For Carla Thomas and her teammates, the off-season was marred by a nagging, lingering feeling that the team really should have gone further.
"[The Sweet 16 loss to Michigan State] was a disappointment," said Thomas, who is questionable for tonight's opener against No. 18 Arizona State due to an injury. "You have to be disappointed. With the talent that was on that team, we were capable of so much more. We had the ability to go a lot further."
The No. 16 Commodores begin their quest for a third consecutive Sweet 16 appearance tonight at 9:30 p.m. CT at Wells Fargo Arena in Tempe, Ariz. vs. No. 18 Arizona State. (TV: Fox Sports Net. Radio: 560 WNSR.) The winner advances to meet either Clemson or Missouri in the second round of the WBCA/BTI Classic. Saturday's games will be played at 5 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. CT.
Gone this time around are stalwarts Abi Ramsey and Ashley Earley. If Vanderbilt is to make it back to the Big Dance in its fourth season under Melanie Balcomb, much will depend on the contributions of the 6-3 junior All-SEC forward from Mechanicsburg, Pa.
Thomas, who averaged 18.3 points per game in SEC games last season, says there's plenty of room for several new players to earn their stripes in the coming season.
"I think we're going to get some scoring from some role players that we've had the last two years," she says. "As a junior class we have to step up and take responsibility for that.
"We have the experience in the post and the guards. Liz has sat out for a year now, so she's gotten that experience in the post.
"Caroline Williams-- at one point I think she had a higher 3-point shooting percentage than Abi did, so we have players that can step up and score."
A number of heralded newcomers to the team should get their chances to contribute.
"Tina Wirth-- there's been a lot of press about her. She was doing some amazing things during the summer with the USA basketball team. She might be the biggest question mark, because no one's really seen what she can do at the college level yet."
Being tall has been part of Carla Thomas' life as long as she can remember. "I've always been tall," she says. "I came out of the womb toddler-sized."
By the age of 12, having already attained the 6-foot plateau, it was obvious to Thomas and everyone around her that her future would revolve around basketball.
"By seventh grade I started playing AAU basketball and taking it very seriously," she says. "I began seeing what the competition was like, not only in my backyard, but around the country. I realized, hey, I can play with these folks."
With the height came some good-natured kidding.
"The Jolly Green Giant was one of my nicknames," she laughs. "Most of the time people were like, 'Wow you're tall-- do you play basketball?'"
As a junior higher growing up in Mechanicsburg, Pa., Thomas was inspired by watching Cumberland Valley upperclassmen Cory Dallas and Mandy Wittenmyer, both of whom were future collegians. Games between rivals Cumberland Valley High and Trinity, another Pennsylvania girls' power, would draw fans from all over southeastern portion of the state.
"The competition was incredible," she remembers. "It was so much fun to watch."
As she grew, the thought entered her head that she might one day play at the collegiate or professional level. She vividly recalls watching the first-ever WNBA game. It was a watershed moment in her young life.
"I remember exactly what I was doing when I watched it," she says. "They were definitely stars for me. Rebecca Lobo was always an inspiration for me.
"It was always in the back of your mind, like, wow-- there are actually people [making a living playing basketball]."
As a high school junior Thomas made a verbal commitment to Jim Foster and Vanderbilt before Foster abruptly left for Ohio State in the spring of 2002. His decision put Thomas back on the market, and Thomas she ended up giving Stanford a hard look.
Fortunately for Commodore fans, she was re-sold on Vanderbilt by Melanie Balcomb, who was hired to replace Foster. Thomas signed in 2002 and became part of Balcomb's first recruiting class, one that was rated tops in the nation by some services.
"Ultimately I decided I didn't want to be that far away from home," she said. "I wanted my family to be able to come and see me play."
And come to see her games they do, in spite of the 11-hour drive. "Not all of the games, but a lot of them," she says. "They put plenty of miles on their cars, that's for sure."
Like many of her teammates who have gone on to graduate, Thomas raves about the camaraderie and the family aspect of the Vanderbilt team. It's made her decision to attend school 11 hours from home so much more pleasant, she says.
"That's why we've been able to recruit such good players from high school. It's because we have that family atmosphere, and because we're going to defend each other and play hard for one another. It's because we have that special connection."