Our friends at The Mag are previewing one high-profile school per day for their Summer Buzz series. For the sake of all that is synergistic, yours truly will be attempting the same, complementing each comprehensive Insider preview with some analytic fun. Today's subject: the Vanderbilt Commodores.
Make no mistake: The 2011-12 Vanderbilt Commodores have a chance to be the best team in school history.
At some schools, this is a massive statement. At others, it's merely bold. At Vandy, it feels more like sober statement of fact, one based equally in the school's meager hoops tradition -- the Commodores have never gone to the Final Four, and have won their conference or conference tournament title only five times -- and, of course, in the potential of the current players on this roster.
In fact, in assessing the chances of this team being the best in program history, that -- potential -- is the key word. Do the Commodores have room to grow? Or are they the same team we saw last season?
As far as the names on the roster, well, yes, this is the same team you saw last season. All five starters are back for the new campaign. Four of those starters -- Jeffery Taylor, Festus Ezeli, Brad Tinsley and Lance Goulbourne -- will be seniors. One of the starters -- John Jenkins -- will be a junior.
Often, in preseason polls and offseason predictions, we hoops pundit types focus too intently on returning starters. We assume, often without thinking about it, that a team that returns all of its best players for another season will reap the rewards not only of increased team cohesion or "veteran presence," but of the disparate individual improvements each of those returning players makes. Just as often, we overrate these teams. In the end, the team we see a year later is about as good as the one we saw the year before.
Is Vanderbilt one of these teams? Is the Commodores' early-preseason buzz -- for example, our own Dick Vitale ranked them No. 5 overall in his preseason top 40 -- coming almost by default?
Actually, I don't think so. While I'm not sure the Dores are the fifth-best team in the country, there's also reason to expect Vanderbilt will be a good bit better in 2012 than they were in 2011. (And despite the first-round NCAA tournament loss, 2011 was a very solid season.)
The first reason to expect as much is Taylor, Kevin Stallings' versatile and athletic 6-foot-8 wing. Taylor is already an effective player -- he's especially good when he's attacking the rim with gusto -- but his game still has room to develop, a fact Taylor acknowledged at the Nike Skills Camps in Chicago in June.
For one, Taylor needs to be a much better perimeter shooter. He shot 34.5 percent on his 113 3-pointers as a junior. The NBA scouts I talked to at the camp seemed optimistic about the prospect of Taylor's improvement, as he (a) already has textbook release mechanics and (b) has already improved by leaps and bounds since his freshman season, when he shot 9-of-41 from beyond the arc. If Taylor is even marginally better from distance, VU's offense can open up even more, and that's good news for everyone.
It would certainly be good news for Ezeli, one of the more underrated big men in college game last season. Ezeli's game is all strength and girth; he muscles opponents around the rim in a way few college forwards can manage. But he too has room to improve, namely on his face-up game and his touch around the rim.
It's also fair to expect Jenkins -- the star of last season's team -- to get a bit better, too. There isn't much room for improvement on offense, frankly; Jenkins is already one of the most efficient offensive players in the country. What he (and for that matter, Tinsley) can most readily improve is his perimeter defense.
Frankly, Vanderbilt was a soft defensive team last season. The Commodores ranked No. 88 in Ken Pomeroy's adjusted defensive efficiency rankings and were especially weak on the perimeter, where they turned opponents over on a mere 17.5 percent of possessions (national rank: No. 308) and recorded a steal on only 7.5 percent of defensive possessions (rank: No. 304). Vandy doesn't suddenly have to start turning opponents over like Ohio State, but a mere uptick in the category would represent a major step toward making life just a little bit more difficult for opponents on the perimeter.
Even better -- and this is not something Vanderbilt fans have come to count on -- the Commodores have a new batch of talent that might be ready to contribute to this improvement immediately. Stallings landed two ESPNU 100 recruits in the 2011 class: Dai-Jon Parker, the No. 10-ranked shooting guard, and Kedren Johnson, the No. 16-ranked point guard. Parker is touted as an elite shooter; Johnson as an elite ballhandler. Both have one thing in common: physicality. That was a key ingredient missing from Vanderbilt's backcourt in 2011. If the duo can give Stallings solid minutes off the bench, especially on the defensive end, well, there's some more improvement too.
In 1965, a 6-foot-10 forward named Clyde Lee got the Commodores as close to a Final Four as they've ever been. In what we'd eventually come to call the Elite Eight, Lee's Vanderbilt team seemed to win on a last-second shot, only to be whistled for a travel in an 87-85 loss to Michigan. (After the game, coach Roy Skinner summed it up: "The referees cheated us.")
The Commodores have been chasing the ghost of the Final Four with minimal proximity ever since. The 2011-12 version will carry that history with them, but they'll also carry their own foibles: In three of the past four seasons, the Commodores have been upset in the first round of the NCAA tournament by a team with a double-digit seed.
The 2011 version was better than that finish. The 2012 version will be, too. But how much better? Elite Eight? Final Four? All of that depends on how much this team -- with all of its veteran upperclassmen and known entities -- can find ways to improve on the margins. We know what this team is. We're not sure quite what it can be.
If I'm a Vanderbilt fan, maybe I'm a little skeptical of the preseason hype. But I'm awfully excited, too.