OK, even though I am still awash in the glow from the football win over Kentucky last Saturday, I believe I can see the light at the end of the tunnel-- and it's not a train headed in my direction.
At long last, basketball season is at hand. Friday night, courtesy of a friend with an extra ticket (thanks!), I shall be inside Belmont's new Curb Event Center, wearing my ugliest gold and screaming like crazy. I hope that collectively as a group, Vandy fans can invade the Curb and let our presence be felt early and often.
So what can we fans look forward to in the upcoming season?
It is fairly obvious that Matt Freije is the man. I expect by the end of the year he will hold the all-time school record for points, and will overtake Phil Cox by the 25th or 26th game of the season. Matt will get his points, and seeing him in the exhibition games, he looks bigger and stronger and more focused than I can ever remember.
This team has a few new things worth mentioning, all of which should work in Vandy's favor:
Leadership. Yes, we have some seniors on the team this year! Scott Hundley's aggressiveness and Russell Lakey's experience will help all the younger players-- but the person who appears to make the biggest impact is Mario Moore. Mario possesses the characteristics of a truly great floor leader. Besides being our point guard-- and that position's importance can never be downplayed-- he is vocal on the floor, and can back up everything he says with his play. He leaves everything out on the floor. Without a doubt, he is a huge key to Vandy's success.
Depth. We seem stronger and deeper, with more experience than we have had in a long time. Look down the bench, and you see subs like Russell and Scott, David Przybyszewski, Ted Skuchas, Adam Payton, Dan Cage-- and even Martin Schnedlitz appears to be ready to give us a few minutes here and there. Dan is the only true freshman. Look for a multitude of different combinations on the floor throughout the year, many depending upon the situation.
Home court advantage. OK, stop scratching your heads and let me explain. The past few years, it has been quite obvious that Vandy just has not drawn the crowds at Memorial that we once saw there. 6,000-7,000 seemed to be the norm last year for a non-conference opponent, absent the big names (UConn last year, Michigan and Indiana this year).
Though it's tough to judge by exhibition games, I have seen many more of the upper decks filled with fans. Up in 3F there have been many more people than I can recall, and I do believe that the additional fans in the building will make it that much more difficult for opposing teams-- especially when we get into the meat of the SEC schedule.
Imagine the advantage we could build should Vandy start out 11-0 (9-0 at home)-- it would put us in the thick of the hunt for an NCAA berth. Then, if we hold serve and win all eight home SEC games-- well, you do the math. The university administration has demonstrated its support by trying its best to bring more fans to Memorial-- and that's a change that many of us long time Vandy fans have been longing for.
So what will the team do? Where will they finish, and what can we expect as fans?
First, I think we'll see a much more entertaining team. From talking with several players, it appears that the coach is going to allow a more open style of play, with the team looking to fast break more readily than in past years. Why? Mario and Julian give us the added speed on the court to do so. Add Corey, Jason and Matt as the starting combo and we have a lot of good athletes to run the floor. No question this up-tempo style will benefit players like Jason, who has shown us a great ability to drive and finish off a play. I truly believe that if Jason can score in the 10-point range per game, the floor opens up for everyone else. However, if Jason doesn't look to score, Adam Payton and Dan Cage have both shown early this year that they can and will. Adam has surprised me with his quick first step, especially around the baseline.
Julian is another player that adds a dimension to the team that we haven't seen in a long time-- maybe not since Bobby Westbrooks-- a true leaper. Julian has hops. He grabs rebounds well above the rim. With him in there getting the rebounds and outletting quickly, the fast break plan makes sense.
Looking at the bench makes me smile too. Przybyszewski has again added more muscle this year and seems to be more aggressive-- though I must admit I love watching him step out and drain the three point shot. He could really give opposing coaches matchup problems. Russell, a good defender who has been our point guard for the past three years, is a gamer and will continue to help this team achieve. Scott Hundley? I truly like him as a person and love to watch him hustle on the floor. Like Mario, he leaves everything he's got on the floor. There is nothing that Scott wouldn't do to help this team.
I suspect Scott and Corey will both see lots of time at the small forward slot all season long. Ted looks like he will need some time to get better, but the skills are there. He is a good passer and does take up a good deal of space in the middle. He will certainly help rebounding. Adam and Dan both can shoot from beyond the arc. Sometime this year, it will be their shooting that will keep the streak alive.
Finally, the coaching. I really think that the addition of Assistant Coach Tom Richardson will help the team more than any of us know. Coach Stallings looked inside himself and should have a new and different outlook on approaching the team and motivating them. He realizes he is on the hot seat, and he is doing everything he can to get Vandy to the NCAA's.
My prediction?... I'm an optimist. I see Vandy going 10-1 in the pre-SEC schedule, 9-7 in the SEC and 1-1 in the SEC tourney-- giving us a 20-9 record. We get to the NCAA's, and I say we win one game. Our final record is 21-10 and we have the building blocks to go even further next year.