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.