The Commodore hoops program kicks of the 2007-08 season tonight as Tusculum comes to Memorial for an exhibition game.
Half of Vanderbilt's team returns from last season, including three tested seniors. Shan Foster, who was voted to the SEC's preseason first team roster, will likely be looking at tonight as an easy warm-up. As the Commodores' leading returning scorer and best exterior defender, Foster is the known quantity on this year's team. Expect to see Foster in the game at the start, but then take a seat to see how a few newcomers fit in.
Point guard Alex Gordon will almost certainly start at the point guard position, a job Stallings seems intent to have him man for the entire season. Tonight, it's likely Stallings will look to see how Gordon runs the offense — especially with Ross Neltner moving permanently to the four position.
As for Neltner, the senior will finally get to play the position he's wanted to play since graduating from high school. The seven-foot Neltner originally played at Louisiana State with an impressive list of equally tall — and even beefier — big men. Stuck in what appeared to be a perennial back-up role in the paint, Neltner opted to transfer to Vanderbilt after his sophomore season.
After sitting out as a redshirt a year ago, Neltner ended up shuffling between the four and five positions for most of last season. After 6-foot-4 guard Dan Cage found his unlikely home at the power forward position, Neltner had to make do in the post.
In the offseason, though, Stallings changed his offense to a modified Flex, which in layman's terms employs what might be described as a four guard offense. Neltner, then, had the double-whammy of having to play out of position — and in a new system that didn't employ a high post.
With Cage gone to play European ball, and freshman Andrew Ogilvy now appearing to be Stallings' center of the future, Neltner will likely look to play the four all season long. Fans should look to see where Neltner spends most of his time in the set offense, and in particular whether Stallings chooses to set him up as an outside scoring threat as he did with sharp-shooter Cage.
After "sure things" Foster, Gordon and Neltner, Stallings looks at a collection of other questions. Returnees George Drake, Jermaine Beal and Alan Metcalfe appear to be in the mix for significant playing time — but all three carry baggage.
Drake, after redshirting as a freshman, should be more than ready to take on a regular role. But after averaging just 10 minutes a game last year, Drake's shooting and ball-handling questions continue to linger. Look to see if Stallings lets Drake take some open shots in the set offense tonight, to see if he can help make up the outside scoring that left with Derrick Byars and Cage.
Beal was thought to be the point guard of Stallings' future backcourt, but his freshman season proved to be a struggle for him. Beal is a terrific athlete, but has not yet emerged as a master of any one aspect of his game. Look for Beal to also get time at the two with Drake, to see how he works in real time with Gordon and Foster.
Metcalfe has all the experience he needs to assume a full time job at center. However, newcomer Ogilvy has already begun to nip at his heels in practices. Metcalfe has the size and attitude you want in the SEC, but has yet to prove he can put it all together for an extended period of time. There's no doubt Stallings would prefer to keep Neltner at the four, but that will only be possible if Metcalfe can provide significant minutes at the five. The jury is out, so far.
Fans to get look at the future tonight
The second half of Stallings' roster are all newcomers, and tonight will probably be little more than their collective chance to get the feel for playing at Memorial. There is one big exception, however: A.J. Ogilvy.
Ogilvy may be the most promising big man in modern Vanderbilt history, stretching back to the days of Jeff Turner some 20 years ago. Already mentioned as a possible top 10 draft pick next spring, the 6-foot-10 240 pound Ogilvy has made an immediate impact in practice.
And it should be no surprise. Ogilvy is no common freshman, having spend the past two years playing international amateur ball in Australia. Ogilvy already fully understands how to use his body in the paint, and has an impressive array of effortless put-back moves. Ogilvy won't make you forget about Matt Frieje's incredible inside-out abilities; He certainly does not yet have a dependable outside shot, let alone 3-point range. In addition, Ogilvy has some bad habits to break on defense, which often come with playing club ball overseas.
Still, Ogilvy has the entire SEC buzzing. With the departure of Randolph Mooris, Joakim Noah and Al Horford, Ogilvy and Alabama's Richard Hendrix are the league's heir apparent in the paint.
Also being closely watched will be a collection of disparately gifted guards. Point Keegan Bell will probably get his first playing time as Gordon's back-up. Wings Andre Walker and Charles Hinkle, as well as Memphis University School walk-on Elliot Cole will work their way into the lineup. All four will be tested to see what they've learned in practice thus far, and whether they can transfer that knowledge into live game action.
Freshman forward Darshawn McClellan will likely get back-up duty behind Neltner at the four. Standing just 6-foot-7, McClellan offers an interesting compliment to the taller but less beefy Neltner. With the unexpected departure of Jejaun Brown — an athlete with very similar attributes — McClellan will likely get considerably more attention than he would have otherwise expected.
Six-foot-eight walk-on Joe Duffy will probably get some action as well. Though not expected to play ahead of the scholarship players during the regular season, Duffy certainly has uncommon size and savvy for a walk-on.
Last but certainly not least, fans will get a very early chance to see a star of the future. Festus Ezeli, who is redshirting this season, comes to VU with a remarkable and fascinating resume. Hailing from Nigeria, the 6-foot-11 athlete graduated from high school at 15 years of age. Ezeli has only played organized basketball for two years, but drew scholarship offers from Florida, Ohio State and UConn. It will be fascinating to see how far Ezeli is from realizing his sky high potential.