julian Terrell) in a middle Tennessee showdown. Vanderbilt is slated to end a three-year absence from the NCAA Tournament thanks to a roster loaded with shooting talent and potential NBA Draft picks, but this young team still needs to prove that they can handle the pressure of the postseason before they can even think of hanging a banner in Memorial Gym. That starts in the backcourt, where the team's most veteran players are a former walk-on who hasn't scored a point in over two years and a transfer student who last played NCAA basketball for a 2-26 Cornell team.
Wade Baldwin IV and Riley LaChance will be counted on to lead this team into April with their court vision, ballhandling, and next-level shooting skills. The pair lit up the hardwood as true freshmen last season, and if they can avoid a sophomore slump and continue to develop then they'll give Vanderbilt a pair of All-SEC building blocks into 2016 and beyond. Here's what you need to know about the players who will be holding down the point for Kevin Stallings this season.
The Incumbent Starter: Wade Baldwin IV
Baldwin, despite occasional threats, is Kevin Stallings's dream. He's a long, strong point guard who can distribute (4.4 assists per game), shoot from long range (43.9 3PT%), and disrupt opposing offenses (1.4 steals) - and he did all that as a true freshman. He improved significantly throughout the season and was one of the biggest catalysts behind Vanderbilt's 7-2 run over their final nine games. Over that span, he shot 50.7% from the field and a blistering (if unsustainable) 58.8% from three-point range to accompany 13.4 points, 5.1 rebounds, and 4.6 assists per game.
Baldwin's value wasn't limited to his shooting and distribution skills. He was a tough, long-armed defender who wasn't afraid to body up bigger guards in order to prevent them from getting into the paint. While his offensive Win Shares were a robust 2.7 last year, his defense made this team 1.7 wins better - a mark that tied him with Damian Jones as the most impactful defenders on the team. He's a smart player who anticipates passes and understands when opposing point guards are trapped.
While Jones will get most of the accolades this preseason, Baldwin is just as vital to this team's success. He's primed to make a major leap forward after closing out 2015 on a tear, but he'll have to prove that the sophomore slump is a myth early on with the Commodores primed for some big non-conference matchups looming at the Maui Invitational. If he maintains his upward trajectory, Baldwin will be the key piece that makes Vanderbilt a top 10 program in 2016. Even if he plays at the same level he did as a true freshman, he'll be strong enough to drive his team to the Sweet Sixteen - or even deeper.
His Running Mate: Riley LaChance
LaChance leans more toward shooting guard than the point as a combo guard, but an influx of wings - Matthew Fisher-Davis, Nolan Cressler, Camron Justice - means that he'll be handling distribution duties this winter. That will work well for the Commodores, since the Wisconsin native proved himself capable of running the point as a freshman last year. He turned the ball over on just 11.5% of his plays (Baldwin clocked in at 19.5%, albeit while handling the ball much more often) and recorded 2.9 assists per game.
However, LaChance's headline will always be his scoring. He's a shooter through-and-through, but he also found a way to get into the lane and attack the basket to give the team a dribble-drive threat that softened up opposing defenses. He wasn't the most consistent finisher - at 6'2" many of his drives ended in floaters or passes back out to the perimeter - but that overlooked quickness is also a source of assists for the young guard. He doesn't move the ball with the vision that Baldwin does, but he's sure-handed and careful, and that will make him a perfectly capable #2 option to set up the Vandy offense in the half-court.
Veteran Depth: Carter Josephs
Josephs has developed into the most notable Commodore walk-on since Joe Duffy thanks to his strong passing game and impressive aversion to scoring. In 212 minutes over the past two seasons, he's recorded 30 assists and taken exactly one shot - a miss. He burst into a depleted Vanderbilt rotation at the end of the 2013-14 season and broke out with a nine-assist performance in a win over Auburn, but he hasn't proven to be anything more than a backup option since the 'Dores restocked their roster last fall. He sees the floor well, but is turnover prone at the point and doesn't bring enough to the table to be a long term option at the position. However, he's also a senior who has been with the team for the past three seasons, and he should be able to provide steadiness and leadership for a young program this winter.