Here's a quick glimpse of what some SEC teams lost to graduation and the draft: Lost their leading scorer: Florida, Alabama, LSU, MSU, Auburn, South Carolina, Kentucky, Tennessee, Ole Miss. Lost their leading rebounder: MSU, Florida, Kentucky, South Carolina, Ole Miss.
Only two teams kept both their leading scorer and rebounder. One is the University of Georgia, which won only 2 SEC games last season and is in the midst of a massive rebuilding process. As for the other one...
Say hello to your 2005-2006 Vanderbilt Commodores. The Commodores' leading scorer and leading rebounder, Mario Moore and Julian Terrell, are prehaps the two most important parts to a successful season for the Commodores.
Mario and Julian really symbolize Vandy's situation as they approach the 2005-06 season. An immensely talented, very experienced, proven, deep backcourt and a frontcourt with size, strength, flashes of brilliance, and lots of unrealized potential.
The backcourt begins with "Super Mario" at the point, backed up by Alex "Red" Gordon (photo right by Bryce Wells), who is probably the best backup point guard in the SEC. Moore led Vanderbilt in points and assists, and as the official season preview at www.vucommodores.com notes, he is the only active SEC point guard with 1000 points, 275 assists, and 175 3-pointers. An extra bonus for the Commodores is that Mario has a unique opportunity to be the leader of this team -- he will be a senior, the starting point guard, and the leading scorer. This player is the heart and soul of the team -- he provides the energy, and seems to tap into "Memorial Magic" better than any other Commodore.
Alex is being groomed to step into Mario's shoes in 2006-07, but he will contribute productive minutes this season while giving Mario time to rest. Not only is Alex an excellent backup, he would be a starter on most other SEC teams -- it is rare to have the luxury of benching a player who scored 30 points in a game the previous season. Vanderbilt will face other great point guards in Kentucky's Rajon Rondo, Alabama's Ron Steele, and Tennesee's C.J. Watson.
At the other guard position, it has been speculated that Derrick Byars will see most of the minutes, with appearances by Dan Cage, Shan Foster and freshman George Drake. Coach Kevin Stallings has publically insisted that Derrick will play this position, while Shan will probably spend more of his time as the swingman. Those who have seen Byars practice say that Byars seems to have better ballhandling skills than Foster, which may explain Stallings' decision. Byars earned ACC Freshman of the Year honors at Virginia, and started often in his sophomore season before deciding to transfer to Vanderbilt. Rebounding will be a key for the Commodores this season, and Byars can provide some much-needed help in that area due to his size and athleticism. Derrick also has the speed and agility to pick up some fast break points, which Vanderbilt will need in the wake of Jason Holwerda's departure. Derrick is prehaps the most anticipated newcomer that Vanderbilt has had in years, and will be a key contributer next season with double-digit points per game.
Dan Cage, the team's only true junior, is a three point specialist who has made great strides in his defensive capabilities. At 6'5'', he is smaller than Shan and Derrick, but still has more size than most SEC guards. Dan is capable of making 40% to 45% of his three pointers, but had a rough ending to last season while trying to regain his confidence after a cold streak. Cage has become a much more well-rounded player than he was as a freshman, but he is still not an offensive threat off the dribble, and he relies on the quick ball movement of the Vanderbilt offensive scheme to get shots. As the key player for Calera HS and an all-classification Alabama all-star, freshman George Drake was known for his strength, grit, intensity, and tough defense. His playing time might be limited this season, but he has the physical athleticism and talent to be excellent when he is on the court.
As mentioned above, Shan Foster will see most of his time as the swingman. However, in Vanderbilt's half-court set from last season, the swingman and guard positions had very similar responsibilities. Shan was the team's best perimeter shooter last season, with the highest 3pt% in SEC play. Shan has the size and quickness to drive to the basket enough to keep his defenders honest, and is truely a balanced player. As a freshman last season, Shan averaged over 9 points a game, and performed best when the pressure was highest. Even in the games when Vandy couldn't pull off a win, Shan created late 2nd-half runs and seemed to have more energy late in the game than most of his opponents. Mario, Derrick, and Shan are expected to be three of the top four scorers, along with Julian Terrell.
While Derrick Byars, Dan Cage, and prehaps George Drake will see some minutes behind him, Shan might have to play more minutes than any other Commodore this season due to the complicated situation in the Vanderbilt post positions. In the past, Vanderbilt power forwards have shown solid shooting ability to go along with their rebounding and defensive contributions. Corey Smith took plenty of perimeter shots last year as a tough forward, and frankly the offensive scheme of Kevin Stallings would be much less effective without an additional shooting threat from this position. Sophomore Alan Metcalfe and Freshman Kyle Madsen are the only two natural power forwards who fit this requirement, but Alan played very few minutes last season and had a tendancy to collect too many fouls for the Dores to count on heavy minutes from him, and Coach Stallings is probably hoping to develop Madsen as a player a little more before he is relied upon too heavily.
