Stallings excited about new composition of Vanderbilt hoops

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — It has been a wild ride for Vanderbilt basketball since winning the 2012 SEC Tournament championship.

That team had three players — John Jenkins (Hawks), Festus Ezeli (Warriors) and Jeff Taylor (Bobcats) — drafted into the NBA, the Commodores’ greatest draft haul in the same year.

With that talent gone, Vanderbilt overachieved two seasons ago in what coach Kevin Stallings often called one the most enjoyable seasons of his Commodores career, dating back to the 1999-2000 campaign.

But with last season’s 15-16 mark, the wheels fell off as the team plummeted for a variety of reasons — transfers, dismissals, injuries and a professional signing in Europe — that were mostly out of Stallings’ control.

By the time the Commodores had lost eight of their last 10 games, including the final five, everybody was relieved to turn the page from a so-called lost season.

"Three years ago was great," Stallings said of his sixth NCAA tournament team that ended a run of five berths in eight years. "Two years ago was not what we want, but OK. And then last year was not good."

That was then and this is now, however, and Stallings refers to his youthful team as one of "promise" rather than rebuilding. Most of all, he now has the kind of players he wants to coach at Vanderbilt — both on and off the court.

"Last year, we just had too many guys that weren’t of the culture and didn’t buy into the culture and the things we believe in here, so we had to make more changes," said Stallings, the program’s all-time wins leader (292).

The Commodores start the year Sunday against visiting Trevecca, a local school playing its first season at the NCAA Division II level.

"This year is going to be good in regards to guys that buy in to who we are and what we need to be here, and who you have to be in order to be successful at Vanderbilt," Stallings said. "I think it will be enjoyable in the standpoint of coachability and guys that buy in. And I think it will be promising in terms of the talent level of the young kids we have in the program."

Youth will certainly be served at Vanderbilt this season, considering five freshmen are vying to man the perimeter positions. Conversely, the Commodores are experienced and talented in the frontcourt, especially with sophomore center Damian Jones, who was named preseason first-team All-SEC earlier this week.

By end of last season, the 6-foot-10, 240-pounder had become one of the league’s best big men. Averaging 11.3 points, 5.7 rebounds and 1.4 blocked shots per game, Jones scored in double figures 20 times and notched a career-high 19 points twice.

"I think it was a good start to oncoming years," said Jones, a Baton Rouge, La. native. "But it was just setting a pace for what I am going to come out and do in the future. I guess I surprised some people. People probably didn’t expect me to play a lot my freshman year. But I came in playing right away, and I did well, and I guess that surprised a lot of people."

Stallings feels Jones has unlimited potential, but it’s still early in the learning curve. Certainly, the big man will be the defensive focal point for opponents all season long.

"(Jones) can be really good," says Stalling. "But there are some really big ifs in there.

"If he learns to play hard all the time, if he learns to embrace the physical nature of the game a little bit more than he has thus far, if his motor starts running a little bit higher and he plays with an intensity that he shows in brief moments as opposed to getting like that all the time and playing with that intensity and focus and concentration all the time … he can be as good a player as there is in our league."

Backing up Jones is 6-11 senior Josh Henderson, who has shown flashes but had his season cut short last year, due to a knee injury. Of his eight games, Henderson scored in double figures three times.

Returning at forwards are 6-7 senior James Siakam (7.2 ppg, 5.3 rpg), a banger who has played 70 games, and 7-foot sophomore Luke Kornet (4.0, 2.3), who has uncanny three-point range for a player his size.

The backcourt, however, remains the biggest question mark for the Commodores — although the quintet comes in with impressive prep credentials. One recruiting service ranked Vandy’s haul as the nation’s 24th-best incoming class.

In both of Vanderbilt’s exhibition games, Shelton Mitchell started at point guard, while Riley LaChance started at shooting guard. At 6-3 and 186 pounds, Mitchell is a physical point guard with solid passing and ball-handling skills.

The 6-2 LaChance and 6-5 Matthew Fisher-Davis are the best shooters of the incoming class.

Rounding out the class: Wade Baldwin, a 6-3 combo guard, and 6-6 Jeff Roberson, an athletic slasher with solid outside shooting skills who can also play small forward.

"If they’re talented, it’s a lot easier to win with experienced guards and inexperienced big guys than it is to win with inexperienced guards and experienced big guys," Stallings said. "We’ve got inexperienced guards and pretty experienced big guys, so that’s what we have. That’s what we are going to play. I still think they are going to be fine. It’s just that some nights are going to be challenging."