Content provided by Vanderbilt Sports Line.
It has been one hell of a 2010 and I think that my last substantive analysis posts dated back shortly after the basketball season last year. But now that we’re back to the wonderful month of November and for the first time in three years I won’t be worrying about exams, I’m ready to get back to the blogosphere and bring you a season preview for what I think may be an even better season than last.
Let’s start with the criticisms. Vanderbilt returns 3 starters, but loses leading scorers Jermaine Beal and A.J. Ogilvy. Losing a senior point guard and your primary post presence, who have anchored those positions for the past 3 years, understandably raises some question marks about how far the Commodores can go. As a result, the majority of media outlets have Vanderbilt picked to finish 5th in the SEC East, behind a Florida team with all five starters returning, a Kentucky team that has almost reloaded, a Tennessee team that made the Elite Eight last year and still has embattled Coach Bruce Pearl, and a posh pick Georgia squad that adds transfer Gerald Robinson Jr. to dynamic wing Travis Leslie and dominant big man Trey Thompkins. In fairness, pretty much every media outlet acknowledges that any of these 5 teams could finish first, and that all of them would dominate the SEC West, with perhaps the exception of Mississippi State.
But once again, I think that this team is way better than projected. The reason is simple: it is packed chock full of veteran talent. Vandy’s players have been underrated for several seasons and the media has made the mistake of seeing Ogilvy and Beal as cogs too integral to overcome. Still, talk is talk, and the junior class, who is arguably the most talented crew to ever come through Memorial Gym, can take the program to a new level if they reach their fullest potential.
If the Commodores accomplish these five keys this season, we will not be 5th in the SEC East, we will be competing for first.
1. Jeffery Taylor Must Make This His Team
The criticism of the 2010 Commodores boils down to a lack of a dominant playmaker. This has been a criticism ever since Shan Foster graduated. Vandy has lacked that guy who can truly put everything on his back, night in and night out, when the game is on the line. While John Jenkins has displayed that ability from the perimeter, his potential in getting to the rim is somewhat limited. Taylor has the potential to take games over. He is incredibly difficult to guard 1-on-1, and his added bulk should help him to finish at the rim even stronger than in the past. The question is whether he can round his game out to the point where he is an unstoppable force and a legitimate first-round NBA pick. This is the linchpin in the entire season for the Commodores. If it is yes, look out. If it is no, we can still be a tournament team, but we will be inconsistent.
2. Brad Tinsley Must Be Solid At The Point
Tinsley slumped last year after having an excellent freshman season. Now, Tinsley is tasked with filling Jermaine Beal’s shoes in running the offense. In order for the Commodores to soar, Tinsley has to return to freshman form, and preferably a little more. Vandy fans have a legitimate reason to wonder who the real Tinsley is. Is it the one who averaged 11 ppg and shot 41% from the arc? Or is it the one who dropped to 7 ppg and only shot 29% from three? The more its like the former, the better this team will be.
There is one thing that should be immediately disspelled, and that’s the notion that Tinsley was meant to be a shooting guard. Tinsley is an adept passer and has gotten much better taking care of the ball, with his assist to turnover ratio jumping from 1.34 to 1.57 last year. He sees the floor well and his decision-making improved over the course of the season (2.04 A/T ratio in SEC play compared to 1.24 in non-conference play). Tinsley is also a good ball-handler and a talented passer. While he will be a defensive liability against quicker guards, Taylor’s ability to swing and guard anyone helps to alleviate some of those problems. If Tinsley can recreate his freshman offensive form and cause teams to respect him again, it will make our perimeter game one of the most dangerous in the SEC.
3. Festus Ezeli and Steve Tchiengang Must Stay in the Game and Shoot Respectably From the Line
Because of the shift in our offense from interior presence, our enforcers down low don’t need to carry a massive amount of offensive weight. What they need to do is grab boards and make life miserable for opposing big men. Festus and Steve have long been tough down low and can bang with anyone in the SEC, but their difficulty in staying on the floor due to foul trouble has limited their effectiveness to a certain extent. Fortunately for the Commodores, veteran seasoning and off-season work lead to more disciplined play, and if the work ethic of these two is any indication, you’ll see them frustrating offenses to a much greater extent than last season. The beauty of this tandem is that they also have the potential to provide a greater offensive presence. Neither has to be Ogilvy, but together as a pair they can replace his production, with Festus being very difficult to stop when he’s close enough to the basket and Steve able to step out and his the jumper. Perhaps most importantly, they must shoot free throws better. While they don’t have to be Ogilvy in this regard, they can’t allow opposing defenses to choose the hack-a-shaq method. If they can make teams pay enough for fouling and they can stay on the floor, our post presence will nicely compliment our perimeter play.
4. The Bench Must Not Only Fill In Nicely, It Must Provide A Change of Gear
There is a ton of talent on the bench this season, both veteran and freshman alike. But the greatest key to our bench depth this season is going to be how Lance Goulbourne and Rod Odom can step in when Taylor and Walker need breathers. Lance has long been the object of frustration for the Vandy coaching staff, but his potential is there, as his 18 point performance against LSU will attest. Lance is a tremendous athlete, much like Taylor, who can also shoot respectably. The problem is that Lance has lost a lot of focus at times and has been prone to bonehead mistakes. However, with some veteran seasoning, if Lance can provide a solid sixth man presence the Commodores will soar. Rod Odom is an underrated talent who can really surprise as well. Many teams would do worse than to have either coming off their bench.
The X-factor of this squad may very well be Kyle Fuller. Fuller is a speedy, tough-nosed point guard who can really kick our transition game into high gear. If he can keep opposing defenses off balance when he comes in to give Tinsley a breather, then we can really befuddle a lot of squads in the SEC.
5. The Commodores Need Consistent Play Out of the 4-Spot
Whether it comes from Andre Walker, Lance Goulbourne, or Rod Odom, Vandy has to have a consistent performance out of its 4 spot night in and night out. Last season, Andre seemed like the perfect 4 for our offense, with his ability to handle the ball, pass well, score when needed, and rebound effectively. But after his shoulder injury it seemed like Andre was a somewhat different player. That, coupled with reports that Andre thought about leaving the program after last season, raise questions about his focus as a starter and his ability to hang in there. When Andre is at the top of his game, the offense is at it’s peak performance. In order to really soar, we need him to play well night in and night out.
If Andre struggles, someone must step up and give us successful production in this spot. Whether it’s Walker, Goulbourne, Tchiengang, or Odom is yet to be determined. But if Vandy can find the perfect man for the job, the Commodores will be difficult to beat.
It’s a pretty simple argument: Vanderbilt gets all five of these keys, they won’t be talking about the Gators at the top of the SEC this season. The less keys the get, the more likely they’ll be more towards the bottom. I’m betting that we’re a lot better than most project, and that we’ll steadily get better over the course of the year. Regardless, we should be a tournament team and the SEC East should be a lot of fun to watch.