Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Preview: Vanderbilt Commodores Basketball 2005-06

Once again, Mark Halling came through for me so that I can keep up-to-date on all things Black-and-Gold, even whilst I'm an old alumni down in Birmingham. According to the preview below, Commodores fans should be excited about basketball this year -- and looking for another trip to the post-season (probably to the Dance).

Mark's contribution comes from Blue Ribbon College Basketball Yearbook.

* * *

VANDERBILT UNIVERSITY
COMMODORES
• Nashville, Tennessee
• Southeastern Conference
• Black and gold
• 6,200 undergraduate enrollment
• Kevin Stallings, head coach
• E. Gordon Gee, chancellor

COACH AND PROGRAM

It took a season or two longer than he would have hoped, but Kevin Stallings just about has his Vanderbilt program where he wants it.

As [former Vanderbilt head coach] Eddie Fogler demonstrated in Nashville in the early 1990s, and Duke and Stanford prove on a yearly basis, strong academic schools can field strong basketball programs.

When he left Illinois State seven years ago, Stallings thought he could win consistently at Vanderbilt despite the inherent limitations as compared to the state-supported schools in the SEC. Stallings wasn't going to be able to sign academic risks or gain a quick talent transfusion through the junior college route. He and his staff would have to comb the country looking for good players who could handle the academic workload at Vanderbilt.

The last two seasons, during which the Commodores won 43 games -- including two each in the NCAA Tournament (2004) and the NIT (2005) -- are clear indication the program is on the move. Not quite the stuff of Duke or Stanford, but substantial progress nonetheless.

"I would say we're really close," Stallings said. "We are set up for stability and set up to be very competitive for the next two or three years. Obviously with continued recruiting we could make it longer than that. When you look at our team, I think for the next two or three years we'll be a very productive program headed in the right direction. I'd like to see multiple and consecutive NCAA Tournaments before I felt like we were absolutely at that point where we aspire to be, but we like where we are right now."

Stallings' optimism is well founded. He says this is the most athletic team he's coached in Nashville, and the most versatile, too. There's depth at the perimeter and experience at the post positions. If the Commodores can develop some depth up front, they could be hard to handle.

PLAYERS

For better or worse, Vanderbilt relies on 5-11 senior point guard Mario Moore (13.5 ppg, 3.0 rpg, 3.7 apg) to be its catalyst.

And most of the time Moore delivers. Ask Wichita State, which Moore helped knock out of the NIT with a career-high 31 points and nine three-pointers. Or LSU, which Moore torched for 30 points and six three-pointers. Moore, who shot 39 percent from behind the arc last season, made four or more threes in eight games. He's the most experienced point guard in the SEC, and the only one to have racked up at least 1,000 points, 275 assists and 175 three-pointers in his career.

That's the good stuff. Now for the not so good: In the first 15 games of last season, Moore reached double figures 14 times while shooting nearly 50 percent from the floor and from three-point range. Then came a maddening stretch during which Moore was less; he shot 41 percent from the field and 33 percent from three the last 19 games.

Mired in that slump, Moore didn't often play with his trademark energy and at times drifted toward the pedestrian. He let Georgia walk-on guard Kevin Brophy burn him for 19 points in a huge upset in Athens, a defeat that, though it came in January, dealt a blow to the Commodores' NCAA Tournament chances. Georgia won just one other league game all season.

"On the nights when he is good, Mario is capable of being as good as any point guard in the league," Stallings said. "The first half of last year he was as consistent and solid a player as he has ever been for us. Then in the second half of the season, he was anywhere from spectacular to inconsistent. That's what we're going to have to rectify -- his wide range of production.

"Mario is very talented. So much of it for him is his ability to manage his own emotions. As he continues to do that better, he is going to continue to be a better player."

Fortunately for Vanderbilt, when Moore went walkabout last year, Stallings had options, further proof that Commodores' talent pool has significantly increased. Sophomore Alex Gordon (6.0 ppg, 1.2 rpg, 1.2 apg) played in all 34 games as a rookie and at times displaced Moore in the starting lineup. On occasion, the 5-11 Gordon flashed some of Moore's explosive scoring ability. He became the first Vanderbilt freshman since 1977 to score 30 points in a game when he hit five three-pointers in an SEC win over Tennessee.

Like his bookend backcourt mate Moore, Gordon was inconsistent, but at least he had the excuse of being a freshman. Gordon passed for just 41 assists, low for a point, and turned the ball over 53 times. Stallings would like him to tighten up his game management skills.

