The Vanderbilt men's basketball program will kick off its 2007-08 season tonight, when they face Northern State in their only exhibition contest of the year.
For the Commodores, under eighth year head coach Kevin Stallings, tonight represents the first chance for fans to get a look at several key newcomers. With just 10 scholarship players on the roster, everyone wearing a black and gold uniform will be called upon to play a key role this year.
VU faces off against one of the greatest basketball minds in the history of the sport. Don Meyer, who spent 24 years at crosstown David Lipscomb, reached the 700-win plateau faster than any coachin in history. Meyer has turned Northern State into a NCAA Division II powerhouse by relying on his hard-nosed, fundamentals-focused coaching style.
Meyer remains the winningest active coach in the sport, and will certainly add to his remarkable resume this season. The Wolves were picked to finish second in their conference behind defending DII national champ Winona State.
Meyer's instructional camps are attended by high school and college players from all around the world, and his 30-tape series "Building a Championship Program" is used by top college programs like Duke, Kansas, Wake Forest and North Carolina, as well as many NBA franchises.
The DII Wolves won't bring SEC-caliber of players to Nashville, but they do have some firepower and size. Two NSU players stand 6-foot-10, and is led by one of the top DII guards in the nation. Craig Nelson, who was named to the NSIC All-Conference team as a redshirt sophomore last year, averaging 44% from three and 87% from the free throw line.
But it is Meyer's disciplined coaching approach that will mostly test the as yet untested Commodores in ways few if any other lower division teams could. Meyer has reached the 20-win plateu in each of his last five seasons in Aberdeen, SD, and fans can expect he will try to make a big statement in his hometown return tonight.
A test may be exactly what Stallings needs. With the regular season opener against nationally ranked Georgetown just 10 days away, Stallings has little time to discover how to mix his team into one that can compete for inclusion in the NCAA Tournament in March.
Stallings has some known quantities, and tonight will be an opportunity for key returnees to shake some rust off. All-SEC first teamer Shan Foster, VU's go-to guy last year (43 percent from 3-point range in two seasons), will look to improve his rebounding and assists numbers. Senior Derrick Byars, who Stallings bemoaned more than deserved All-SEC attention from the media he didn't get, could be Vandy's most important player. Byars has the versatility and size to do it all for Vanderbilt.
Also returning for his senior season is Dan Cage. Cage, a 6-foot-2 sharp shooter from Indianapolis (49 percent on threes last season), will look to become a defensive stopper on the perimeter, while adding firepower on the secondary break in what should be a considerably faster paced offense this year.
Fifth year senior Ted Skuchas returns for his final year at VU. Skuchas started out last year strong, but then was all but benched by the end of last season, at times seeming disinterested and out of sync. Skuchas is the tallest player on the team, and one of just four frontcourt players on the roster. Stallings will have no choice but to see what he can do in his swan song.
The unknown quantities, however, will likely be the difference between the NCAA and the NIT for the Commodores. That list starts with redshirt junior Ross Neltner. A 6-foot-8 post who starred in Kentucky as a prepster, Neltner finally regains his eligibility after transferring from LSU last spring. Neltner had inconsequential numbers in Baton Rouge, but played behind future NBAers Glen Davis, Brandon Bass and Tyus Thomas. Stallings expects Neltner to get 30 minutes a game for VU this year, playing the four and five.
Neltner had a midseason shoulder cuff injury last December, and was held out of any action for six months for rehab. With the loss of Julian Terrell and DeMarre' Carroll last spring, VU is desperate for help on the boards. Much will be asked of Neltner right from the opening tip-off, especially rebounding. Tonight will be a preview of how he fits into Stallings' flow, and whether he is physically ready to compete after his layoff.
Jermaine Beal, however, could be the player who provides the biggest long term impact on the program. Beal, at 6-foot-3, is the biggest point guard to play at VU in at least 20 years. Beal has had an immediate impact in practice, bringing court awareness, toughness, and coachability that has already made him a favorite with his coaches and teammates. Expect to see a lot of Beal tonight.
Shooting guard George Drake also regains his eligibility tonight, after redshirting as a true freshman. Drake is a strong, physical shooting guard who is expected to bring solid defense and speed on the break. Drake will play behind Cage and Foster this year, but will add much needed experience in the event of foul or defensive match-up troubles.
Freshman JeJuan Brown will also see his first college PT tonight. The 6-foot-6 wing will be the only player available to back up Neltner at the four position. How that tough transition goes will be one of the interesting stories to watch this fall.
Though not a newcomer, Alan Metcalfe could almost be considered one. The 6-foot-10 junior from Manchester, England didn't even crack the lineup 10 times last year, but now could be the biggest factor in the post this season. Metcalfe came on strong at the end of last year, averaging more than 13 minutes during the last seven games of the season. He has drawn effusive praise from fellow teammates and coaches all summer long, and he won't have to worry about playing time this season.
Last year, VU finished last in the league in blocked shots, and 11th in offensive rebounding. Put simply, much of the season's hopes largely rest on how big of a rebounding and shot blocking factor Metcalfe can become in the lane. Another area where Metcalfe could make a big contribution is at the free throw line. During his two years at VU, Metcalfe is 19-of-21 from the charity stripe.