Five freshmen in the rotation? Check. A 19-12 record through 31 games? Yep. A .500 mark in league play? Hit. So that leaves just one more question. Is Vanderbilt's recruiting class of 2014 following in the footsteps of Kevin Stallings's best freshman class of all time?
Or, more succinctly: WHO'VE YOU GOT? Riley LaChance or Jeffery Taylor?
Vanderbilt basketball is currently riding a five game winning streak that's only a few missed free throws from being a 10-game stretch. They're the seventh-seeded team in the SEC Tournament but they've got the fourth-best odds to win it thanks to the growth that accompanies a young team playing together for a full season. After two frustrating rebuilding years, these Commodores seem to be back on track. This year's Vanderbilt team looks like they'll be the best since Kevin Stallings was left crying into a towel as his players lifted an SEC title back in 2012.
So the question persists: Can LaChance, Jeff Roberson, Wade Baldwin IV, Shelton Mitchell, and Matthew Fisher-Davis live up to the standard that Taylor, Brad Tinsley, Festus Ezeli, Steve Tchiengang, and Lance Goulbourne set?
That's a tall order, but the results through year one are encouraging. Barring transfers, Vanderbilt will be in good hands for the next two to three seasons. The presence of sophomore big men Damian Jones and Luke Kornet certainly play a significant role in that optimism, but it's the five freshmen that helped shoot Vandy back to the top half of the SEC who give this team room to grow from an NIT-hopeful to an NCAA Tournament mainstay. The last time that happened, this team was building from the foundation that a similarly gifted group of freshmen laid down in 2008.
The main difference between that 2008 class and Vanderbilt's 2014 recruits is bulk. The Commodores of '08 brought plenty of size to the mix thanks to Tchiengang, Goulbourne, and a redshirting Ezeli up front. That class only featured one guard - Tinsley - and a high flying small forward in Taylor. This '14 class is very different thanks to the presence of four players that primarily play in the backcourt. Roberson is the tallest of the group at 6'6" so they don't have a high-percentage shooting big man to rely on like the '08 group did. The presence of sophomores Luke Kornet and Damian Jones, along with the pending arrivals of Samir Sehic and D'Jery Baptiste, allowed Stallings to recruit the sweet-shooting guards that thrive in his system.
That leads to some awkward comparisons, but advanced stats will help us break down the two units. Unfortunately, tools like PER, usage rates, and rebounds or assist rates aren't available for that 2008-09 team. Even so, we can use true shooting (which includes two-point and three-point shots along with free throws to create an overarching efficiency metric), win shares (a quantified rate that suggests a player's role in his team's wins), and turnover rate to create a stronger view of each player's contributions as a freshman.
|Wade Baldwin IV||PG||28.5||8.8||4||4.4||0.577||2.2||1.6||3.8||20.4|
The numbers suggest that the class of 2014 has been more valuable than the class of 2008 on the court. The average Commodore freshman this year has been good for nearly two and a quarter wins - about four-tenths of a win more than his 2008 counterpart. Some of this advantage can be explained by the steady play of veterans A.J. Ogilvy and Jermaine Beal on that 2008-09 team. Their inside-out play meant fewer minutes for first-year players and less of a chance for guys like Goulbourne and Tchiengang to make an impact.
The 2008 class was slightly better from the field, but Vandy's 2014 freshmen were better at protecting the ball thanks to a late surge of games where they failed to turn the ball over more than a dozen times. The ghosts of SEC Championship past were also more explosive scorers on a per-minute basis and stronger rebounders thanks to their stock of big men who weren't afraid to take some contact in the paint.
Despite their advantages, the '14 freshmen don't yet have the kind of star potential that 2008's first-year players had. Taylor and Ezeli both ended up as NBA draft picks and are still in the league - albeit in backup situations. Despite LaChance's productivity his small stature is likely to keep him off draft boards after he graduates. Baldwin and Mitchell have fallen onto DraftExpress's radar but they still have a long way to go before they garner the hype that Taylor, Ezeli, or John Jenkins earned in 2012. Baldwin, thanks to an impressive 1.6 defensive win shares, is the closest out of that group. If he can continue to shoot like he did in the final five games of the regular season (13.4 ppg, 68.4% 3pt shooting) then he'll quickly become a target for NBA scouts.
A few other stray notes from this quick breakdown:
- Riley LaChance's ball control is an extremely underrated part of his game.
- Shelton Mitchell's poor shooting and high turnover rate (worse than Festus, whose arms were essentially just unmanned fire hoses turned up to full that year) negates his otherwise solid passing ability.
- Jeff Roberson's defensive impact is difficult to quantify, but it seems understated at 0.8 WS.
That 2008-09 squad fell short of the postseason. The 2014-15 team has at least one more game to play and an unclear invitation status past Sunday. With a few wins, they can put that 2008-09 season in their rearview mirror and establish the foundation for another era where melting snow is equated with Commodore wins. Even if they find a way to win out in Nashville this week, they'll still need some help.
There's one piece of the puzzle that we've overlooked - the additions that bolstered these high-performing recruiting classes. Vanderbilt added an SEC Player of the Year in John Jenkins and got modest contributions from Rod Odom and Kyle Fuller to help propel the class of '08 to a conference title. These 2014 Commodores probably won't have a five-star recruit like Jenkins to fall back on, but they'll have depth thanks to the four four-star players set to start classes next August. That 21st ranked recruiting class will get a boost from shooting guard Nolan Cressler, who was the leading scorer for a 2-26 Cornell team in 2014.
It may still be too early to compare the two freshman classes. Vanderbilt's class of 2008 didn't hit their stride until that 2012 season and they suffered their share of March upsets along the way. This year's new breed had their share of growing pains as well - a seven-game losing streak, heartbreaking losses to Tennessee and Florida - but they've shown the capacity to learn from their mistakes and improve after each setback. That may be the most encouraging currant of all that runs underneath this young Commodore team. They haven't let bad losses prevent their growth, and that may be what ultimately sets them apart from that extra-talented freshman class of 2008-09.