"Alex has a lot of abilities and we need to be able to take advantage of his quickness and his scoring ability," Stallings said. "But he also needs to be able to run our team and make good decisions. If he improves in those areas that will help our point guard play quite a bit."

Gordon showed Stallings some positive signs in the off-season while playing a series of exhibition games in China with a team of SEC players. Gordon averaged 11.0 points and a team-high 8.6 assists as the SEC contingent played seven games in eight days.

Vanderbilt has as much or more firepower at the wing positions as it does the point.

"We're as deep and as talented as we've ever been on the wing positions," Stallings said. "It's just a matter of finding what guys are going to produce and be consistent." Most coaches in the SEC would envy Stallings' choices.

Shan Foster (9.2 ppg, 3.1 rpg), a 6-6 sophomore, is arguably the most talented recruit signed in Stallings' tenure [and one of my favorite players on the team, for his attitude, enthusiasm, and character—DB].

Exported from SEC Western Division country, Foster, a native of Kenner, La., came to Vanderbilt with a big-time reputation and he didn't disappoint, earning SEC All-Freshman honors while starting 24 games and averaging 23 minutes. No Vanderbilt freshman in Stallings' six seasons scored more points (312) or tossed in more three-pointers (69) than did Foster, who turned in to a game-breaking shooter. He finished second in the SEC in three-point shooting (.445) and was Vandy's third-leading scorer.

Foster offered plenty of indications that he's a future SEC star. He scored a career-high 25 points in an NIT loss at Memphis, making six-of-11 three-pointers in the process. He also scored 25 against Arkansas, 19 against NIT champ South Carolina and 18 against SEC champ Florida.

"I wasn't surprised at any of the things Shan was able to do last season," Stallings said. "But I was surprised that they happened early in his freshman year. He is an outstanding shooter with good range and he continues to get better off the dribble. As his confidence in his ball handling increases, his offense will continue to improve."

Like Gordon, Foster fine-tuned his game during the summer while traveling with the SEC team that toured China. He finished second in scoring (16.6 ppg).

If Foster was sensational as a freshman, 6-7 sophomore DeMarre Carroll (4.0 ppg, 3.8 rpg) wasn't bad either. Carroll plays a slightly different game than Foster in that he's a less effective distance shooter but a more combative rebounder, especially on the offensive glass. Carroll was third on the team in rebounding and collected seven offensive boards against Auburn, a Vandy season high.

Carroll, who played in all 34 games and earned five starts, didn't have to score that much but twice reached his career-high 12 points in SEC play, against South Carolina and Kentucky. He also grabbed seven rebounds against the Wildcats.

"DeMarre is a guy that's hard to keep off the court because he makes things happen," Stallings said. "He brings energy, hard-nosed play and is a terrific rebounder."

Another experienced wing player who will quickly compete for minutes is 6-7, 220-pound Virginia transfer Derrick Byars, a native of Memphis and a career 40 percent three-point shooter. Byars, who sat out last season as a red-shirt, reportedly wanted to transfer to Tennessee in the spring of 2004, but the Vol staff didn't want to risk losing in-state prep star Tyler Smith, who plays the same position. Stallings was only too happy to give Byars a place to resurface.

Smith eventually signed with Tennessee, but he asked out of his scholarship last spring after Bruce Pearl replaced Buzz Peterson as coach in Knoxville. Don't you bet Pearl would love to have Byars in his starting lineup? Vanderbilt has scored several such recruiting victories over its state rival in Stallings' tenure, no small key in the Commodores' resurgence and the Vols' decline.

Byars started 34 games in two years at Virginia and averaged 20.9 minutes each season. As a sophomore, he averaged 7.5 points and 3.4 boards and reached double figures 11 times, including a career-high 21 against Loyola Marymount. Byars also scored 20 against Iowa State and 18 against Wake Forest.

"He's probably as talented a player on the offensive end as we have," Stallings said. "He's 6-7, and he shoots it, he passes it, he handles it and he can create. He can take it to the basket and is athletic. He's a very complete offensive player. Obviously he'll have to come back from not having played in a game-type setting in a year, but once we get the rust off, Derrick is a guy that has a chance to be real effective."

If Byars and Foster are on the floor at the same time, Vanderbilt opponents will be in for a busy night trying to keep one or both from going off. Add Moore or Gordon to that mix and you've got what could be the best perimeter shooting team in the SEC and among the best in Division I.

