NCAA BK

Fri, Nov 11, 2011 - 10:00 PM ET
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Oregon-Vanderbilt Preview

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Vanderbilt is already in unfamiliar territory.

Coach Kevin Stallings feels the Commodores' experienced roster will keep them there.

Returning five starters for the first time in 12 seasons under Stallings, seventh-ranked Vanderbilt looks to get the 2011-12 season off to a strong start against visiting Oregon on Friday night.

Expectations are unusually lofty for the Commodores, who haven't started a season this high in the AP poll since being ranked fifth in 1965.

"If we start worrying about the expectations of the media and the expectations of fans or parents and family and friends, then we are going to drive ourselves crazy because the only thing we can control is the kind of effort we put forth each day we come out here to prepare ourselves," Stallings said.

Vanderbilt is highly regarded because it returns all five starters from a team that finished 23-11 last season and was a fifth seed in the Southwest Regional of the NCAA tournament. The Commodores, however, were quickly eliminated, losing their first game to 12th-seeded Richmond 69-66.

Still, Stallings feels those experiences will prove worthwhile as Vanderbilt looks to reach the NCAA tournament for a third consecutive season for the first time in school history.

"I think experience, next to talent, is the best thing you can have, and I feel like we have both," Stallings said. "So I think our experience will allow us to deal with challenges, deal with the expectations, deal with the demanding schedule."

John Jenkins is one of those experienced players, and the guard led the SEC with 19.5 points per game as a sophomore last season. Building on that will be important since center Festus Ezeli is out for up to eight weeks with sprained ligaments in his right knee. Ezeli was already slated to sit out the first six games due to an NCAA suspension for accepting a meal and hotel room from an alumnus.

Ezeli was a force in the paint last season, averaging 13.0 points and 6.3 rebounds, and he's expected to be replaced by fellow senior Steve Tchiengang and freshman Josh Henderson.

Tchiengang has started just one of his 67 games over the last two seasons, averaging 4.8 points and 3.0 boards in 2010-11.

"We don't have the luxury of having Festus out there," forward Jeffery Taylor said. "He turned out to be our bailout guy last year. We could throw him the ball and he could make a shot. ... It has made it a little more difficult, but we have a lot of great players."

Taylor averaged 14.7 points last season, while Oregon native Brad Tinsley led the SEC with 4.6 assists.

Vandy is 4-2 against Oregon in the all-time series, winning all three home meetings. In the most recent Nov. 30, 2005, the Commodores won 76-75 on Mario Moore's 30-footer at the buzzer.

The Ducks are trying to improve upon a title-winning season. They defeated Creighton in the best-of-three championship series in the College Basketball Invitational, ending the season at 21-18.

"We've got a much deeper team than we had a year ago," said Dana Altman, who is entering his second season as coach. "We are more athletic, but I'm concerned about our skill levels and when you're trying to blend eight new scholarship players in, we're going to go through some growing pains. We've got a lot to work on."

Five transfers are among Oregon's newcomers as it tries to replace two of its top three scorers.

E.J. Singler, the younger brother of former Duke standout Kyle Singler, is likely to be the focal point of the offensive play. He averaged 11.7 points and 5.6 rebounds last season, and hit a running jumper with 2.0 seconds left for a 71-69 win in Game 3 of CBI championship series.

Tagged: Oregon, Duke, Vanderbilt, Festus Ezeli

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