NASHVILLE — Vanderbilt basketball has no choice but to be served by youth this season.
That’s what happens to a team that loses its top six scorers — including NBA draft picks Festus Ezeli, John Jenkins and Jeffery Taylor — from a team that last season won 25 games and the Southeastern Conference tournament.
With a league opener looming Jan. 10 against defending national champion Kentucky, Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings figured a Saturday night home game against No. 18 Butler might provide a measuring stick for his young team.
If the 68-49 loss to Butler (9-2) is a harbinger of results to come, it might well be a long rebuilding season for the Commodores (5-6), who have one of the youngest teams in the country with a roster possessing no seniors and only two juniors.
Taking the lead for Vanderbilt thus far has been sophomore guard Kedren Johnson, a highly recruited player out of nearby Lewisburg, Tenn. He flashed at times last season while playing 14.5 minutes per game, and entered Saturday’s game averaging a team-high 17.8 points per game.
But other than that, no Commodore has stepped up consistently to fill the slack, especially offensively. The only other player averaging in double figures is junior guard Kyle Fuller at 12.5 points per game. He had a team-high 10 points Saturday night.
“Other than Kedren, nobody has proven they can be that guy,” Stallings said. “It doesn’t take a genius to look at the stat sheet and just sort of see what some of our deficiencies are.”
Junior forward Rod Odom has plenty of experience, but has been inconsistent throughout his career, including making only 1-of-9 shots Saturday night. From there, Stallings is waiting and hoping for elevated play from a group that includes 6-11 sophomore center Josh Henderson, freshman guard Kevin Bright, sophomore guard Dai-Jon Parker, sophomore forward Shelby Moats and freshman forward Sheldon Jeter.
“We just have to work to keep helping them,” said Stallings, whose team plays host to William & Mary on Wednesday before entering SEC play eight days later. “These guys try hard. They are coachable.”
Making matters worse for Vanderbilt against Butler, Johnson played with an injured shooting shoulder that was dislocated in practice earlier in the week. He was held to a season-low 9 points, marking just the second time this season he didn’t reach double figures.
“Being a leader, I just try to step up and make plays,” Johnson said of his role that went from reserve to lead in two seasons.
Johnson, the former Mr. Tennessee Basketball who chose Vandy over the likes of Florida and Louisville, will certainly be the focal point of opposing defenses all season long.
“He has scored on everybody he has played against,” Butler coach Brad Stevens said of Johnson. “He scored it in wins. He scored it in losses.
” … We just tried to make it as tough as possible. We tried to be active and aggressive and doubling him off the ball screens. He is a good player. … I have a lot of respect for him. He is going to score a lot of points this year.”
After that, though, it’s a grab bag for the Commodores, who played well enough in the first half to trail only 25-22 at intermission. But the Bulldogs used a 3-point shooting barrage in the second half from senior guard Rotnei Clark, the former Arkansas guard who scored 36 points for the Razorbacks in Memorial Gym two seasons ago, to blow the game open in the second half. Clark led all scorers with 22 points.
But the inability to put two halves together against Butler is indicative of the kind of season Vanderbilt has had thus far. After a dubious 2-4 start to the season that included revealing home losses to Davidson and Marist, the Commodores had seemingly found a stride with a modest three-game winning streak that began with a solid win at Xavier.
But in their previous game on Dec. 21, the Commodores blew a nine-point lead in the second half in a loss to solid mid-major Middle Tennessee. And against Butler, they were clearly outmatched by a superior team that already owns a win this season over then-No. 1 Indiana.
“They are a better team than us, obviously,” Stallings said of Butler, “but I am disappointed the way the second half unfolded for us.”
A major disappointment for Stallings this season has been his team’s free throw shooting, or lack thereof. Coming into Saturday’s game, Vanderbilt was one of the worst in the country at 60.5 percent. Against Butler, the Commodores made only 8-of-18 free throws.
“That bothers me a lot because that’s just a little courage,” Stallings said. “You have to have some courage. If they can go 7-for-17 on 3s, then they ought to be able to go better than that from the foul line. They are better shooters than that.”
In the first half, Vanderbilt used a pair of 3-pointers by junior forward Rod Odom and Fuller for an 8-0 early spurt and an 11-6 lead, but Butler answered with an 8-2 run of its own, retaking the lead at 14-13 midway through the first half on a follow shot by junior forward Khyle Marshall.
From there, the lead would change hands five times and the score tied twice before Butler used a late surge behind a pair of 3-pointers from Clark to settle into a 25-22 lead at intermission.
The Bulldogs parlayed that late surge at the end of the first half into an 11-3 run to start the second half, taking a 36-25 lead less than four minutes into the second half on a follow shot from Marshall.
“We didn’t do the job defensively in the second half that we had done in the first half,” Stallings said. “That’s a problem we had early in the season, but we had it pretty much rectified that for the last five or six or seven games.”