Vanderbilt Women's Hoops Preview

This is another segment in a series of previews on every SEC football and basketball team.

During his first six years at Vanderbilt, Head Coach Jim Foster led the  Commodores to six straight Sweet 16 appearances in the NCAA tournament,  including a trip to the Final Four in 1993. The streak was broken in 1998  when UC Santa Barbara stunned Vanderbilt fans by sending the Commodores home  from Champaign with a first round loss. Bad turned to worse, and Vandy  finished with a losing record in 1998-99 missing both the WNIT and the NCAA.  However, there were two bright spots that year: 6'2 freshman forward Zuzi  Klimesova, Vandy's first ever international player, and 6'1 swing forward  Jillian Danker, a high school All-American from Massachusetts.    The following year, Coach Foster brought in 6'6 center Chantelle Anderson  from Vancouver, Washington, and 5'5 point guard Ashley McElhiney from tiny  Gleason, Tennessee.  While Anderson was the most highly ranked recruit to ever  come to Vandy, McElhiney wasn't even a blip on the national recruiting radar screen. But by mid-season, McElhiney had claimed the starting point guard  position, and by the end of the season, this young team with the senior  leadership of Chavonne Hammond reclaimed a spot in the NCAA tourney. Only a  last second 1-point loss to #1 seed Louisiana Tech on one of the toughest  home courts in the country kept the Commodores from a return to the Sweet 16.  

 Last season, the Commodores picked up where they left off in 2000. 6'3  freshman forward Jenni Benningfield joined the starting lineup, and freshmen  guards Hillary Hager and Juli Colli were key reserves. Vandy's sole reserve  post player, 6'3 senior Candice Storey tore her ACL in the second game and  missed the rest of the season. As a result, Vandy played a 6- or 7-player  rotation most of the season. Vandy struggled in the middle of the SEC season  when McElhiney was benched with a stress fracture, but came back with a  vengeance finishing the season with four straight wins over ranked teams  including #4 Georgia and an upset of #1 Tennessee in the SEC tournament. The  Commodores' strong late season performance earned a #3 seed in the NCAA  tournament. After beating Idaho State and Colorado at home and upsetting #8  Iowa State in the Midwest Regionals in Denver, the Commodores lost to  eventual national champion Notre Dame in the Regional Finals.    Vanderbilt's impressive late season and tournament performance, coupled with  the fact that everyone returns to the team this year, have raised  expectations sky-high. Look for the Commodores to appear in the Top 10 of  every preseason poll, if not the Top 5.   

Players Returning: Vanderbilt returns all five starters from last year's  Elite 8 team. Vandy will feature one of the best frontcourts in the country  with the high-low combo of 6'6 junior All-American center Chantelle Anderson  (21.2 ppg, 6.3 rpg) in the low post and 6'2 forward Zuzi Klimesova (16.9 ppg,  8.1 rpg, 3.5 apg) in the low post. Anderson led all of Division 1 -- both men  and women -- in field goal percentage last season with a stunning .724  percentage. Klimesova was among the SEC leaders in scoring, rebounding, field  goal percentage, assists, and assist/turnover ratio. 6'3 sophomore Jenni  Benningfield (9.4 ppg, 7.1 rpg, 3.1 apg, .403 3pt%), who finished 2nd in the  SEC in defensive rebounding and 6th in 3-point percentage, completes the  front court. Tough and tenacious 5'5 junior point guard Ashley McElhiney  (10.0 ppg, 5.6 apg, .408 3pt%), who led the SEC on FT percentage at .863, is  the archetypical floor general on both offense and defense. 6'1 shooting  guard Jilian Danker has transformed herself into one of the premier 3-point  threats in the country, leading the SEC in 3-point percentage at .478. Three  of Vanderbilt starters -- McElhiney, Anderson, and Klimesova -- are currently  competing in the World University in Beijing China. Anderson and McElhiney  are playing on the USA national team, and Klimesova is playing for her native  Czech Republic.   

Key returning reserves will be 6'3 senior forward/center Candice Storey, who  was granted a rare second medical redshirt and a sixth year to complete her  eligibility, and sophomore guards Hillary Hager (5.0 ppg, 2.5 rpg, .424 3pt%)  and Juli Colli (2.9 ppg, 2.7 apg).    Incoming Players: Vanderbilt brings in a top 20 recruiting class. The most  heralded member of the class is 5'11 forward Ashley Earley (23 ppg, 10 rpg, 5  apg) from Memphis Briarcrest, who was one of 10 finalists of Naismith High  School Player of the Year and a Parade first-team All-American. She's joined  by guard/forward Abi Ramsey ( 22 ppg, 6 rpg, 5 apg), an honorable mention  All-American from Shelbyville. Both Earley and Ramsey led their teams to  Tennessee state championships in 2001 and both were tournament MVPs in their  respective divisions. 5'11 guard Jill Corbett from Indianapolis was an  Indiana All-Star, and 6'0 swing forward Tia Battle (22 ppg, 5.5 rpg) was  Minnesota's player of the year. In addition, 5'9 guard Katie Smith from  Lawrence County will be eligible to play after sitting out a year following  her transfer from the University of Louisville.     

Outlook: Besides returning every player from last year's Elite 8 team,  Vanderbilt will benefit from the newcomers, who should address some of last  year's vulnerabilities. Storey will add needed depth in the post, which was  non-existent last year. Battle and Smith will add speed and quickness.  Earley's versatility will add depth wherever needed, and Ramsey, with an  exceptionally quick release, will add yet another 3-point threat to the team.  Barring injuries or other unexpected problems, Vanderbilt should contend for  the top spot in the SEC and make another deep run into the NCAA tournament. Top Stories