There was no press conference. No proclamations on Twitter. Nothing fancy. Just a simple press release. On April 20, Vanderbilt sent an email to announce that Festus Ezeli, John Jenkins and Jeffery Taylor would be back in school for the 2011-12 season. The return of the Commodores’ version of the Big Three puts Vanderbilt on a very short list of SEC title contenders and, according to some, in position to play for the sport’s ultimate prize.
“I think they have a team that can contend for the Final Four,” says Georgia coach Mark Fox. “They have a great backcourt, great wing play and terrific shooting. They have an NBA center. There isn’t much missing from Vandy’s team.”
Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings agrees with Fox — “I like how this team is constructed. We have a chance to be pretty good,” he says — but is quick to point out that his team still has one, rather large, hurdle to climb. “The hype and projections need to be kept in check a bit because we have to win an (NCAA) Tournament game before we are going to have the type of year we want to have.”
The Commodores have lost in the first round of the NCAA Tournament as a No. 4 seed (’10) and No. 5 (’11) in the past two seasons.
Key Commodores Stat: 5
The Commodores had a double-digit lead in five of the 11 games they lost last season, including four in the second half.
The unofficial winner of the 2010-11 Most Improved Player award in college basketball, Ezeli emerged as a force on the low block in his first season as a starter. His averages improved from 3.8 points and 3.2 rebounds as a sophomore to 13.0 and 6.3 as a junior — in only 23.5 minutes per game. His biggest gains came at the foul line, where he a jumped from a dreadful .373 to a respectable .648. The Nigerian-born big man is one more solid season away from the NBA Lottery.
Power forward Lance Goulbourne teased Commodore fans by playing the best basketball of his career last January before going down with an ankle injury in a home loss to Arkansas. He played through the injury but didn’t regain his bounce until late February. Goulbourne is capable of averaging a double-double.
The Commodores have more options off the bench this season. Steve Tchiengang, a rugged senior whose shooting range extends beyond the 3-point line, played most of his minutes as a backup center last year but has also logged considerable time at power forward. Tchiengang might get more of his minutes at the 4 if redshirt freshman Josh Henderson proves to be a capable backup to Ezeli at center. Rod Odom, a slender power forward, provided sporadic quality minutes as a freshman and was a better-than-expected outside shooter. Stallings would like to see him score more points around the basket as a sophomore.
Jenkins enters his junior season as one of the premier scorers in the nation. He led the SEC with a 19.5-point average, thanks in large part to his ability to get to the free throw line — almost one-quarter of his 624 points came from the stripe. Ball-handling and perimeter defense were his two areas of emphasis over the summer. Jenkins will be flanked on the wing by Taylor, a dynamic athlete who struggles with consistency. Consider the following: Taylor averaged 20.7 points in Vanderbilt’s three SEC Tournament games, but scored only four points (on 1-of-10 shooting) in the NCAA Tournament loss to Richmond.
After spending his first two seasons as the starting 2-guard, Brad Tinsley slid over to the point last year. He did a solid job running the team, and he regained his 3-point stroke after shooting .295 as a sophomore, but he has trouble on the defensive end of the floor.
Tinsley will be pushed by freshman Kedren Johnson, a big, physical point guard who is regarded as an outstanding passer and a streaky 3-point shooter. Freshman Dai-Jon Parker is a highly skilled combo guard who will play right away due to his ability to defend on the perimeter, a long-time Vanderbilt weakness.
Vanderbilt is a veteran team that features three potential first-round draft picks. Some are calling it the most talented team in school history. Talent alone, however, doesn’t win games in the NCAA Tournament. To emerge as a legitimate Final Four threat, the Commodores must improve on the defensive end and shed some of the mental baggage that has plagued this group in recent postseasons.
“I’ve liked this team for a long time,” Stallings says. “If everybody accepts their roles and we get some solid leadership, then I think all the hype will be justified.”
SEC Prediction: 2nd
NCAA Tournament Prediction: Elite Eight