Vanderbilt basketball entered the 2015 NIT with a myriad of questions that had to be answered. The team had just crumbled in a single-elimination tournament when Tennessee roared back to upset them in the SEC Tournament. The Commodores had to prove that they were still hungry - and that they could still shake off morale-crushing losses and play up to their potential. Could they use these extra games to grow as a team?
Vanderbilt showed off the resiliency that had become a staple of the 2014-15 season when they advanced to the NIT Quarterfinals before running into a veteran Stanford team and three referees that had been plucked from a nearby Palo Alto junior high tournament. The wins were just what this team needed to wash the taste of that SECT loss and give the team some major expectations for 2015-16. Barring some offseason catastrophes, Vanderbilt should be a popular pick in way-too-early bracketology posts this fall.
While the team will miss the frenetic frontcourt energy of senior James Siakam, the play of their underclassmen was the engine that powers future Final Four hopes. Vanderbilt had strong young players at every position this winter. They'll be joined by five more draft horses thanks to the arrival of a top 25 recruiting class and the addition of Cornell's leading scorer from 2013-14, Nolan Cressler. That's a lot to be excited about.
But what did we learn in Vanderbilt's extended season? Let's break down the Commodores' postseason by returning player:
Matthew Fisher-Davis: Found his three-point stroke and developed into the kind of player Vanderbilt can turn to in the final minutes of a close game. His four straight threes pushed Vandy past South Dakota State and his late-game shooting against Stanford nearly helped the 'Dores overcome Stanford's three man advantage on the court. Fisher-Davis doesn't add much inside the arc, but he's a dangerous shooter from long distance who will space the floor for Damian Jones, D'Jery Baptiste, and Samir Sehic in 2016.
Damian Jones: Jones played angry all postseason, beginning with a 20 point, 15 rebound performance that was wasted in a loss against Tennessee. His aggression can be a double-edged sword when he forces contested shots in the paint, but there are few things scarier for shooters than a pissed-off Blockmonster at the rim. He had 35 rebounds and nine blocks in his final four games. If Jones decides to stay in Nashville - and that seems like a solid bet at the moment - he'll have another year to sharpen those offensive skills. Playing alongside a roster of shooters will give him plenty of room to operate and could prime him for a big increase in his scoring averages.
Shelton Mitchell: Mitchell didn't make much of an impact on the stat sheet after returning from a concussion, but anyone who watched his game closely enough can see his potential. The young point guard sees the court on a different wavelength than any of his teammates, and he picks and chooses his spots for high-percentage attacks at the rim. Unfortunately, he lacks the polish to capitalize on these opportunities - but that's something that will change if he puts in the work this offseason. Mitchell is a favorite to be this team's most improved player in 2016.
Riley LaChance: LaChance starred against Saint Mary's before limping to the finish line with a 2-13 performance against Stanford. Still, the freshman guard found a way to positively impact the game when his shot wasn't falling. LaChance averaged 4.4 assists in his final five games and showed off a strong drive-and-dish game that took advantage of opponents' tendency to tightly guard him beyond the arc. LaChance still settles for too many long twos, but if he can continue to improve his shooting that may not be a problem in the future.
Wade Baldwin IV: Baldwin brought the swagger and toughness that Jermaine Beal once brought to this team to the final half of the Commodores' season. He'll be a consistent triple-double threat in 2016 thanks to his court vision, long arms. and well-rounded offensive game. He isn't the kind of player who can take over a game just yet, but that's something that will change if he can get his efficiency inside the arc to match his shooting from behind it. He and Mitchell should give the 'Dores a two-headed point guard threat that will give the team the tools they need to beat pressing defenses.
Luke Kornet: Kornet is still inconsistent, but it's clear that he's tremendously valuable as a seven-foot tall three-point shooter in the Vanderbilt front court. He was knocked out of the Stanford game with a concussion at a point where he was the team's leading scorer. Get well soon, Luke.
Jeff Roberson: Roberson was a limited use player on the offensive end, but that gave him the time he needed to develop into one of the SEC's strongest wing defenders. He helped shut down Stanford's Chasson Randle throughout the early stages of Tuesday's game and typically drew the undesirable duty of guarding the opponent's most athletic scorer in 2014-15. He played that role well as a freshman and showcased a surprisingly solid shooting game on the opposite side of the court. Roberson made 45.5% of his three-pointers in 2014-15. He's already a three-and-D presence for the team. As one of Vandy's few true small forwards, he'll have the room to grow into more in the coming seasons.