Vanderbilt, as with all other NCAA D1 programs, opens their 2007-08 fall practice today. As head coach Kevin Stallings starts his eighth season at the helm of the program, he welcomes two promising new recruits and two redshirt players to a team that will look to make a statement after last year's disappointing season.
Here are five questions that Vandy hoops fans will be looking to answer as they prepare for the coming season.
1. How will VU replace Julian Terrell and DeMarre' Carroll on the front line?
With the graduation of Nashville native Julian Terrell and the unexpected transfer of starting power forward DeMarre' Carroll, the Commodores face a tall task heading into this season. Last year, Vanderbilt finished 11th in the SEC in rebounding margin despite the fact that both JT and DC were two of the top 10 rebounders in the league. The duo averaged almost 30 minutes per game each, and pulled down 7.2 and 6.4 rebounds per contest. The next highest rebounder (Byars) averaged 3.6 boards per game.
With the added losses of 6-foot-8 Davis Nwankwo and 6-foot-10 Kyle Madsen, Stallings was left with just two frontcourt athletes on the roster.
Help is on the way, however, and it need only slide about six feet up Stallings' bench. After sitting out last year as an LSU transfer, 6-foot-8 forward/center Ross Neltner will step directly into the paint for VU today. Neltner played a back-up role in Baton Rouge for two seasons, subbing for future NBA-ers Glen Davis, Brandon Bass and Tyus Thomas. Now, the former Kentucky Mr. Basketball gets to be the focus of attention in Nashville.
The main question about Neltner early will be how quickly he can get into shape. He underwent rotator cuff surgery last December and has not participated in contact drills since mid-summer. But Neltner participated in practice for most of last year, and seems well-acclimated to Vandy.
Neltner has occasionally been mistakenly billed as being as tall as 6-foot-11. But regardless, at any height, Neltner is the most basketball-savvy big man on the roster, and his LSU experience should pay immediate dividends for VU this season. Neltner doesn't have the physique or Davis, Bass or Thomas -- or of Terrell or Carroll, for that matter -- but he knows how to use his body to create space and collect points off of rebounds. He's going to have to, as he'll be Stallings' most important addition to the lineup this year.
Look for the articulate and deceptively wiley Neltner to get as many minutes as he can handle this season.
Other frontcourt help will have to come from three other players. Redshirt senior Ted Skuchas, now attending graduate school, returns for a fifth and final year on the team. At times, Skuchas has shown the promise that landed him many high major scholarship offers out of high school. But at other times, he has looked disinterested and unprepared. Skuchas, however, has the most time in the program of any VU big man, and he has the size (6-foot-11) to be an important role player in the paint. Skuchas had one of his best games at Vandy last season at Georgetown, when he shut down Roy Hibbert. He'll likely get the chance to do it in Nashville in the season-opener.
Junior Alan Metcalfe has both the size (6-foot-10) and frame to bang with the best of the SEC. However, he has gotten very little PT during his first two years, despite Vandy's need for the kind of frontcourt beef he can offer. Metcalfe had a reputation as a good mid-range shooter in high school, and clears the lane when he crashes the boards. Metcalfe's positive spirit (he's always the first guy to cheer on teammates from the bench) and aggressive attitude could be a big boost this year, if Stallings can get him to not make ill-advised fouls.
With just four frontcourt players available, VU can ill afford foul trouble this year. Metcalfe, if he can stay out of foul trouble (and Stallings' doghouse) could well be considered the key to Vandy's competitiveness in the SEC.
True freshman Jejuan Brown, from Biloxi, Mississippi, will step into a reserve power foward role. Brown, at 6-foot-7, played the wing in high school, so he will undergo a position switch this fall. Brown, like predecessor Corey Smith, is a tweener with a good frame. He's not known as a scorer, but if Brown can be a solid sub -- pulling down boards and garbage points -- he will be a good change-up to the other three.
2. Who mans the point?
With the graduation of Mario Moore, the point position now becomes Alex Gordon's to lose.
