NCAA BK

Vandy counters high expectations with 5 starters

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NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP)

High expectations are the two words used to describe the Vanderbilt Commodores best with all five starters back. Now they're starting the season off in a place this program hasn't been since the mid-1960s.

The top 10 of The Associated Press' preseason rankings.

The Commodores are ranked No. 7 in the AP poll released Friday, their highest start since 1964 when All-American Clyde Lee's squad started off No. 6 and followed that up ranked fifth in 1965 before reaching the final eight in the NCAA tournament when only 23 teams played. That means everyone is watching to see how a program that lost its last three NCAA tournament games to higher seeded teams reacts.

''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,'' coach Kevin Stallings said.

Senior center Festus Ezeli, who redshirted as a freshman, is the only player on the roster who was with the program when the Commodores lost to Siena in 2008. But Jeffery Taylor, Tinsley, Lance Goulbourne, Steve Tchiengang and Aaron Noll all were sophomores with John Jenkins a freshmen when they lost to Murray State on a buzzer beater in 2010.

And they remember only too well the 69-66 loss to 12th-seeded Richmond last spring that ended a 23-11 season. Such losses either stunt players or push them harder. Stallings, who hasn't had five returning starters during his previous 12 seasons at Vanderbilt, thinks this team is ready to be chased from start to finish looking for a third straight NCAA tournament berth, which would be a first in Commodores' 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. Our schedule's very, very difficult. I think it will allow us to do all the things that we need to do.''

Vanderbilt already knew it would be without Ezeli for the first six games of the season under an NCAA suspension for accepting a meal and hotel room from an alumnus.

But the Commodores announced Friday afternoon that Ezeli sprained the MCL and PCL ligaments in his right knee during practice Tuesday and could miss up to eight weeks.

When it comes to experience, there's Jenkins who led the SEC in scoring with 19.5 points per game and shot 89.4 percent from 3-point range. Tinsley led the league in assists, handing out 4.5 per game. Taylor scored 14.7 points per game and also plays some stingy defense. The 6-foot-11, 255-pound Ezeli developed into a strong shooter and rebounder last season averaging 13 points and 6.3 rebounds a game. He also blocked a school-record 87 shots last season.

Stallings brought in three talented freshmen in point guard Kedren Johnson, who scored 55 points in a Tennessee high school game last season, guard Dai-Jon Parker and 6-8 forward Shelby Moats.

As for that schedule, Stallings set up possibly the toughest slate yet for the Commodores. They open the season Nov. 11 against Oregon and also host Xavier on Nov. 28. They will play North Carolina State in New Jersey on Nov. 19 in the Legends Classic Finals and either Texas or Oregon State on Nov. 21. Vandy visits Louisville on Dec. 2 and Marquette on Dec. 29 before diving into SEC play.

Four of the first six league games will be at Memorial Gym, and Kentucky, the team picked to finish ahead of the Commodores in the SEC, visits Feb. 11. Vandy visits Kentucky on Feb. 25 before wrapping up the regular season at Tennessee on March 3.

Tchiengang will be replacing Ezeli along with Josh Henderson, who redshirted as a freshman last season. Stallings said the 6-11, 220-pound Henderson had the toughest job last season in practice working against Ezeli, and the coach can't wait to see what he can do against someone not named Ezeli.

''It might've been a little bit more ideal to throw him in there slowly to get him work and get him confidence,'' Stallings said. ''He's going to be thrown in the fire. He's going to have to play some minutes so you hope that he responds well and plays well and again hopefully what happens out here on the practice floor will prepare him for that.''

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Follow Teresa M. Walker on Twitter at www.twitter.com/teresamwalker

Tagged: Vanderbilt, Festus Ezeli, John Jenkins

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