It's not even Mario Moore, although the dynamic point guard's absence will impact the team in more ways than one.
In fact, the one thing missing as November arrives isn't a player at all. Commodore fans loudly ushered in the 2005-2006 season with visions of brackets dancing in their heads. Conversely, this season has crept up on us without any such fanfare. The Commodores have quietly settled into the fourth slot in the SEC East preseason predictions, while Shan Foster has earned a preseason All-SEC spot without a peep. Does no one expect big things from this depleted group? Or are the ‘Dores are simply establishing their position under the radar early?
We'll have an indication when Vanderbilt plays host to the 8th-ranked Georgetown Hoyas in just two weeks. For now, the first chance to see the Commodores in action comes Wednesday at 7:00, when the Division II Northern State Wolves arrive for an exhibition match-up.
The Wolves are coached by a man familiar to die-hard followers of Nashville basketball. Don Meyer enters his 8th season as head coach at Northern, but before heading to Aberdeen, South Dakota, Meyer spent 24 years at the helm of the Lipscomb Bisons. Not only did he win 700 games at Lipscomb, but he reached that mark faster than any coach in college basketball history. Since joining Northern, Meyer has again enjoyed great success, racking up five straight 20-win seasons and becoming the winningest active coach in Division II.
Meyer visits Memorial with a young team, with just one senior on the sixteen man roster after losing last year's top three scorers. The Wolves return three junior starters, however, led by marksman Craig Nelson. At 5'11'', Nelson led the team with 70 three point field goals at a clip of 46.4% from behind the arc. He will have shoot well if Northern hopes to stretch the Vanderbilt defense.
The other two returning starters are point guard Kyle Schwan and forward Levi Hamilton. Standing 6'1'', Schwan logged the most minutes of any Northern player while handing out 2.8 assists per game. Statistically, the 6'6'' Hamilton was a minor contributor, posting around five points and three rebounds per game. At 240 pounds, though, the junior is a load for any opponent and should prove to be a decent measuring stick for the progress of Vanderbilt forward Ross Neltner. Finally, sophomore Kevin Ratzsch (6'5'', 180 pounds) will fill the other forward spot, while junior Dan Mangrino (6'10'', 225 pounds) will likely hold down the center position for the Wolves.
Though Northern State is one of the top Division II teams in the country, led by one of the most successful coaches in college basketball, they shouldn't prove to be any more than a tune-up for the Commodores. This team is too well-coached to back down to anyone, though; the Wolves will play hard-nosed defense for a full 40 minutes. To expect anything more is unrealistic.
With no one seriously questioning the final outcome, most Vanderbilt fans will be looking closely at the newcomers. Northern State will be the first opponent for junior transfer Ross Neltner, redshirt freshman George Drake, and true freshmen Jermaine Beal and Jejuan Brown. Because of their athletic shortcomings, Northern is unlikely to play very much pressure defense, so look for Vanderbilt to have plenty of chances to hone Stallings' renowned scissors set offense.
The starting point of the half-court sets should often be Neltner, who is a deft passer as well as a legitimate outside threat. If Neltner can find the open shooter or cutter, as well as step back and knock down an 18-footer or two, look for the Vanderbilt offense to be very effective on Wednesday night.
Wednesday will also give the Vandy faithful their first look at prized point guard Jermaine Beal. At 6'3'', the Texas native gives the Commodores a combination of size and athleticism that they haven't seen from the point guard spot in some time. A true point by all accounts, Beal thrives through penetration and finding the open man. In his first action as a ‘Dore, look for Beal to not only set up his teammates, but also to assert himself in attacking the rim.
As for the old guard? Shan Foster enters his junior season dubbed by Coach Kevin Stallings as his most improved player, an impressive feat considering Foster's 2005-2006 season. The Commodore fans wait on the edges of their seats to see Foster's newfound penchant for driving the lane and creating his own shots. His wingman, Derrick Byars, looks to make a leap in his own right. His coach and teammates will count on him to be more aggressive offensively and more vocal in the locker room. As the season begins, look for Byars' numbers to spike, beginning Wednesday night. If he approaches or eclipses Foster's point total, chances are the Vanderbilt offense is running smoothly.
Northern State should be Vanderbilt fans' favorite opponent. Don Meyer has strong local ties and a rich history at a neighbor school, and his Wolves provide a low-risk opportunity for the Commodores to tune up for their loaded non-conference slate. With that said, here are the things to look for on Wednesday:
- The new guys: Can Ross Neltner be an effective starting point for Vanderbilt's unique offense? How will Jermaine Beal handle his first assignment at point guard, both in terms of setting up teammates and finding his own shot?
- The old guys: Will Shan Foster showcase mid- and short-range additions to his repertoire? Can Derrick Byars assert himself early and often offensively?
- Most importantly, will Vanderbilt use this exhibition to fully explore its options? Specifically, can George Drake compete with Dan Cage for minutes at the wing? Can Ted Skuchas finally display that which brought him such high regard as a prospect? What of probable starters Alan Metcalfe and Alex Gordon? The Northern State game will be a success only if some of these questions are examined by the coaches. Expect all eleven players to see time on the floor.
Prediction: A forecast of the score is irrelevant in a game like this, so the prediction is that the Commodores come out serious and take care of business from the opening tip. Eighth-ranked Georgetown comes to town in just two weeks, and anything less than absolute focus on Wednesday will lead to letdown on November 15. A score, just for fun? Well, since you asked: Vanderbilt 81, Northern State 52.