During his two years at VU, Gordon has at times shown incredible promise. However, inconsistency has been his achille's heel. Gordon has sometimes been sidetracked into battling his perceived pecking order on the team -- especially versus the mercurial but moody Moore -- rather than running the offense and get others involved in the flow.
Stallings, who detests turnovers more than anything else, will not tolerate loose play from his point guard. That said, Gordon sometimes got a bad rap in this area, as his assist (77) to turnover (42) ratio easily ranked as tops on the team last year.
Gordon's success will depend on whether he will truly embrace the role of distributor and leader, rather than that of scorer. Averaging just 37% from the field, Gordon can't be a first option on offense with so many other outstanding shooters on the team.
Stallings will welcome freshman point guard Jermaine Beal to Memorial. Beal, who was highly recruited out of Texas, is the tallest point guard VU has had since Kevin Anglin manned the position under Eddie Fogler more than a decade ago. Beal certainly looks the part of the prototypical "big guard" that many top programs like to recruit, and has already earned a reputation in pick-up games as a heady, unselfish drive-and-dish point guard.
VU finished dead last in the SEC in steals last year, so Beal will certainly be looked on early to see if he can improve the team's defense against stalwart foes Georgetown and Georgia Tech. Look for Beal to get 10-15 minutes a game early.
3. What system will Stallings run?
In reality, this should probably be Question #1. Stallings made nationwide news four years ago when he installed a modified high post offense to take advantage of Frieje's unique multi-dimensional skills. The offense clicked under Frieje and fellow seniors Russ Lakey, Jason Holwerda and Scott Hundley.
Several other programs have adopted Stallings' offense since. West Virginia and North Carolina State both made the NCAA Tournament running a mirror image of Stallings' system. Since the departure of Frieje, however, it appears the conference has had little problem figuring out and stopping Vandy's offense.
Stallings tried to have Skuchas take over the high post position, but his lack of shooting and ball handling skills often stalled the offense and clogged up the lane for driving. In addition, with sharp-shooters Shan Foster and Derrick Byars standing around the 3-point line, and Skuchas at the foul line extended, there was no one in the paint to grab rebounds. As a result, by the end of last season, VU's offense had degenerated into little more than a 3-point shooting contest, and VU was the lowest-scoring -- and most easily-defended -- offense in the SEC.
Neltner certainly appears to have some of the skills that Frieje possessed, and might serve as an effective high post player in the "scissors" set. But Neltner says he was recruited to the program as a four/three, not a five. Metcalfe could work there, but Skuchas and Brown simply can't.
With just 10 players on the roster, Stallings has few options. If he tries to fit his square peg into a round hole this year, it will likely result in even worse results than last year.
What will he do? It's not likely that Stallings will show its hand prior to the season-opening Georgetown tip-off. But there's little doubt that a change is coming -- one that may look similar to the sort of offense Bruce Pearl successfully installed under similar personnel limitations at Tennessee last year.
4. Who will major in chemistry?
Without belaboring the past, Vandy's basketball program was a morale mess last year. Regardless of who you choose to blame, there's no question that team chemistry dipped even before the season began, and then proceeded to get lower as it progressed. When Vandy laid an egg against Notre Dame in the opening round of the NIT, fans seemed more relieved than upset that the season had come to an early close.
With the departure of seniors Terrell and Mario Moore, two of the most popular and visible players in Vandy history, VU's basketball program enters a new era. With just 10 scholarship players, there won't be any pouting about playing time among this group. Everyone will have to contribute for Vandy to make the NCAA Tournament.
Byars may be the team's best all-around player, and appears to be the guy the team respects the most in the locker room. The versatile big guard took a back seat last year, not wanting to rock the boat after transferring in from Virginia. But as a senior, Byars will inherit the driver's seat. The team needs him to step up and grab the wheel this season.
Foster gets more leeway than any other player on the roster. But as a junior, the 6-foot-7 All-SEC swingman needs to start broading his game beyond simply being an outside shooter. Though he is certainly among the league's most talented athletes, there's a lot more to being a leader than scoring points. Foster can be a leader on this team if he becomes more selfless on offense, and becomes a much needed defensive asset.