Many say that the answer to this dilemma is DeMarre Carroll. DeMarre was far and away the most improved player last season. While Shan Foster, Davis Nwonkwo, and Alex Gordon came in as more highly touted and complete prospects, by the end of the season DeMarre was a spark plug, a scoring threat, a solid defender, and the best pound-for-pound rebounder on the team. One need only watch his valiant effort against Auburn in the SEC tournament, as the rest of the team struggled to a loss, to see what DeMarre was capable of as a freshman. At 6'6'', he would be smaller than many power forwards, but his excellent rebounding skills and vertical leap, as well as sheer strength, make him play bigger than he is.
Vanderbilt is blessed to have three true centers in Julian Terrell (photo, right by Brent Wiseman), Ted Skuchas, and Davis Nwonkwo. Many close observers of the Commodores describe Davis as a player who might finish his career with more blocks than points. He is a defensive powerhouse, plain and simple. He lacks an outside shot, and his offensive capabilities in the post are largely unknown, but he brings help where the Dores need it -- interior defense and rebounding. Ted Skuchas, a fourth-year junior, has had unimpressive and disappointing numbers through his first two seasons. Lacking an appearance of natural grace, Ted is often whistled for fouls when he has committed none -- a source of frustration for him and the coaching staff. However, he is probably the best post defender that Vandy has had in the past two years. On another interesting note, "Ted's Tyrants", the Vanderbilt students' Ted Skuchas fan club, has more registered members than any other athlete's fan club on campus. The Tyrants tout Skuchas's size, strength, and shot-blocking ability as his greatest assets.
Last but not least, Julian Terrell will be the essential post player for the Commodores. Their season lives or dies with him. The Dores have a good idea of what they can expect from players like Moore and Foster, but Julian is still an unknown, even in his senior season. Julian came to Vanderbilt with high expectations. He was a highly recruited prospect due to his size, strength, and finishing ability. After a somewhat disappointing freshman and sophomore season, Julian seemed poised for a breakout year in 2004-05 as Vandy's best true post player. However, he faced tragedy after tragedy in his own personal life. In order to best respect his and others' privacy, we should avoid dwelling on the details. Suffice it to say that when Julian emerged from these personal trials near the end of the season, Commodore fans were thrilled to see brilliant play from Julian in several games, as he contributed a stronger post presence than anyone expected at that point in the season. Terrell was still the team's leading rebounder and a decent point-scorer, but the Dores need him to become a much bigger scoring threat next season.
The Dores' offensive setup depends on getting open shots from the perimeter, and there are only a few ways to do that. Dribble penetration can make the defense collapse, setting up a pass to the outside and an open shot. Highly effective ball movement, like the Commodores had when their offense was hot last season, can also create a narrow window of opportunity. Special players like Mario Moore and Shan Foster can create shooting opportunities for themselves occasionally. However, prehaps the best way to create open shooting opportunities is to force the defense to double-team one of your players. When there is a double-team, there is always an open man. With shooters like Moore, Foster, Byars, Gordon, Cage, Drake, Metcalfe, and others on the roster, a double-team should usually result in an open three-point shot by a player who makes 35%+ of his 3pt attempts. If Julian can realize his potential next season, Tubby Smith, Billy Donovan, and other coaches across the country will be scratching their heads trying to figure out how to stop Vandy's offense. With athletes like DeMarre Carroll, Vanderbilt will not be a one-dimensional team who lives or dies by the three. Vanderbilt will have a strong defense, and a balanced offense featuring ability to penetrate to the hoop, shoot the three, make fast breaks, and hopefully to score points in the paint.
Vanderbilt fans, the season you've been hoping for has arrived. This season, Vandy's talent (along with UK and Alabama) is tops in the SEC. What should our benchmark for success be this year? With this level of talent, Vanderbilt should look for a 10-6 or 11-5 SEC record, sweeping UGA and UT, winning every conferences home game (possible exception of Kentucky), and winning one or two road games against SEC West teams. Every road game is within reach, but we shouldn't count on them. Also, Vandy will probably be favored against teams like Cincinnati and Kentucky in Nashville. They should be expected to win over 20 games for the third season in a row. They have the capability to play their way into the national top 25 rankings, although it might be hard to get that kind of recognition in a weakened SEC. There is alot of luck in single-elimination tournaments, but the Commodores have a better chance at a good seeding and a sweet sixteen finish than they have ever had before in the Kevin Stallings era.
In case you were wondering, now would be the time to start reserving those season tickets. This year will be special.
Vanderbilt's Mario Moore, left, and Shan Foster celebrate Vanderbilt's 79-65 win over Arkansas (AP Photo/Neil Brake)