South Carolina basketball beat writer David Cloninger looks at every other team in the SEC as the season approaches.
Oct. 31 Alabama
Nov. 1 Arkansas
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Nov. 2 Auburn
Nov. 3 Florida
Nov. 4 Georgia
Nov. 5 Kentucky
Nov. 6 LSU
Nov. 7 Mississippi State
Nov. 8 Missouri
Nov. 9 Ole Miss
Nov. 10 Tennessee
Nov. 11 Texas A&M
Coach (record at school, years; overall record, years): Kevin Stallings (313-206, 17th year; 436-269, 23rd year)
2014-15 record (SEC finish): 21-14 (9-9)
2014-15 postseason: Third round, NIT
He’s outta here (senior unless otherwise noted): G Shelton Mitchell (transferred to Clemson, 4.3 ppg, 1.9 rpg), F Shelby Moats (1.1 ppg, 1.0 rpg), F James Siakam (9.2 ppg, 5.9 rpg)
He’s here (freshman unless otherwise noted): 6-10 C Djery Baptiste, 6-3 G Camron Justice, 6-9 F Samir Sehic, 6-7 G/F Joe Toye, 6-4 G Nolan Cressler (Jr., transferred from Cornell, sat out last year)
Top returners: 7-0 C Damian Jones (14.5 ppg, 6.5 rpg), 6-2 G Riley LaChance (12.3 ppg, 3.1 rpg), 6-3 G Wade Baldwin (9.3 ppg, 4.1 rpg)
The league’s (now) longest-tenured coach walked into the room cracking jokes. It hasn’t been a laughing matter that Vanderbilt has missed the last three NCAA tournaments after going five times from 2007-12, but considering the roster turnover he’s had to deal with the past three years, it’s understandable.
And Kevin Stallings knows it was all worth it to get to this point – picked second in the league with a young and very talented team.
“What the end of last season did for our team, it did gave us confidence, it gave us a little bit of mojo, it gave us a lot of momentum going into the offseason,” Stallings said at SEC Tipoff. “That momentum is going to stay until we give it away.”
Having to again rebuild, Stallings started three freshmen and a sophomore almost every night and hoped it wouldn’t get too nasty. It did, as Vanderbilt lost seven straight SEC games in January.
Stallings knew it might get worse before it got better, but the program leveled and started rising. Suddenly, Vanderbilt clicked – the league’s best big man, Damian Jones, began dominating games and the freshmen got better instead of tired from a long season. Wade Baldwin took over at point guard and Riley LaChance, with his unerring accuracy from anywhere on the floor, became the SEC’s version of That Good Shooter From Duke You Can’t Stand.
It’s hard to carry over momentum from one season to the next, but the Commodores have done it. Now they just have to prove they’re worth the hype.
It shouldn’t be hard. Jones will be the focal point of the offense (while he’s still not magnificent at free throws, he’s improved) and Vandy has two other 7-footers to place around him (senior Josh Henderson and junior Luke Kornet). LaChance, who earned a reputation for 3-point prowess but was much more efficient inside the arc, will stack the backcourt while leaving most of the 3-pointers to Matthew Fisher-Davis.
Stallings took over as the SEC’s veteran statesman when Billy Donovan went to the NBA. He expressed his happiness for his friend, but also regret that he won’t get to face him anymore.
Donovan left the knowledge of how to build and sustain a program with Stallings.
Coach (record at school, years; overall record, years): Melanie Balcomb (292-135, 14th year; 455-239, 23rd year)
2014-15 record (SEC finish): 15-16 (5-11)
2014-15 postseason: None
She’s outta here (senior unless otherwise noted): G Paris Kea (transferred to North Carolina, 6.9 ppg, 2.4 rpg), F Audrey-Ann Caron-Goudreau (transferred to Texas, 4.6 ppg, 4.1 rpg), F Khaleann Caron-Goudreau (transferred to Texas, 7.0 ppg, 2.0 rpg)
She’s here (freshman unless otherwise noted): 5-10 G Minta Spears (Jr., transferred from Texas Tech), 5-7 G Miaya Seawright (So., did not play last year), 5-9 G Myka Dancy (So., did not play last year)
Top returners: 5-9 G Rebekah Dahlman (10.3 ppg, 4.0 rpg), 5-10 G Morgan Batey (8.5 ppg, 5.2 rpg), 6-1 F Marqu’es Webb (8.0 ppg, 4.9 rpg)
What was that?
Vanderbilt missed the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1999 last season, which coincided with the program’s first losing season since 1999. A model of consistency since Melanie Balcomb arrived, the Commodores could not get it going last year.
Then when three of the five members of the recruiting class transferred, Balcomb was looking at starting over after a miserable year. She’s doing it by really starting over – after a team known for stroking jump shots had the worst 3-point performance of her tenure last year, she broke down each player’s form and taught them the way she wants it done.
Vanderbilt averaged between three and four 3-pointers per game last year, quite a drop when the previous season had the Commodores as one of the top-3 teams in the country from long range. That was what Vandy did – get the ball on defense, run downcourt and while the defense was setting up to deny the inside look, shooters stopped on the arc and bombed away.
That stopped last year, and the team stopped with it. The Commodores couldn’t stay with opponents long enough and didn’t have the firepower to get back in games. While Vandy still doesn’t have much height, Balcomb may try to counter-act that (and the opponents’ posts) with speed.
Five-guard lineup? Perhaps. Four guards and forward Marqu’es Webb? Oh yeah.
Vandy’s top three scorers are back and shooter Minta Spears is eligible after graduating from Texas Tech. She’ll be the point guard. While making headway in the SEC won’t be easy, perhaps the Commodores can shoot past more talented teams and return to where they’re used to being.
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