After appearing poised to join Kentucky and Florida in the SEC's basketball VIP lounge for good, a strange thing happened to Vanderbilt. A hoard of players mysteriously opted to transfer elsewhere, another handful were asked to leave for a variety of reasons, the program was hit with a string of untimely injuries and the Commodores have wound up watching the three most recent NCAA Tournaments from the friendly confines of Nashville.
So how did we get to the point where we're talking about Kevin Stallings' squad as the 21st-best in the country heading into the 2015-16 season? The short and sweet answer is that Stallings' youth movement, forced as it may have been, finally began to pay major dividends at the end of last season.
After a 1-7 start in SEC play that had some wondering aloud whether Vandy AD David Williams might be spending the start of his spring searching for a new hoops coach, the Commodores shocked virtually everyone by reeling off eight wins in their final 10 regular season games. The run got their conference record back to .500, and had more than one Bracketologist claiming that the 'Dores were worth a hard look. A loss to Tennessee in their SEC Tournament opener changed all that, and Vandy's season ended with a narrow defeat to Stanford in the quarterfinals of the NIT.
Virtually everyone -- the top seven scorers to be precise -- is back from that squad, which had the proverbial light bulb go on in early February, and higher expectations have returned to Vanderbilt with them. Commodore basketball had something really good going from 2007-2012, and the perception that the official return of those days is coming this winter has the buzz back in Nashville.
Damian Jones is a lottery pick in virtually any 2016 NBA mock draft that you can find on the Internet right now. The 6'10 center was the driving force behind Vandy's coming of age in the final third of the 2014-15 season, a season in which he averaged 14.3 points, 6.2 rebounds and 2.0 blocks per game. The first team All-SEC honoree flirted briefly with foregoing his final two seasons of collegiate eligibility in favor of turning pro, but announced in late March that he loved Vanderbilt too much to leave without making one more run at the big dance.
I'm not sure what the big man equivalent of the "thunder and lightning" title often used to describe running backs with different styles is, but if the gridiron expression could translate, Luke Kornet would be the lightning.
Standing 7'1, Kornet actually has a couple of inches on Jones, but his game is vastly different. He averaged 8.7 points and more than a block per game as a sophomore last season, but he also has the ability to stretch the floor by shooting from deep. In 2014-15 Kornet connected on 50-of-125 three-point attempts, and showcased a better ability to put the ball on the floor as the season went along.
All told, Jones and Kornet combined to average 23.1 points, 9.9 rebounds and 3.1 blocks last season, numbers which are all expected to rise this year. Opponents might have success keeping one of the big men from doing what they do best, but taking away the advantages that both present is going to be a tall order for any team in the country.
Scoring should not be the issue for Vanderbilt in 2015-16. In addition to the two-headed monster in the post, the Commodores have a pair of sophomore guards in Riley LaChance and Wayne Baldwin IV who both have the potential to go off for 25+ on any given night. Toss in fellow sophomore guard Matthew Fisher-Davis, and you have three capable outside shooters who can make any team focusing too much attention on defending the inside pay dearly.
Despite their slow start, Vandy finished last season shooting just a hair under 40 percent as a team from beyond the arc, and had the 19th-most efficient offense in all of college basketball. The young Commodore backcourt also dished out 256 assists against just 114 turnovers, and shot 83 percent from the free throw line. In short, Vanderbilt rarely lost because of its offense last season.
The flip side is that the Commodores appeared uninterested in defending at times in 2014-15, and even when they were able to dictate the style of play to their liking, they weren't able to force enough turnovers for that to be a massive advantage. As a team, Vanderbilt notched only 168 steals for 326th in the country. They also ranked 164th nationally in three-point defense.
Part of the reason for Vandy's defensive struggled at times last season, was a lack of depth that forced Stallings to keep his young core on the court for more time than he would have preferred. Another dose of offseason transfers have again compromised Stallings' depth for this season, but a four-player recruiting class that ranked in the top 25 nationally -- and the NCAA granting a sixth year of eligibility for senior center Josh Henderson -- should help in that department.
The most highly touted of Vanderbilt's newcomers is likely Chicago Whitney Young product Joseph Toye, who probably became Stallings' most athletic player the day he stepped on campus. The top 100 small forward should provide a new element to a Commodore offense that has a great inside-outside balance, but needs a little more of the bounce that Toye can provide from the wing.
If the rest of the freshman class is as capable as Stallings believes it is, and if the returnees have made the defensive improvements you expect to see from players transitioning from their freshmen to sophomore seasons, then there's no reason for the Commodores not to be back challenging for the SEC title and playing in the big dance come March.