By Eric Single
Vanderbilt returns every key player from last season's team ahead of a highly anticipated 2011-2012 campaign, but the biggest question in the minds of players and fans alike is whether or not the bad habits and mental toughness issues that have plagued the program at the worst times in recent years will return as well. If the Commodores can overcome their snake-bitten postseason past, it could be a magical winter inside Memorial Gymnasium.
The offseason's biggest storyline was the joint decision not to enter the NBA Draft made by the team's three biggest stars. Sharpshooter John Jenkins landed a Southeastern Conference scoring title and a first-team All-SEC selection after a record-setting sophomore campaign during which he scored 20 or more points in 19 different games. Jenkins carried the conference's highest-scoring offense on his back in several games down the stretch and may enter the All-America conversation as a junior if he can prove to defenders that his deadly accuracy from three-point range is not his only weapon.
Jeffery Taylor's NBA-level athleticism made him the Commodores' shutdown perimeter defender last season, capable of marking shifty guards (such as Kentucky's Brandon Knight) and athletic forwards (such as Tennessee's Scotty Hopson) alike. As a senior, the forward will be closely scrutinized as he tries to curb the inconsistency that has frustrated fans in big moments throughout his collegiate career. The missed layups and cold streaks are as much of a part of Taylor's identity as the highlight-reel dunks, but he has plenty of time to rewrite the script in his final season in black and gold.
Then there is center Festus Ezeli, once considered a daunting project with a wealth of physical gifts but limited basketball experience, now considered the SEC's most imposing returning inside threat at both ends of the floor. Ezeli is on pace to surpass Will Perdue as Vanderbilt's all-time leader in blocks early on in his senior season, but it was his emergence as a legitimate weapon within the Commodore offense last season that left opposing big men searching for answers. After averaging just under four points per game during the 2009-2010 season, he upped that scoring average to 13 points per game last year while making a dramatic improvement in his all-important free-throw shooting numbers.
While the return of Jenkins, Taylor and Ezeli represents a big step forward in continuity, more consistent production from Vanderbilt's role players and substitutes off the bench could prove to be the difference between a deep tournament run and another disappointing March. Senior Brad Tinsley came up with big shots in wins over Alabama and Kentucky last year – the responsibility lies with him as the starting point guard to reduce the league-worst turnover rate the Commodore offense racked up in 2010-2011. The emergence of forward Lance Goulbourne as a standout contributor on the boards was one of last season's pleasant surprises and Goulbourne should battle fellow senior Steve Tchiengang for the bulk of the minutes at power forward.
Head coach Kevin Stallings enters his 13th season in Nashville with a handful of opportunities to showcase the progress of his program on a national stage. Vanderbilt joins Texas, North Carolina State and Oregon State as the four regional hosts for the TicketCity Legends Classic in November. A potential championship matchup with the Longhorns in Atlantic City could end up as one of the more entertaining resume-building games on the entire preseason tournament circuit. Other early non-conference games against Xavier at home on Nov. 28 and trips to Big East powers Louisville and Marquette in December loom large as measuring-stick tests before SEC play starts up in early January. Vanderbilt's conference slate is highlighted by the Feb. 12 game against Kentucky in Nashville, during which the school will host ESPN's College Gameday basketball program for the first time.
There are plenty of questions that may not be answered until tipoff:
How will Stallings use promising rising sophomores Kyle Fuller and Rod Odom? Will anyone show enough production at shooting guard to help take the scoring load off of Jenkins, who hardly rested during the biggest games of the season last year? With so many returners, where do highly-touted freshmen Dai-Jon Parker, Kedren Johnson and Shelby Moats fit into the rotation?
For now, Vanderbilt fans can only hope that an encouraging offseason will translate to the long-term success in February and March that only elite college basketball programs consistently enjoy.