Men's Basketball hosts Tusculum tonight

Eight months. Eight excruciating months have passed since a running bank shot from Georgetown's Jeff Green sank Vanderbilt's Final Four hopes, leaving the Commodore fans with lots of questions for the 2007-2008 season. Gone is star forward and leading scorer Derrick Byars, and with him went Dan Cage, Ted Skuchas, and JeJuan Brown, key cogs in Vanderbilt's Sweet 16 run.

And yet those eight months were as promising as they were painful.  Coach Kevin Stallings brought in a large and talented recruiting class, headlined by the next big thing out of Australia, center Andrew Ogilvy.   

Senior Shan Foster, the Commodores' leading returning scorer, was unanimously elected to the Preseason All-SEC first team. 

Two other seniors have shifted to more natural positions, as Ross Neltner will move from the five to the four, and Alex Gordon will slide off the ball, where he can more easily put his offensive skills on display. 

All this has allowed optimism to remain high in Nashville despite the media picking Vanderbilt to finish fourth in the SEC East for the second straight year.  Only time will tell if the 2007-2008 edition Commodores can repeat last season's unexpected success.  For now, Monday night's exhibition could provide some indication of what's to come, as the new-look ‘Dores host Division II Tusculum College on a new-look floor in Memorial Gym. 

Hailing from Greeneville, Tennessee, the Pioneers will make Memorial their second Nashville stop in three games.  On Thursday, Coach Jim Boone's squad lost an exhibition at nearby Lipscomb by a score of 81-59. 

Tusculum enters this season having lost four of their top five scorers from a year ago.  Senior Jordan Lear is the Pioneers' leading returning scorer.  The 6-7, 245 pound forward averaged just over 12 points per game as a junior while shooting a team-high 52 percent from the floor.  Though Lear gives Tusculum a wide body in the frontcourt, he does the majority of his damage from the perimeter.  His 44 three-pointers led the Pioneers last season.  Lear is also his team's leading returning rebounder a year after averaging 4.5 boards per game. 

A trio of sophomore guards makes up the Pioneers' starting backcourt.  Jimmy Boone, son of the Tusculum head coach, runs the point for his dad's squad a year after being strictly a reserve.  The 6-1 Boone struggled in the role of ballhandler last season, posting a negative assist-to-turnover ratio.  To pose any threat against the athletic Vanderbilt backcourt, the coach's son must put a premium on protecting the ball, lest the Commodores use his turnovers to make the game a quick rout. 

Kyle Moore and Darren Hobbs join Boone in the Tusculum backcourt.  Moore, a 6-3 shooting guard, led his team with a 23-point effort against Lipscomb on Thursday.  He hurt the Bisons from both inside and out, knocking down three shots from beyond the arc.  Meanwhile, the 6-6 Hobbs was held scoreless against Lipscomb but managed to reach double figures on Saturday against the Pioneers' second Division I opponent, Kennesaw State. 

Tusculum's fifth starting spot will likely go to 6-6 senior forward Lavonti Jeter.  Weighing in at 235 pounds, Jeter has the bulk, if not the height, to bang with Vanderbilt's frontcourt. 

In two games against Division I competition, Tusculum has struggled mightily, losing to Lipscomb and Kennesaw State by a combined 39 points.  The Pioneers should pose no real threat to Vanderbilt, yet the Commodores won't take them lightly.  In last season's exhibition, the ‘Dores allowed 94 points to Division II's Northern State. 

With no one in the stands questioning the outcome of this game, most fans will eagerly focus on the changes to the Commodores, starting with the influx of freshmen.  Monday night will mark the first game action for newcomers Andrew Ogilvy, Keegan Bell, Andre Walker, Darshawn McClellan, and Charles Hinkle, as well as freshman walk-ons Elliot Cole and Joe Duffy. 

Ogilvy, the highly touted, 6-11 center out of Australia, should impress in his first game as a Commodore, as Tusculum doesn't have a single player over 6-8. Vanderbilt's prized prospect will get his touches early and often.  Expect the precocious freshman to carry his share of the scoring load against an outmatched Pioneer frontcourt, but watch to see if his defensive effort matches his knack for scoring. 

A 6-8 wingman with good perimeter skills, Andre Walker will begin his quest for minutes alongside Shan Foster on Monday night.  He begins the year behind sophomores Jermaine Beal and George Drake on the depth chart, but his size and range may make it hard to keep him on the bench.  Walker may be flying under the radar at the moment, but keep an eye on his output relative to Beal and Drake. 

As for the old guard, four seniors guide the Commodores into their first game.  Shan Foster, the team's unquestioned leader and best player, will look to tune up his deadly jumper in preparation for the season opener on Saturday.  The All-SEC wing has to make a Byars-like leap in his final season if he hopes to take the ‘Dores back to the Big Dance; Monday's game should provide some indication as to whether Foster has become more than just a dangerous shooter. 

Coach Boone and the Pioneers revisit Nashville looking to a fellow Division II school for inspiration.  Grand Valley State shocked 8th-ranked Michigan State in an exhibition on Friday, beating the Spartans in two overtimes.  But after last year's close call against Northern State, Vanderbilt won't take it easy on the Pioneers – this one shouldn't be close.  Meanwhile, here are a few things to look for in Monday's tune-up:

  • Two points:  Alex Gordon won the point guard job last year and manned the position effectively throughout conference play.  This year, he'll share the backcourt with fellow point guard Beal, and when the two are on the floor together, it's "Red" who will likely play off the ball.  Keep an eye on the dynamic between these guards, as the offense depends on how effectively they work together.
  • Fresh faces:  Vanderbilt is loaded with talented freshmen, most notably Ogilvy.  Can the Aussie get off to a quick start, or will senior Alan Metcalfe take a firm hold on the starting center job?  What roles will Keegan Bell and Charles Hinkle find in the crowded backcourt?  The answers to these questions will begin to take shape on Monday.
  • Spotlight on Shan:  With Derrick Byars gone, this team is Shan Foster's alone.  How will he handle the responsibility of being the leader both on the floor and off?  Look to see if Shan's added to his offensive arsenal, but also to see how he interacts with his teammates.  Alex Gordon and Ross Neltner will lead the ‘Dores as well, but Foster has to be the man for this team to succeed.
 

Prediction:  This season is full of questions, but also full of promise.  Monday night will provide just a small taste of what's to come, but a taste nonetheless.  Let's get this show on the road.  Final score: Vanderbilt 82, Tusculum 65.


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