Vanderbilt's 2015-16 non-conference basketball schedule is out, and the rising Commodores will have plenty of tests to deal with on their way to SEC play. Kevin Stallings's team steeped their winter slate with high-level opponents that can build up the postseason resume this young team needs to earn an NCAA Tournament bid in March. While several low-major opponents dot the schedule, marquee games against Baylor, Purdue, Dayton, and Texas will provide opportunities for Damian Jones and his teammates to notch the quality wins that could be the foundation for a hardwood renaissance in Nashville.
This won't be a 2007-style slate where the 'Dores can run through opponents en route to an undefeated record before starting league play. Half of Vandy's 14 non-conference opponents could wind up being top 25 teams at some point in 2015-16. That lineup ensures that this young team - a team with no seniors and only two juniors that played significant minutes last year - will be battle tested when teams like Kentucky, Florida, and Tennessee roll up on the SEC schedule.
Here's how that 2015 non-conference schedule shakes out, ranging from the least to most viable threats to this emerging Vanderbilt program.
The Low-Major Fodder
vs. Austin Peay (November 13th)
vs. Gardner Webb (November 16th)
vs. Stony Brook (November 19th)
vs. Detroit (December 12th)
vs. Western Michigan (December 30th)
With all due respect to the aforementioned teams, a loss to any of these five programs would be seen as a major stumble from a Commodore program that's projected to make a return to the NCAA Tournament in 2016. Expect a big ovation when Austin Peay comes to town now that former Commodore Julian Terrell is a member of the Governors' coaching staff. Don't sleep on Stony Brook, either. The Seawolves went 23-12 last season and have America East Player of the Year/Defensive Player of the Year Jameel Warney ready to make a name for himself by outdueling Damian Jones in Nashville. If the Commodores overlook SBU, they could easily wind up paying for their mistakes.
The Mid-Major Hurdles
vs. Saint John's (November 23rd). The Red Storm are coming from a high(ish)-major conference (the Big East), but they're returning 90 total points of scoring from last year's team and breaking in a new coach. They should be a significant underdog to the Commodores, barring a miracle turnaround.
vs. Dayton (December 9th). The Flyers made it to the Round of 32 last season (after two de facto home games to start their tournament) but will be without last year's leading scorer Jordan Sibert. The presence of senior Dyshawn Pierre (12.7 points, 8.3 rebounds. 2.9 assists in '14-15) and junior Kendall Pollard (12.7 points, 55.3% shooting) will make them an especially tough matchup for the Commodores in December. If the Flyers start hot, they could easily make a claim to be in the third category for Vandy's OOC opponents.
vs. Wofford (December 19th). The Southern Conference isn't a mid-major, but it's tough to ignore the presence of a 28-7 program no matter where they come from. The Terriers were a #12 seed in last year's NCAA Tournament and they'll return four of their top six players this winter. Wofford runs a guard-heavy offense that will try to out-shoot the Commodores on their home court. Beating Vanderbilt on the road would be a big line on their resume, so Kevin Stallings and his crew will have to be on high upset alert when Wofford comes to town.
The Heavy Hitters
Indiana/Wake Forest (November 24th). Like Vanderbilt, Indiana is a young team on the rise. SBNation has them ranked #10 in their way-too-early top 25. All eyes would be on a Yogi Ferrell/Damian Jones battle up front - a war that I'd favor the more experienced Jones to win. On the other side, the Demon Deacons only won 13 games last season, but they're returning their top five players and could use a win over Vanderbilt to state their case for an NCAA Tournament bid next March. While IU would give Vandy the chance at a marquee win early in the season, beating Wake probably wouldn't turn out to be something the Selection Committee glosses over either.
Game Three at the Maui Invitational (November 25th). The Commodores' finale in Hawaii will put them against either Kansas, UCLA, UNLV, or Chaminade. Kansas looks like a potential Final Four team, but that's nothing new. The Bruins will be strong as well - rating out similarly to a team like Purdue or Baylor on the Vanderbilt schedule despite losing standouts like Kevon Looney and Norman Powell to the 2015 NBA Draft. Game three will likely give the 'Dores a chance to add a quality win to their resume, assuming they fare well in their first two days on the island.
at Baylor (December 6th). Rico Gathers and Damian Jones went to battle last season, but the Bears' experience won out and delivered a 66-63 win in Nashville. This year, the 'Dores are battle tested and looking for revenge on Baylor's home court. Gathers and Jones will be back to bully up the paint, but the real fireworks could be between Taurean Prince and Wade Baldwin IV out on the perimeter. This should be a battle between two top 25 teams early in the year, and it may wind up being one of Vandy's most exciting basketball games of the 2015-16 season.
at Purdue (December 22nd). Purdue took an inexperienced team to the NCAA Tournament last spring and look like a borderline top 25 program headed into the 2015-16 season. They'll battle Vanderbilt's big men with a pair of seven-footers - senior A.J. Hammons (11.9 pts, 6.6 rpg, 2.8 blocks per game) and Isaac Haas (7.6 pts, 4.1 rpg). While many of Vandy's opponents will try to shoot around the Commodores' forwards, Purdue (and Baylor) can be counted on to bring the fight right to Damian Jones and his crew. Vanderbilt won last year's battle in Nashville, but now the Boilermakers will attempt to defend their home court in the return matchup. Like the Baylor game, this could be an under-the-radar showdown between top 25 programs when it takes place.
at Texas (January 30th). Vanderbilt will break up the monotony of SEC play with a trip to Austin in late January. They'll face a Longhorn team that's trying to survive the loss of Big 12 Freshman of the Year Myles Turner. Head coach Shaka Smart has three four-star prospects arriving to help soften that blow, and the return of players like Isaiah Taylor and Demarcus Holland could make Texas even better in 2016 than they were in 2015. SBNation's got them at #15 in their early preseason poll, and a coach like Smart could be the key in ensuring that they live up to those expectations.