For the second straight season, the Commodores must find a way to replace the production of a departed conference Player of the Year. Consequently, the team finds itself in a familiar preseason position. The league media slotted the 'Dores fourth in the Eastern Division for the second straight year. To be sure, making up the scoring of Shan Foster will be no easy task, but the 'Dores still have a go-to scorer in sophomore center A.J. Ogilvy. The Australian import exceeded all expectations last season, ranking in the top ten in the SEC in both scoring (17.0 ppg) and rebounding (6.7 rpg). Without proven perimeter shooters to stretch opposing defenses, Ogilvy will see more double teams early in the season. Look for his shooting percentage to drop below the blistering 58.8 percent he put up last season as the big man takes more mid-range jumpers, but that drop shouldn't be reflected in his scoring numbers.
Tenth-year coach Kevin Stallings will also look to junior point guard Jermaine Beal to increase his scoring output while maintaining his steady play as a lead guard. Beal led the conference in assist-to-turnover ratio a year ago, dishing out 3.1 assists for every turnover. Having an experienced, unshakeable facilitator will make the transition to a freshman-laden team more manageable.
Those freshmen are sure to be the most-watched players on Sunday, as they represent what Commodore fans hope will be an era of unprecedented success. Deciding on which four-star recruit enters the season with the most hype is an exercise in futility, but Jeff Taylor
's legend has begun to grow even before the season opener. The 6-7 swingman from New Mexico has already displayed athleticism drawing comparisons to Virginia Tech's Deron Washington, cutting his head on the rim in an October practice. Taylor combines that explosive athleticism with the ball skills of a guard, giving him the potential to be the type of slashing scorer the Commodores haven't seen in a long time.
While Taylor may draw the most gasps from the crowd, Oregon native Brad Tinsley
might be the most important addition to the team. His ability to play either guard spot makes the transfer of Keegan Bell bearable. A steady floor general, the 6-4 Tinsley has already drawn rave reviews from Coach Stallings, giving fans reason to believe that the offense will be in capable hands on the rare occasion that Beal finds himself on the bench. Just as important as his point guard skills, though, is Tinsley's ability to shoot the three-pointer. The loss of Foster and Gordon leaves the 'Dores without a proven perimeter threat, but the young point guard promises to fill at least some of that void.
A pair of freshman forwards also have the potential to stretch defenses, among many other things. If not for Jeff Taylor, 6-7 swingman Lance Goulbourne
might be heralded as the best athlete Vanderbilt
basketball has seen in years. A standout on both the hardwood and the tennis court, the New Jersey product can create his own shot from the perimeter as well as contribute on the glass and on the defensive end. Similarly, 6-8 Cameroon native Steve Tchiengang
has the rare ability to bang down low and step out and hit the three-pointer, even with the newly extended line. The biggest body of the true freshmen, Tchiengang will compete for minutes at the power forward spot.
Perhaps the most anticipated debut will be made by a player who has already been on campus for a year. Festus Ezeli
, a 6-11 Nigerian center, will finally see his first extended game action on Sunday after redshirting last season (he played one minute in last year's exhibition against Tusculum). Ezeli will provide a much-needed boost for Vanderbilt's interior defense; his height combined with some serious athleticism and agility should keep him among the league leaders in blocked shots. How big an impact he'll have on the team will depend on the strides he's made offensively, but at the very least Ezeli will give the 'Dores a defensive force in the paint.
While most eyes will be on the newcomers, the old guard isn't half-bad either. Sophomore forwards Darshawn McClellan
and Andre Walker
will likely begin the season in the starting lineup, and not just because of their incumbent status. Walker showed flashes late last season, and he'll look to give the team an offensive boost from the wing spot in Foster's absence. Though McClellan has a decent perimeter game, his services are needed most in the paint, particularly on the defensive boards.
Junior George Drake
will also compete for minutes in the backcourt, while redshirt freshman Charles Hinkle
, and walk-ons Elliot Cole, Joe Duffy
, and Jordan Smart
will also battle for playing time against the Chargers of Alabama-Huntsville.
Led by 12th-year coach Lennie Acuff, Alabama-Huntsville will see their first game action as well on Sunday. The Chargers return most of a team that finished 13-15 and in the middle of the pack in Division II's Gulf South Conference. The team lost its top scorer and best outside shooter to graduation but returns the other six of its top seven scorers.
The Chargers are led by senior Kael Coleman, their top returning scorer from a year ago. A 6-4 guard, Coleman averaged 11.1 points and led the team with 3.5 assists per game last season. At 200 pounds, he leads a backcourt that boasts some size and won't be overwhelmed by the 6-3 Beal and 6-4 Tinsley. Despite leading the team in scoring, Coleman's shooting percentages leave something to be desired -- he shot under 45.0 percent from the floor and 32.8 percent from beyond the arc last season -- a symptom that plagues most of the Charger squad.
Junior forward Cody Jones is the exception to that rule. Standing 6-7 and tipping the scales at 220 pounds, Jones shot nearly 50.0 percent from the field last season en route to 10.8 points per game. Despite being the biggest body in the UAH starting lineup, he pulled down fewer than four rebounds per game as a sophomore, a good omen for a Vanderbilt squad looking to improve its rebounding.
Senior Casey Stafford is the Chargers' third-leading returning scorer and most prolific three-point shooter. The 6-3 guard netted 35 trifectas last season and doubles as the team's best defensive player. Despite being Alabama-Huntsville's smallest starter, Stafford led the team in blocks, steals, and rebounds last season. He'll be a tough opening test for the Commodore backcourt.
A pair of long forwards completes the Alabama-Huntsville starting lineup. Senior Jordan Brewer averaged 5.7 points and 4.3 rebounds last season but shot a woeful 39.6 percent from the field. Brandon Tucker, a 6-8 sophomore, also struggled with his shot last season (36.9 percent from the floor, 23.1 percent from three-point land) and will likely draw the unenviable task of defending Ogilvy and/or Ezeli.
Though the outcome of Sunday's game is irrelevant, it is hardly out of question given the Commodores' recent history in exhibitions. The past two seasons, Vanderbilt defeated Northern State and Tusculum by a combined five points in tune-up games. Whether or not this one is close, here are some things to look for in the Commodores' first action:
- Fab Frosh: Naturally, all eyes will be on the most heralded recruiting class Stallings has landed since Shan Foster's group. Sunday won't give fans any indication of how the newcomers react under pressure in a real-game environment, but the game will offer an idea of just what talents Taylor, Tinsley, Goulbourne, Tchiengang, Ezeli, and Hinkle can bring to the table. Pay particular attention to any lineup featuring both Ogilvy and Ezeli; if the twin towers work well together, that combination could take pressure off of the Aussie on both ends of the court.
- Overlooked? With all the fanfare surrounding the freshmen, Andre Walker and Darshawn McClellan are firmly entrenched under the radar at this point. With competition for their minutes heating up, watch the intensity level of the sophomore forwards and how they mesh with their new teammates.
- All on A.J.: Just like Foster had to adjust to life without Derrick Byars, so too does Ogilvy have to adjust without a prolific scorer to draw attention to the perimeter. The sophomore center will see more double teams as coaches gameplan around him; look to see if he's added any wrinkles to his offensive repertoire to stay one step ahead of the competition.
Prediction: The 2008-2009 season is filled with more question marks than any in recent years, but the talented new blood looks poised to take the reigns. Sunday's game will provide an indication of how quickly these precocious newcomers will have an impact, and it will finally begin to satisfy the anticipation of Vanderbilt fans excited about a new era in Commodore basketball. Final score: Vanderbilt 86, Alabama-Huntsville 64.