While VU fans had hoped for more success in last year's Tournament, there is much to look back on last year with joy. Moreover, in the past eight months there have been plenty of opportunities for fans of the black and gold to relive the many positive moments of last season.
Now it is time though to look to the present and the 2010-2011 edition of Commodores basketball.
Into the lineup is junior point guard Brad Tinsley sliding over from the off-guard spot and junior center Festus Ezeli to play alongside returning SEC Sixth Man Award winner John Jenkins, plus Jeffery Taylor and Andre Walker.
While many Vandy fans are eagerly looking forward to the Puerto Rico Tip-Off tournament and potential games against West Virginia and North Carolina, the opener Friday night in Memorial Gym against Presbyterian College should not be overlooked.
Opening at home is always special and will be to the benefit of Stallings' squad as he breaks in a new point guard. While traveling to Puerto Rico can be hectic and unfamiliar, Memorial Gym will be the perfect setting to balance a new rotation; elevate last year's secondary options to heightened status as the focal points of the offense; and begin to find the areas of improvement that will need to be addressed before SEC play rolls around on January 8.
Presbyterian's 5-26 record from a year ago may make it easy for Vandy fans to look past the Blue Hose, but this opponent should be significantly improved and provide the perfect opening act for a Vanderbilt squad that looks to remain at the top end of the SEC and earn a fifth trip to the NCAA's since 2004.
PRESBYTERIAN COLLEGE AT-A-GLANCE
The Blue Hose (a nickname the PC website describes as referring to a "fierce Scotch-Irish warrior) are in the middle of their transition to NCAA Division I and are not even eligible for postseason play until the 2012-2013 academic year.
This has led to some consternation in Clinton, S.C., among head coach Gregg Nibert and the other people primarily invested in the basketball program.
The original plan called for PC to be eligible for the postseason next season. In order to put his team in position to earn a first-ever trip to the NCAA Tournament – in what would have been the first year of eligibility – Nibert redshirted his top three players last year. There were, however, a number of errors PC turned into the NCAA, so an additional transition year was tacked on.
Those players, Pierre Miller, Al'Lonzo Coleman, and Josh Johnson, would have been juniors last year; however, they were redshirted so they would be seniors in 2012 when there was a possibility of PC going to the Big Dance. Those three accounted for 60 percent of PC's scoring in 2009.
Since starting the transition to Division I, the Blue Hose have played seven SEC opponents, going winless. Their closest game against the SEC was a 10-point loss at Georgia (68-58) on December 30, 2007.
With the return of his three redshirt juniors, (PC only has one senior, Walt Allen,) Nibert's squad figures to be one of the most improved in the Big South this season. After finishing 5-16 (2-6 Big South) a year ago, PC is picked to finish fourth in the preseason poll and received four first-place votes.
PC starts 2010-2011 with a bang, facing two NCAA Tournament teams right off the bat. The team will take a trip to Kansas State for the O'Reilly Auto Parts CBE Classic after facing Vandy.
Nibert (in his 22nd season at PC) will have his hands full facing a difficult opening schedule, meshing his returning redshirts into starting roles while players who started a year ago get used to coming off the bench. He'll also try to make up for the loss of last season's leading scorer, Chase Holmes, who transferred out of the program.
Forward – Jake Troyli– Sophomore, 6'9", 185; 2009-10: 12.4 ppg, 5.2 rpg
Troyli will be the most overlooked PC starter this year, given the return of the three redshirts and the fact that Nibert has high expectations for sophomore Khalid Mutakabbir. Troyli, a sophomore from Largo, Fla., should not be as overlooked as he is, however; the young man is the Blue Hose's leading returning scorer from a year ago when he averaged 12.4 points per game. Troyli should benefit from the return of Coleman in that he will not be forced to defend the opposing post player with his undersized body and will be able to take his above-average jump-shooting ability outside the key.
Center – Al'Lonzo Coleman – Junior, 6'7", 230; 2009-10: Redshirt
Coleman's return may be the most highly anticipated of the three redshirts as he was a Big South second-team All-Conference selection as a sophomore in 2009. Coleman picked up where he left off in the exhibition against Newberry, earning a double-double. At 6'7" and 230 pounds, Coleman provides a solid post presence in the Big South and should be a good early test for Festus Ezeli as he establishes himself as VU's starting center.
Guard – Pierre Miller – Junior, 5'10", 160; 2009-10: Redshirt
Here is what you need to know about Miller. He changed his uniform number from No. 4 to No. 3. Why? He has more three-point baskets than any other PC player in its short Division I history. Miller is also the Blue Hose's point guard and will be the perfect first-game defensive challenge for Brad Tinsley before the Commodores head off to Puerto Rico.
Guard – Josh Johnson – Junior, 6'3", 185; 2009-10: Redshirt
This will be the matchup made in Hendersonville (Tenn.) as Johnson figures to be matched up most of the night with Vandy's sophomore from Hendersonville, John Jenkins. While not as heralded as Vandy's two-time Tennessee Mr. Basketball winner, Johnson is no slouch himself. He is an excellent outside shooter who possesses the ability to drive, and it will not be a surprise for anyone that Johnson will be playing with something to prove against Jenkins, even if he is two years older.
Guard – Khalid Mutakabbir – Sophomore, 6'4", 190; 2009-10: 8.4 ppg, 3.2 rpg
With Miller, Johnson, and Coleman redshirting last year, someone had to fill the void. Mutakabbir was that man for PC last year, averaging 35.2 minutes per game, more than anyone else in the Big South last year. That, of course, was as a freshman. Mutakabbir is the prototypical slasher. A key for the Blue Hose's success this year will be the improvement of his outside shooting. As a freshman, he shot only 27 percent from three. If that number grows higher, it will free up Coleman to be more effective near the basket. Don't expect his shooting percentage to improve Friday; his height should cause him to be guarded by the longer Jeffery Taylor.
Nibert's decision to redshirt three starters a year ago should lead to improved depth for PC this season. Though Holmes and Travis Smith are no longer in the program, this should hold true. Walt Allen is the lone senior, a swingman who shoots just below 40 percent beyond the arc.
Zach Faircloth is a 6'3" guard who averaged six points a game a year ago as a starter playing 25 minutes a night.
PC still does not have good interior depth and will be reliant on Coleman being spelled by Troyli in the post.
Keys to the Game
1) Develop Ezeli's offensive game. Festus Ezeli was able to spell the departed Ogilvy and provide a defensive presence with his thicker body. He averaged only 3.8 points a game, though, in his primary role of backup center. While Ezeli will never be expected to lead the Commodores offensively, Stallings has plenty of other weapons; his teammates need to trust that when they pass the ball into him on the block he can be effective with it. That may be nothing more than passing to cutters and making simple drop steps, but if he can use his bigger body to gain an advantage on undersized defenders, that will make the Commodores a much stronger team going into the SEC.
2) Can Tinsley defend the point? The junior from Oregon has big shoes to fill with the graduation of Jermaine Beal. While Tinsley most likely will never be the scorer Beal was, he has the ability and knowledge to quarterback the Dores on offense. The question VU fans are asking is, can Tinsley defend the athletic point guards in the SEC? Defending better athletes was something Tinsley struggled with a year ago, but now that he is running the show he has to at least do a manageable job. While Pierre Miller is not an SEC-level player, he is smaller, quicker, and one of PC's top scorers. Struggling against Miller could raise the level of concern for coach Stallings and his staff about Tinsley in the weeks to come.