The Vanderbilt Commodores. Picked to finish FIFTH in the Eastern Division of the SEC.
Despite the loss of 6'7" sophomore Sam Lekwauwa before the season started, and a very young team, the Vanderbilt Commodores rushed out to a surprising 14-6 start, 4-4 in the SEC, last year. But reality struck and the team finished up with an eight-game losing streak, 4-12 in the conference, and 15-15 overall. The final two games were especially disappointing: a 69-66 loss to Auburn on the road after the game seemed well in hand, and a lackluster 78-59 defeat by Alabama in the SEC tournament, held in Nashville. From that team only two seniors have been lost: 6'10" Greg LaPointe (11.5 ppg, 5.4 rebounds) and 6'7" Anthony Williams (9.1 ppg, 7.9 rebounds). Those two took with them much of the rebounding and frontline beef (they were listed at 260 and 245 lbs respectively), as well as experience. Lapointe struggled with his back problem most of the season, after a healthy start. This year there will be five newcomers, four true freshman and one redshirt, and third year Coach Kevin Stallings should have a full roster of thirteen scholarship players for the first time. But there are only two seniors and no juniors on that roster, so inexperience is predicted to hold the Commodores down to a fifth place finish in the East.
6'0" sophomore point guard Russell Lakey (5.5 ppg) led the team in steals (54) and assists last year, but needs to improve his assist to turnover ratio (94-78) and his free-throw shooting (45.1%). Lakey is quick and a capable defender. Frequently the ball was out of his hands and in those of 6'5" sophomore shooting guard Billy Richmond (8.8 ppg), who can make his own play, but was an inefficient ballhandler (65 assists to 68 turnovers) and defender. Richmond made only 34.8% of his shots from the field, and a terrible 19.6% from three-point range (as compared to Lakey's 36.2%). If these two guards continue to play many minutes together, they will need to coordinate their efforts more efficiently. But there are some alternatives. 6'3" senior Chuck Moore (12.0 ppg, 3.5 rpg, 35.0% of his team-leading 157 three-point tries, and 79.7% from the free throw line) was considered by the coach to be the best all-around guard on the team last year. He was often in the game with Richmond and Lakey, as a third guard, or dropped back into Richmond's or Lakey's spot, and played a team-high 890 minutes. 6'2" sophomore Brendan Plavich (5.3 ppg) was the team's most dangerous outside clutch shooter (34.3% from three-point range) and his defensive play improved greatly as the season progressed. He was an outstanding point guard in high school but was not used in that position last year. 6'3" senior Sam Howard had a very disappointing year (6.4 ppg, 29.2% of three-point efforts), but showed as a sophomore that he can be a much bigger factor. The Commodores have depth at the guard positions but Stallings must find the right combinations.
If history repeats itself, Stallings might have Moore or Howard in the game often as a third guard. But he has more options at wing forward this year. 6'5" freshman Jason Holwerda, from Chattanooga TN Christian School, is the most highly-regarded of the newcomers. He can shoot from outside and is said to be able to do a lot of things well. 6'5" sophomore Scott Hundley (3.3 ppg, 2.3 rebounds) is a scrapper who had a couple of high-scoring games, and can pick the team up when things are going wrong. 6'5" freshman Corey Smith, from Lamar HS in Houston TX, packs some weight (230 lbs) and is regarded as a "sleeper." He could be redshirted if Stallings decides that he has sufficient manpower without him. At power forward, 6'9", 210 lbs sophomore Matt Freije was the pleasant surprise of the year. He scored 10.4 ppg, averaged 4.4 rebounds, led the team in blocked shots (28), and was named to the SEC All-Freshman team. Freije hit 49.7% of his shots from the field, sank 39.0% of his three-pointers, and connected on 79.2% of his free throws; the kind of shooter that good Vanderbilt teams have had in the past. He will have to play a lot of minutes unless 6'8" freshman Brian Thornton, a 235 pounder, is able to provide a similar surprise this year. Thornton is from Manual HS in Louisville KY.
The center position is covered by question marks, but at least there are three possibilities. 7'1" senior Darius Coulibaly (1.0 ppg, 1.0 rebound per game) played only 189 minutes last year. Coaches like to give their seniors the first shot at positions, but Coulibaly has two obstacles to overcome despite his superior height and experience; he has always had a strong tendency to get in quick foul trouble and the offensive side of his game has not developed. 6'10" redshirt freshman Martin Schnedlitz is a strong and fleet-footed 230 pounder who played minimally in two high school years because of an ACL tear that had to be mended again last fall. If Schnedlitz is fully recovered he would likely see the most minutes at center once he shakes off the rust. A late June signee, 6'11" Dawid Przybyszewski (pronounced "Sheb ah shev ski"), from Torun, Poland, is said to be an excellent shooter, but he is comparatively slender and, unless he gains weight, might eventually be used more at power forward.
Guard depth. There are plenty of dangerous outside shooters (Plavich, Howard, Moore, Holwerda, Freije, Lakey, and even Przybyszewski).
Inexperience (only two seniors and no juniors). There are now five players with good size (6'9" or greater), but only Freije has actually proven himself in collegiate competition. There is a lot of uncertainty at the center position.
Stallings must discover the right combinations. Richmond and Howard need to have better years. The Commodores somehow need to avoid another late-season skid.