The SEC welcomes two new coaches with Final Fours on their résumés — Ben Howland (Mississippi State) and Rick Barnes (Tennessee) — but it is the league’s longest-tenured coach, Vanderbilt’s Kevin Stallings, who has the team with the best chance to challenge Kentucky for the top spot in the conference. The Commodores, who won 10 of their final 14 games last season while starting three freshmen and one sophomore, will surround one of the nation’s top big men — junior Damian Jones — with arguably the finest collection of shooters in college basketball.
All SEC predictions and a full preview of each team in the conference can be found in the Athlon Sports 2015-16 Preview Magazine, available online and on newsstands everywhere.
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The Commodores’ lineup often will feature four dangerous 3-point shooters, but the 7’0” Jones will remain the focal point of the offense. Jones is an elite athlete who can dominate a game on both ends. He averaged 14.5 points and 6.5 rebounds as a sophomore and ranked third in the league with 2.0 blocks per game. Improving from the foul line — he shot 59.9 percent on a league-high 222 attempts — and playing with more “emotional maturity,” according to his coach, are the next steps in his development.
Luke Kornet is a rapidly improving stretch-4 who has a skill set that compares favorably to former Wisconsin All-American Frank Kaminsky. The son of former NBA second-round pick Frank Kornet, he averaged 8.7 points in only 21.6 minutes per game as a sophomore while shooting 40.0 percent from 3-point range. “Luke showed flashes last year of brilliant play. He does things you don’t think a 7-foot guy can do,” Stallings says. Don’t be surprised if Kornet contends for All-SEC honors.
If healthy, sixth-year senior Josh Henderson will serve as the primary backup center, though Kornet has logged significant time at the 5. Another option is freshman Djery Baptiste, a 6’10”, 235-pound physical specimen who can provide some rebounding and shot blocking. When Stallings wants to go small, 6’6” sophomore Jeff Roberson, who started 24 games at small forward last season, can slide down and play the 4. “Jeff is a physical guy,” Stallings says. “I certainly wouldn’t be concerned about him matching up defensively against a 4.”
Freshman power forward Samir Sehic is skilled offensively and adds a physical presence.
No. 15 Vanderbilt Commodores Facts & Figures
Last season: 21-14 (9-9 SEC)
Last NCAA Tournament: 2012
SEC projection: 2
Postseason projection: NCAA Sweet 16
Riley LaChance was the best known of Vanderbilt’s all-freshman backcourt last season, but you can make a strong case that Wade Baldwin IV — who seized the starting point guard spot in January — was the Commodores’ top perimeter player in the final two months of the season. Baldwin averaged 9.3 points, had a 2.3 assist-to-turnover ratio and — most surprising — shot 43.9 percent from 3-point range. His finest quality, according to his coach, is his competitiveness. “Wade is fearless,” Stallings says. “And it’s real. There is no fake bravado about his game.”
LaChance emerged as Vanderbilt’s top offensive option on the perimeter and was the league’s top scoring freshman (12.3 ppg). He is known for his 3-point shooting, but only 66 of his 147 field goals came from beyond the arc. LaChance will start at the 2 and also serve as the backup at the point. Matthew Fisher-Davis arrived with the reputation as a prolific shooter and did not disappoint. Slowed early in the season by a foot injury, he hit at least three 3-pointers in 14 games, including six in a season-ending loss to Stanford in the NIT quarterfinals.
Vanderbilt will add three quality wing players to the mix, including two big-time shooters in freshman Camron Justice and junior Nolan Cressler, a transfer from Cornell. “Nolan will be a factor for this team,” Stallings says. “He is a tremendous shot maker and plays with a great degree of toughness.” Freshman Joe Toye is a prototypical, athletic small forward.
Key Losses: G Shelton Mitchell, F James Siakam
Top Players: G Wade Baldwin IV, G Riley LaChance, G/F Matthew Fisher-Davis, F Luke Kornet, C Damian Jones
Nolan Cressler is a shooting guard who averaged 16.8 points and shot 36.4 percent from 3-point range two years ago at Cornell. He will play significant minutes. Camron Justice, Mr. Basketball in Kentucky, will carve out playing time due to his ability to shoot from long range. Joe Toye is a small forward who will add some athleticism to the roster. Big men Djery Baptiste and Samir Sehic won’t be thrust into prominent roles as freshmen. Baptiste is a redshirt candidate.
Vanderbilt advanced to the NCAA Tournament five times from 2007-12 but has missed out the last three seasons. That drought figures to end this season.
“We have a chance to have a very good team,” says Stallings, who is entering his 17th year at Vanderbilt. “It’s a talented team — a team with depth and with experience and a team that will really be able to shoot the ball.”
To emerge as a legitimate threat to win the SEC, Vanderbilt needs to improve its rebounding, especially on the defensive end. “Our first-shot defense was good enough last season,” Stallings says, “but our rebounding wasn’t as good as it’s going to have to be.”