Will Commodores finally grab gold or fade to black?

Friday, December 18, 2015, Vol. 39, No. 51
By Maurice Patton

Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings has had regular-season success at Vanderbilt but he hasn’t been able to get past the Sweet 16 in NCAA Tournament play. His teams are 1-4 in the tourney since 2008.

-- Vanderbilt University

There’s an excited undertone, a giddy murmur about Vanderbilt’s men’s basketball team this season.

Even a couple of recent losses haven’t diminished the sounds and speculations: Is this the year Vanderbilt doesn’t flame out in the NCAA tournament? Can Kevin Stallings’ Commodores push deep into the bracket and at least flirt with the Elite Eight … or beyond?

In 16 seasons at Vanderbilt, Stallings has led the Commodore men’s basketball team to eight 20-win campaigns, six NCAA Tournament appearances and two Sweet 16 berths.

Stallings and the Commodores are expected to add to and improve in each of those categories over the next five months.

And the expectation isn’t just a local ‘wait till next year’ optimism from a fan base hell-bent on seeing something positive after yet another less-than-ideal football season.

A 10-4 finish in February and March capped by an NIT quarterfinal loss at Stanford helped salvage a 21-14 season despite a seven-game midseason losing streak.

Vanderbilt was listed at No. 18 in the Associated Press preseason Top 25 poll, 21st in the CBS Sports preseason ranking. They were 6-3 going into Saturday’s (Dec. 19) game with Wofford at Memorial Gym.

“Their overall record, to look at it, is not that impressive,” says Gary Parrish, national college basketball writer for CBSSports.com. “But look how they closed. They played well down the stretch, and they’ve got some important pieces back.

“They’ve got a pro ‘big’, they’ve got shooters around him and they’ve got a coach who’s viewed as an offensive mind. That’s the type combination you need to be successful in college basketball.

“Five NBA players is good, too. But as an alternative, show me a team that has talent, experience and shotmakers. It’s hard to screw that up.”

That “pro ‘big’” – 7-foot junior Damian Jones – has already announced he will make himself eligible for the 2016 NBA Draft after averaging 14.5 points and 6.5 rebounds per game as a sophomore.

As for those shooters, the line forms behind sophomore guard Riley LaChance, like Jones, a preseason all-Southeastern Conference selection. Second-year players Wade Baldwin IV and Matthew Fisher-Davis provide additional options on the perimeter, as does Cornell transfer Nolan Cressler, while 7-footer Luke Kornet shot 40 percent from 3-point range as a sophomore.

Meanwhile, Josh Henderson and freshman Djery (pronounce: Jerry) Baptiste are expected to support Jones in the paint.

Vanderbilt’s next home game is Saturday, Dec. 19, against Wofford at 7 p.m. Information: www.vucommodores.com

Vanderbilt’s current roster includes 82 percent of the offense and 79 percent of the minutes from last year’s team.

“I think they should be in the top three in the SEC,” Parrish says. “Kentucky is one of the best teams in the league and in the country.

“But you never know how a bunch of pieces are going to fit together, especially without experience. I think Kentucky will be good, but I can certainly envision a scenario where they struggle.

“It would not shock me if we look up on February 1 and see Vanderbilt at the top of the SEC standings.”

Regular-season success, though, hasn’t been a foreign concept on West End. Between 2009-12, Vanderbilt posted consecutive seasons of 24, 23 and 25 victories but came up short of the NCAA Sweet 16 each year.

Stallings’ 2007-08 team went 26-8, his high-water mark for wins during his Commodore tenure, but was a first-round NCAA out.

“The knock is that they get to the (NCAA) tournament, but where’s the deep run?” Parrish says.

“I’m aware of what critics, and what reasonable observers, say: They won 24 in 2010, 23 in ’11, 25 in ’12; Where’s the Sweet 16, the Elite Eight, the Final Four?”

That 2012 team, which included current Golden State Warriors center Festus Ezeli along with fellow NBAers Jeff Taylor and John Jenkins, was the latest frustration with its second-round loss to Wisconsin following an SEC Tournament championship.

“Festus’s team, I thought was set up to do it. They were good. It didn’t go where people wanted it to go. … I don’t think (Stallings’) lack of postseason success is an indicator of any large thing other than it’s a single-elimination tournament of 40-minute games; it’s kinda built for ‘sometimes things don’t go the way they ought to’.”

While history – recent or otherwise – doesn’t play in Vanderbilt’s favor, longtime Commodore beat writer Jimmy Davy sees how this current edition could be primed to crack through the hardwood ceiling.

“I think this team is different from some of the recent past because they have talent and depth,” says Davy, who covered Vanderbilt basketball for four decades before retiring in 1998.

“They’ve always had good shooters; they never have had a problem getting a marksman or two. But they didn’t have defense, the type athletes they have now.

Some say Stallings, who is known to be both vocal and animated during Vanderbilt games, pushes his players too hard. As a result, they might play too tight in pressure-packed games.

-- Vanderbilt University

“The difference is that they’re better prepared physically for the level of play they want to reach. They would have to put so much effort into each game in those days when they didn’t have the depth of talent that, by the time they got to the end of the season, it looked like they may have just been physically worn down, if not mentally.”

