Why Vanderbilt will be a serious contender next season

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The Vanderbilt Commodores were a very young team in the 2014-2015 season.  In fact, Vandy ranked as the fifth-youngest in all of college basketball. Vandy was able to finish the season with a 21-14 record after sitting at 11-10 at the end of January.  But with all of the team’s major contributors returning and the stability under head coach Kevin Stallings, this Vanderbilt team is one to look out for in 2015-2016.

It was a rough start in SEC play this past season as the Dores lost seven-straight after defeating Auburn in the first conference game. After the rough stretch though, Vandy rallied to win eight of its last 11 conference games.  Two of those three losses came at the hands of in-state foe Tennessee.  The Commodores were able to defeat Saint Mary’s and South Dakota State in the first two rounds of the NIT tournament, but eventually fell to Stanford in the NIT quarterfinals.

In a span where we have seen a whole reloading of SEC coaches, Kevin Stallings has remained the man at Vanderbilt.  Stallings will return for his 17th season, with only two of his 16 seasons so far being below a .500 winning percentage. Stallings took heat earlier in this year after yelling expletives at one of his promising players, Wade Baldwin IV, but even Baldwin tweeted later that night that “Coach Stallings is the best coach in America.” Stallings was dealing with one of the youngest teams in the nation and was able to rally the team late to finish strong and make the best of what they had left.  I look for him to build off of that success and lead the Commodores to much more success in 2015-2016.

Vanderbilt returns the main bulk of its roster.  The team loses James Siakam (9.2 PPG and 5.9 RPG) to graduation and Shelton Mitchell to a transfer (Clemson). The other seven players who played any minutes last season will return. Even further, six of Vanderbilt’s eight players who played at least 20 minutes per game return. The Dores were able to hold on to Josh Henderson for another year after the NCAA granted him a 6th year of eligibility due to injuries that kept him out of the majority of the last two seasons.

The key returner for the Commodores is center Damian Jones. Jones, an NBA talent, was the leading scorer and rebounder as he averaged 14.5 points and 6.5 rebounds a game. He was also the leading blocker with 2 per game.  He was able to prove he could play tough when he played well against the overloaded Kentucky frontcourt and Vandy lost by just 8.  Jones was named to the SEC first team and the SEC all-defensive team.  The big man was the most efficient player 40 minutes and per 100 possessions.  I look for Jones to continue to elevate his play and make a case to be one of the best players in the SEC.

The Commodores also return three freshmen that played well in the backcourt, starting with the sharp shooting guard Riley LaChance. In his freshman season, LaChance was able to average 12.3 points per game and make many 3-balls that kept Vandy close in games. LaChance was named SEC freshman of the week four times during the regular season.  LaChance was also named to the SEC freshman team, along with teammate Baldwin.

Baldwin who shot 44 percent from the perimeter, averaged over 9 points a game. He was able to average 14.1 points, 5.5 rebounds, and 5 assists per game in an eight-game stretch late in the season. Baldwin also played tough on the defensive end of the floor as advanced stats show he was the second most impactful player behind only Jones.

Another freshman that helped the outside shooting of Vandy was Matthew Fisher-Davis, who made over 40 percent of his attempts.  Fisher-Davis was able to come off the bench and spark the offense, especially late when Vandy won 10 of its last 14 games.

I am predicting that next season when you talk about the best SEC teams, you will have no choice but to put Vandy in that mix.  The Commodores should give Kentucky a run for their money for the regular season championship as there are many question marks surrounding the Wildcats right now.  Even if the Commodores are not regular season champs though, I will say that I think Vanderbilt will win the SEC tournament, just as they did in 2012.

With all of the coaching changes and turnover of players that is going on in the SEC, and Vandy returning almost their entire young roster, there is no reason that the Commodores will not compete for a conference championship.

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