SEC Basketball Preview: Why we're cautiously optimistic about Vanderbilt

ATLANTA, GA - MARCH 11: John Jenkins #23 of the Vanderbilt Commodores celebrates their win over the Mississippi State Bulldogs during the quarterfinals of the SEC Men's Basketball Tournament at Georgia Dome on March 11, 2011 in Atlanta, Georgia. The Commodores defeated the Bulldogs 87 to 81. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

Last year SFBE’s season preview content was built primarily around a top 25 countdown of the game’s most intriguing teams. Not necessarily the best, but squads that brought either a number of story lines to the table or needed to shoulder heavy expectations placed upon them entering the season.

Had we run a second annual countdown of the game’s most intriguing teams, Vanderbilt would be pre-season #1.

Returning nearly everyone of note, boasting prolific shooters, consistent scorers, physical defensive players and aggressive rebounders, the Commodores, on paper, are well-rounded; positioned for one of their most noteworthy seasons in the history of the basketball program.

Why everyone is placing them in the top ten, though, is a bit befuddling.

"If we start worrying about the expectations of the media and the expectations of fans or parents and family and friends, then we are going to drive ourselves crazy because the only thing we can control is the kind of effort we put forth each day we come out here to prepare ourselves," coach Kevin Stallings told the media during SEC media day.

Quick SEC Predictions

  • Tourney Teams - Kentucky, Vanderbilt, Florida, Alabama, Mississippi State
  • POY - Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Kentucky
  • Newcomer - Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Kentucky
  • Coach - John Calipari, Kentucky
  • Champion - Kentucky
  • Don’t Sleep On - Ole Miss. (team); Ole Miss' Reginald Buckner and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope (players)
  • Stallings, by accounts, is cautiously optimistic about the upcoming season and fully aware of the mishaps his team suffered in recent NCAA Tournaments (I mean, he did live through them).

    In their last three NCAA Tournament appearances (2008, 2010, 2011), Vandy went a combined 73-28 during the regular season, but failed to advance past even the first round of the Big Dance, being upset by  13 seed Siena in 2008, 13 seed Murray State in 2010 and 12 seed Richmond last season.

    Ouch.

    So what makes this season so different? Personally I’m not sure why anyone is penciling in the Commodores to play in a regional final. But maybe because familiarity is rare in college basketball, it’s easy to peg them as experienced and talented enough to re-write what is currently a not so flattering legacy.

    Back in Nashville to give this one last try is a quartet of seniors and one junior who is as automatic from behind the arc as they come.  The leader of this team is Jeffery Taylor. An NBA talent teeming to be a college star, the Commodores go as he goes. If he contends for conference POY honors, it means the Vandy likely will be well on their way to a comfortable tournament seed.

    Additionally on offense, you have John Jenkins. Everyone loves a rainmaker, and "if you want one guy shooting it from deep with the game on the line, it's [him]," says CBS Sports’ Jeff Goodman, who ranked Jenkins as the best shooter in the country.  As last season’s SEC scoring leader, Jenkins still has plenty of room to improve on his 19.5 PPG with a more diverse offensive skill set, which he worked on tirelessly this off-season.

    Upfront, Festus Ezeli, unquestionably is on everybody’s all-name team, but also should be an all-league defensive player. A guy that Stallings says needs to understand "how difficult he is to play against," Ezeli could become more of an option down low if he’s able to keep his opponents honest by improving his free throw shooting. First things first though is Ezeli must spend roughly the first 6-8 weeks of the season nursing sprained ligaments in his knee. Ideally, Vandy gets their star center back before league play begins.

    So with all that gushing about the Commodores roster, we won’t know just how improved this team is until March. Finishing second or third in the SEC is nothing new and not enough to call Vandy's season one of redemption, but playing deep into the NCAA Tournament would be for this current crop of players, and that's all I'm waiting to see.

    Vanderbilt is the sexy pick this college basketball season, but we’re not going to know just how good looking they are until the season comes to an end.

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