As much as fatigue may have played a part in some of those previous shortfalls, Vanderbilt’s tournament draw may have been equally a factor in the perceived flameouts.

“I’ve always said, when you get to the NCAAs and get a bad matchup, I don’t care what team you are, you’re in trouble,” explains Tim Thompson, who played for the Commodores during the mid-1970s and has just begun his 15th year as color analyst for Vanderbilt radio broadcasts.

“Teams that win national championships have good matchups throughout the tournament.

“We got a terrible matchup with Wisconsin (in 2012, VU’s last NCAA appearance). If we’d won that game, I think we could have gotten to the Final Four. That was a terrible matchup for us. It’s just one of those things.”

“It seemed like every year, they got a team that was good enough to beat a ‘major; and had the right ingredients to upset a ‘major’,” adds Jesse Johnson, publisher of Vanderbilt.247sports.com, referencing the Commodores’ 2010 opening-round loss to No. 13 seed Murray State and their loss to 12th-seeded Richmond in their first game a year later.

“Some of those (Vanderbilt) teams were built for the NCAAs, and just got bad draws.

“But this one may be built better because you do have Baldwin, a legitimate elite-level point guard, you’ve got Damian in the middle, you’ve got a great complementary player like Kornet, you’ve got a shooter like Riley, you’ve got a good role player in the transfer (Cressler), and the best shooter may be the freshman, Camron Justice.

“They look like they’ve got the possibility of being a better NCAA team than those (earlier) teams, even if they don’t have three NBA players, which they may.”

That personnel, plus the perception that the SEC is wide open behind Kentucky, adds to the anticipation as Vanderbilt gets going this season.

“People see the SEC is not exactly that strong,” adds Johnson. “You’ve got Kentucky, but Florida’s expected to be down. It seems the conference is there for the taking, or second place is there for the taking, so people think ‘why not Vanderbilt?’ ‘’

If luck is when preparation meets opportunity, then Vanderbilt may be ready for that elusive postseason breakthrough under its longest-tenured coach – which would be fitting, since there are those that tend to think he’s had a hand in that breakthrough not taking place any sooner.

“Critics say he has his teams wound so tightly, they don’t always perform to their capabilities,” says Parrish. “I don’t necessarily subscribe to that, but that is something that I know is out there.

Guard Wade Baldwin IV was named to the SEC All-Freshman Team last year. He’s the team’s leading scorer this year with 15 points per game.

-- Vanderbilt University

“Billy Donovan (first-year NBA coach who won back-to-back national titles at Florida over a 19-year career) got into the NCAAs five straight years and got knocked out the opening weekend five straight years. He finally won in the Round of 32, then went on and won a national championship, then won another national championship.

“He said ‘I was two minutes away from losing in the Round of 32. I’d have been the guy eliminated in the opening weekend six straight years.’

“That’s always made me try to keep perspective. I try to see how a coach does over four months, rather than six years.”

Mario Moore, who starred at Antioch and led Vanderbilt to an NCAA Sweet 16 appearance as a sophomore in 2004 and back-to-back NIT berths his final two years, wouldn’t attribute previous flameouts to Stallings but did credit his former coach for tweaking his approach.

“I think Coach Stallings has grown tremendously over the years as a coach and being able to adapt to the players that are coming in,” Moore points out.

“Some are hardnosed, but not all of them. I think that’s why you’ve seen some of those other kids transfer. I think you have to have kids that are receptive to what he does. I think that’s why you’ll see them do well this year.”

While the collective mindset of this group of Commodores still remains to be seen, the skill set is a different matter.

“The improvement of Kornet, who I’d say if he stays (for his senior year) could be an NBA top 20 pick, stands out,” Thompson says.

“His inside ability – he’s gained about 40-45 pounds, he can shoot a half-hook – and he’s always been able to shoot from the perimeter, he passes like a guard. Pro scouts love that kid.

“On top of that, you’ve got arguably one of the top two point guards in the SEC with Baldwin. He’s got a little of an attitude that Vanderbilt’s never had, in my opinion. He’s got an attitude and he conveys that to the rest of the team that ‘I’m the best guy on the floor and I’m going to show that to you every night’, whether he is or not.”

For a team as rooted in the 3-point shot as Vanderbilt is – entering the year, only the Commodores, Nevada-Las Vegas and Princeton had made a trey in every game since the inception of the shot for the 1986-87 season (931 consecutive games for Vanderbilt) – everything tends to come back to the squad’s long-range ability.

“There’s going to come a game when Vanderbilt is going to make 20 3s,” Thompson predicts.

“They’ve got the depth from the perimeter that they haven’t had in the past. There are at least six guys that are legitimate 40 percent 3-point shooters. Kevin has guys that can spread you out (defensively), so Damian is going to be more dangerous than he’s ever been before.

“The overall talent level; even that group with Lance (Goulbourne), Taylor, Fes – this group is more talented, and that was one of the most athletic groups we’ve ever had.

“And they’re really unselfish, they pass the ball really well. There’s a good mentality on this team.

“I haven’t been as excited as this in a long, long time.”