Vanderbilt Commodores eager to work, show how they've grown
NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) The Vanderbilt Commodores have heard all the talk about how they should be a very good team this season. They're doing their best to tune out all that chatter and prove how quickly they've grown up.
''It's tough to block it out, so we hear it,'' sophomore guard Matthew Fisher-Davis said. ''But we try to block it out as much as we can as we come in and practice day by day and get better.''
That approach worked last season when Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings fielded the fourth-youngest team in all Division I with the Commodores the only team in the Southeastern Conference to start three freshmen guards. The youth took a bit of a toll with a seven-game skid in SEC play last January, but the Commodores finished the season 10-4 losing 78-75 in the NIT quarterfinals at Stanford for a 21-14 record overall.
Now Stallings has four starters back from the SEC's best shooting team overall or beyond the arc with four Commodores who shot at least 40 percent beyond the arc. That's why Vanderbilt was picked to finish second in the SEC, the highest the Commodores have been voted since 2011-12 when they won the league tournament by knocking off Kentucky - the Wildcats' last loss before winning the national championship.
Stallings likes working with this group and that expectations haven't changed at all internally.
''Hopefully that won't change our behavior or our approach to what we're doing,'' Stallings said.
Here are some things to watch out of Vanderbilt this season:
NBA FUTURE: Damian Jones has done his best to take this topic off the table by deciding earlier this year that he will enter the NBA draft after his junior season. Now the 7-foot, 245-pound center can focus on this season, not whether he'll be a lottery pick in June. Jones also spent the offseason working on his shooting and ball handling. Jones isn't Vandy's only 7-footer. Graduate student Josh Henderson is back thanks to a medical redshirt by the NCAA after two knee injuries, and 7-1 Luke Kornet shot 40 percent from 3 last season.
MORE 3-POINT SHOOTERS: Wade Baldwin IV, Riley LaChance, Jeff Roberson and Matthew Fisher-Davis came in as freshmen and embraced the challenges of playing immediately, and Baldwin, Roberson and Fisher-Davis all shot at least 40 percent from 3-point range. LaChance, who led SEC freshmen in scoring, was second in scoring with 12.3 points a game. He hit a relatively measly 38.2 percent beyond the arc himself. Vanderbilt led the SEC and ranked 19th nationally shooting 39.2 percent.
HERE'S NOLAN: The Commodores got to practice against 6-4 guard Nolan Cressler last season while he sat out after transferring from Cornell. Now he's finally cleared to play, and he averaged 16.8 points a game for Cornell in his last season there.
NEWCOMERS: Stallings also has four freshmen led by 6-3 guard Camron Justice, another 3-point shooter who was Mr. Basketball and Kentucky's Gatorade Player of the Year who left Knott County Central as the third-leading scorer in that state's history. Joe Toye is a 6-7 wing from Chicago, and 6-9 Samir Sehic averaged 20 points and 14 rebounds as a senior in Texas. Djery Baptiste is a 6-10 center bringing depth in the middle.
SCHEDULE TIDBITS: The Commodores open the season Nov. 13 hosting Austin Peay, but they play St. John's and could face Indiana or Kansas in the Maui Invitational. The Commodores visit Baylor and Purdue in December. Vanderbilt opens the SEC portion against LSU on Jan. 2. The Commodores also play Kentucky twice after only visiting the Wildcats last season. Vanderbilt visits Rupp Arena on Jan. 23 with Kentucky at Memorial on Feb. 27, and the SEC tournament is back in Nashville in March. ''They're telling people to schedule up, and we're scheduling up and hope it's a benefit to us,'' Stallings said.
This story has been updated to include a mention of freshman 6-10 center Djery Baptiste to the newcomers note.
Follow Teresa M. Walker at www.twitter.com/teresamwalker