Stallings has yet another talented shooter to call upon in 6-4 junior Dan Cage (4.0 ppg, 0.9 rpg). As a freshman, Cage shot .426 (20-of-47) from three-point range. His playing time increased a year ago, but his three-point percentage fell to .358. Cage still had his moments from behind the arc. He made four-of-eight threes while scoring a career-high 18 points against Central Michigan, and also set a career-high with five three-pointers while notching 15 points against Dayton.

Cage turned himself into a solid defender last season, four times leading the Commodores in steals. His defensive work against Earnest Shelton was a key in Vanderbilt's big SEC win over Alabama.

Vanderbilt doesn't have as much talent at the low-post positions, but Stallings has some size and experience. Julian Terrell (6.8 ppg, 5.1 rpg, 1.1 bpg), a 6-9, 250-pound senior, hasn't been the Commodores' most consistent player the last three seasons, but when he shows up ready to rumble, he can do some impressive things. Last season Terrell began to come into his own with increased playing time; he started 26 times and averaged 22 minutes on the floor.

Terrell reached his career highs in points and rebounds last year, scoring 21 against LSU and grabbing 14 boards against Wichita State. He also scored 14 points against the Shockers for his second double-double of the year.

"That's the kind of productivity we need from Julian all season long," Stallings said. "He may be capable of more than that, but we need those types of numbers from him on a regular basis."

If Stallings wants to start a bigger lineup, Terrell will be joined by 6-11, 250-pound junior Ted Skuchas (2.1 ppg, 1.9 rpg). Skuch, as he's called by Vandy fans, isn't afraid to mix it up in the paint. He's a prototypical banger who can rebound and block shots, but he's also got decent touch around the basket and can shoot a jump hook with either hand. With more minutes, his numbers should rise accordingly.

Skuchas is one of the more intelligent players on a team loaded with them. He's often kidded by his teammates for his retro tastes in music; last May, Skuchas and his father jetted to London to check out the reunion of Eric Clapton and Cream.

Stallings will have to rely on youngsters for post depth. Alan Metcalfe (1.5 ppg, 1.0 rpg), a 6-10, 251-pound sophomore, 6-9, 245-pound red-shirt freshman Davis Nwankwo and 6-10 freshman Kyle Madsen will compete for minutes. Ross Neltner, a 6-9, 245-pound LSU transfer, will keep all of them on their toes during his red-shirt season.

Metcalfe, from St. Helen's, England, didn't get a lot of playing time last season, but he showed signs of being a productive player. In his only start, against Ole Miss, he scored five points in a season-high 17 minutes. Metcalfe, who can face up or score inside, shot 82 percent (9-of-11) from the free throw line as a rookie. That's a good sign for a guy who figures to get fouled a lot.

Numerous injuries led to Nwankwo being red-shirted last season. He averaged 13 points and 11 boards two year ago at Georgetown (Md.) Prep [how many other SEC schools are able to recruit men from elite East Coast prep schools?].

Madsen seems to be another in a long line of perimeter-oriented big men who have suited up for Vandy. A year ago he averaged 16.2 points, 8.2 rebounds and 2.1 blocks for Dublin (Ohio) Coffman High School.

Another newcomer is 6-3 guard George Drake, a decorated Alabama prep who led Calera High School to the 2005 5A championship while averaging 22.6 points and 8.5 rebounds. He was chosen to the state's Super Five team and selected 2A Player of the Year by the Alabama Sports Writers Association. Drake was also runner-up for the state's Mr. Basketball award. He's the only player in state history to be chosen MVP of his region four times.

BLUE RIBBON ANALYSIS

BACKCOURT: A
BENCH/DEPTH: B
FRONTCOURT: B
INTANGIBLES: B

Vanderbilt basketball is on a roll. Stallings and his staff have put together several solid recruiting classes in succession, classes that significantly upgraded the Commodores' athleticism and depth.

The result: Vanderbilt, formerly notorious for folding down the stretch of the regular season, has been talented enough to battle with its SEC opponents in February and March.

That in turn has allowed the Commodores to win 20 or more games and secure postseason tournament berths the last two seasons.

Expect the trend to continue. This, in fact, could be Stallings' most talented team. Certainly no other team in recent Vanderbilt history possessed the firepower the Commodores have.

If Vanderbilt can win nine SEC games, the Commodores should return to the NCAA Tournament. Less than that and they're probably looking at the NIT, but that wouldn't be anything to be ashamed of.

This program is now established.

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