The leadership X-factor could be senior Dan Cage, who seemed to grow increasingly less tolerant of last year's three ring circus as the season dragged on. When Holwerda was a senior, his role diminished; But this team needs Cage to step up, both on the court and (especially) in the locker room.
5. How good will the SEC be?
When the football-crazed Southeastern Conference expanded in 1991, the league immediately established itself as a basketball heavyweight. No sooner did conference schools hang Arkansas and South Carolina banners from their rafters did the Razorbacks bring home a national championship.
Since then, the newcomers have gradually slipped to the middle of the pack, and bell cow Kentucky has endured (for them) an historical slump on the national stage. Until last season, in the minds of most basketball watchers, the SEC had become "just another BCS conference."
That ended last year. Florida, picked by many in the preseason to finish near the bottom of the SEC East, went on to win the national championship. LSU, led by the most intimidating front line in the nation, made it to the Final Four. Now, everyone is buzzing about the return of the conference to the top of the heap.
The Gators return everyone, including All-SEC players Joakim Noah, Al Horford and Corey Brewer. LSU lost Thomas early to the NBA, as well as unsung glue man Darrell Mitchell. But the Tigers return Davis and talented wing Tasmin Mitchell, and will likely be picked to win the West and make a return to the Final Four.
They'll get a challenge from Alabama, however, which returns point guard phenom Ronald Steele and the league's best front line in Jermareo Davidson and Richard Hendrix. Bama could easily beat out LSU for the West title, and make their own appearance in the Final Four.
NBA early departures clearly hurt the league this year. Arkansas and South Carolina both lost their best players (Ronnie Brewer and Renaldo Balkman, respectively); Both will be a step lower without them. The aforementioned Thomas departed LSU for the Pistons, and Kentucky lost junior point guard Rajon Rondo to the Celtics. Had those players returned, the SEC would easily be the best conference in America, and maybe the best it's been in history.
But the league also welcomes what may be the best group of recruits in the nation, particularly in the SEC East. While Tennessee loses Watson, they gain what some consider the league's #1 recruiting class, led by big men Duke Crews and Wayne Chism and point guard Ramar Smith. Chism and Smith were both rated by Rivals as 5-star recruits, Chism as a 4-star. All three could start for UT by the start of the SEC schedule.
Kentucky, in need of a talent infusion, got one by signing three Rivals 4-star players. Point guard Derrick Jasper will look to take the point guard job vacated by the inconsistent Rondo, and Jody Meeks and LaShun Watson will be counted on to bring some sorely-needed outside shooting touch to what was one of the SEC's worst shooting teams last year.
Of note, Georgia welcomes 6-foot-10 Kentuckian Albert Jackson, who turned down an offer from the Commodores last fall. Alabama returns one of the nation's best starting lineups, but adds six Rivals 3-star players, led by shooting guard Verice Cloyd. Ole Miss added head coach Andy Kennedy, in addition to four new recruits, led by 6-foot-8 Andy Ogide, a 3-star prospect whom Stallings scouted last spring.
How good the league will be waits to be seen, but the top of the league -- LSU, Florida and Alabama -- is undoubtedly a murderer's row. South Carolina and Mississippi State will likely bring up the rear in the East and West, respectively. The loss of Watson at Tennessee will have a bigger impact than most Orange fans believe, as will the graduation of Jonathan Modica in Fayetteville. But every other SEC team will be better than they were last year -- which will likely drive SEC RPIs up, and won-loss records down.
With the top-to-bottom strength of the conference, Vanderbilt could be a better team this year, but finish with a worse won-loss record. If that happens, Commodore basketball fans will be sitting on pins and needles as the NCAA Tournament field is selected next spring, hoping that a record number of SEC teams are invited to the Field of 65.
With just 10 players and a titanic SEC schedule, Stallings' eighth season in Nashville may be his biggest challenge yet. But an expected switch to a more uptempo offense, and the addition of Neltner, Beal, Brown and now eligible redshirt two George Drake, the Commodore program has its future squarely in its sites.