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ESPN Ranks Vanderbilt Basketball 18th, Projects a Nine-Seed in the NCAA Tournament

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Three years of rebuilding are finally set to pay off in Nashville. ESPN projects that 2016 will be the year that the Vanderbilt Commodores make a triumphant return to the NCAA Tournament.

Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

Last season, Vanderbilt rallied to their first winning season in three years behind the efforts of a roster packed with rising underclassmen. That cache of talent hasn't gone unnoticed by the national media. ESPN heaped praise on the Commodores this Wednesday when a barrage of college basketball coverage hit their website. Three separate articles pointed to Vandy's fortunes trending upwards on the hardwood this winter.

Here's what analyst Eamonn Brennan had to say about the Commodores in 2015-16:

Extend a warm top 25 welcome to Vanderbilt, the 2015 offseason's best illustration of the power of perspective.

The Commodores weren't remotely on our radar in April or May, mostly because they weren't on our radar in February, or March, after a 1-7 SEC start (and an 9-9 overall conference record) made the rest of their season easy to disregard. The wider shot is far more flattering: From Feb. 3 on -- when we were fixated on bubble teams and top-eight heavyweights -- Kevin Stallings' team finished 10-4. The schedule got easier, sure, but the 'Dores got better, too, as three freshmen starters (Riley LaChanceWade Baldwin IVMatthew Fisher-Davis), 38 percent-or-higher 3-point shooters to a man, found their grooves. Center Damian Jones wowed scouts at the Nike Skills Academy) in June, but he was an interior workhorse/rim protector (and NBA prospect) already. Luke Kornet is 7-foot-1 and shot 40 percent from 3! Who knew?! By the end of the season, Vanderbilt ranked 36th in adjusted efficiency. No, seriously! We missed it in April, but it's all true, and it all points toward an unmissable season ahead.

Yes, ESPN; it's all true. While the spotlight shined on other teams, Vanderbilt ground their way to their best season in three years thanks to the shooting of three freshmen and the increasingly dominant inside play of Damian Jones. The Commodores have the range to space the floor and the power to take advantage of one-on-one matchups inside - and the top 25 breakdown doesn't even mention the incoming class of four-star freshmen. If Vanderbilt can get contributions from players like D'Jery Baptiste, Camron Justice, Joseph Toye, Samir Sehic or transfer Nolan Cressler in 2015-16 then it will be like finding money for an already-rich team.

Last year's Commodore team rallied to the NIT quarterfinals. This year's edition of the 'Dores has lost only one major contributor from that roster. While the graduation of James Siakam will be a major blow for the program (he was one of the NCAA's most efficient players and arguably the team's MVP last winter), the maturation of players like Fisher-Davis and Jeff Roberson alone could have been enough to sufficiently cover that loss. Instead, the 'Dores have a top 25 recruiting class on campus and a depth chart loaded with the most talent we've seen since 2012's SEC Champions.

Brennan's #18 ranking wasn't the only praise ESPN heaped on Kevin Stallings's team on Wednesday. Reporter Jeff Goodman also thinks the Commodores will turn heads this winter:

Vanderbilt Commodores

Kevin Stallings can coach, and he's got experienced guards now and a pro up front in Damian Jones. The Commodores should be the second-best team in the SEC this season.

Despite this praise, bracketologist Joe Lunardi couldn't give Vanderbilt more than a #9 seed in his projected NCAA Tournament. He's got the Commodores battling West Virginia for the opportunity to face #1 Maryland in the third round of the bracket.

Hopes were high in Nashville for the 2015-16 season, but today's news will help spread those expectations from coast to coast. The Commodores won't be flying under the radar like they were late in 2015, and a strong out-of-conference schedule will give them the opportunity to live up to these lofty expectations before the calendar flips over to the new year. If they can live up to their potential, the #18 spot will be looked back at as an under-estimate for this rising team.