An exhibition game against a Division II program doesn't provide conclusive answers to most of the questions, but a few questions were answered definitively and there were some hints as to the others.
Two questions were answered even before tipoff.
First, injuries. As expected, Kristen Gaffney and Kendall Shaw were both in warmups, rehabbing from knee injuries suffered over the summer and were on the sidelines for the game. But Kady Schrann and Jasmine Lister, who had both battled injury last season and on into the summer, were ready to play and each played at least 20 minutes.
Second, the highly-rated freshmen class. Of the three-member freshman class, all three were nationally ranked in the top 100 coming out of high school, and two of them were ranked in the top 25. Fans wondering how they were doing only had to look at scoreboard to see that two of the freshmen, #22 Marqu'es Webb, a 6-1 post, and #1 Rebekah Dahlman, a 5-9 guard, must have made a favorable impression on the coaching staff because they would be starters in their first appearance in a Vanderbilt uniform.
"They've earned it," said Head Coach Melanie Balcomb afterwards. "They're relentless. They're not hesitant. They're very confident, and they know what they're doing."
It didn't take long after tip-off for Webb to make her presence known, as she scored the first two points for Vanderbilt less than a minute into the game on a jumper in the low post. For the game, she scored 14 points on 6-for-8 shooting from the field and 2-for-2 from the free throw line in 16 minutes of play.
Although Dahlman led the team in scoring with 21 points, 12 of them from the free throw line, her offense may have been over-shadowed by her hard-nosed, relentless defense. Her attitude and proficiency on the defensive end of the court has invoked memories of former Vanderbilt star Jen Risper.
"That intensity on defense turns everybody up," said Balcomb. "The relentlessness that she provides and that energy. She never shows any disappointment, any fatigue, she's extremely driven and mentally tough and physically tough."
Both Webb and Dahlman are playing their natural positions. Webb was a post player coming out of high school, and she's now a post player at Vanderbilt. Dahlman was a guard in high school, and she's now a guard at Vanderbilt.
The transition to college for the third freshmen, Kylee Smith, has required an additional adjustment because of the injuries to Gaffney and Shaw, which have depleted the number of available post players. To take up the slack, Smith, who was a 5-11 guard out of high school, has been learning the post positions.
"[Kylee] built confidence as the game went on," said Balcomb. "With our injuries, Kylee's had to adjust and play in the post. That's the only difference. She's had to play out of position and the other two haven't, But all three have been ready to play."
Smith ended the game with 10 points on 4-for-8 shooting from the field with seven rebounds in 17 minutes. In all, the three freshmen scored 45 points. So even though the proof will be in the SEC pudding, the early signs are looking very positive for a significant contribution from the freshman class.
The remaining big question is how the team will fare with a roster with no able-bodied players taller than 6-1. While that answer will have to wait for the future, Saturday's game provided some hints as to how the team will adapt to the lack of height.
The first adjustment is the use of the 4-guard and 5-guard lineups that Balcomb has talked about in the pre-season. In addition to Smith, 5-10 sophomore guard Morgan Batey has also been learning the post positions. Late in the first half, the team used a 5-guard lineup with both Smith and Batey in the game at the post positions, along with Dahlman, Lister, and sophomore guard Jasmine Jenkins.
The second is to turn the apparent weakness into a strength. Aside from a possible edge in quickness, Balcomb wants to see an edge in attitude, as epitomized in Dahlman's all-out approach to defense.
"Obviously we want to have that energy, that body language where we're just wearing people down, we're running the floor hard every possession, miss or make and wearing people down," Balcomb said. "It's a mentality that you just keep playing to your potential no matter what the score is."
With the only exhibition game of the season now in the books, the Dores now look forward to the first official game of the season on Friday night. The opponent will be the Appalachian State Mountaineers, who finished 27-7 last season including two wins in the WNIT. Game time is 7 p.m., and Charlie Mattos will have the call on 560 AM and 95.9 FM.