NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings believes his Commodores have recovered very quickly after unexpectedly losing three players, including their leading scorer, in a rough offseason.
Still, Stallings has little margin for error with only 11 players on the roster.
"If we can stay healthy, I think we can surprise a lot of people," the coach said.
That confidence is surprising considering Sheldon Jeter transferred home, guard Kevin Bright moved back to Germany to be near his sick mother signing a pro contract. Then leading scorer Kedren Johnson was suspended from the university for a year.
So much for building off a challenging season where the Commodores finally showed promise for the future, winning seven of their final 10 games.
Luckily, Stallings already had an August trip to Greece and Italy scheduled allowing for 10 extra days of practice. Combined with new rules starting practice earlier than ever before, Stallings got an early start meshing his Commodores, time he didn't have a year ago when they struggled so much early going 16-17 overall.
"We feel probably as good right now about where our team's at as we did at the end of last season already, and we felt very good where our team was at the end of the season last year," Stallings said.
Losing Johnson hurts the most. The point guard played more minutes than anyone else averaging 31.7 minutes per game, and he was the top scorer with 13.5 points a game. Bright started 29 of 33 games, while Jeter started seven.
But Stallings has senior Rod Odom, now the leading returning scorer. Odom averaged 10.4 points last season, while senior guard Kyle Fuller averaged 8. 7 points. The Commodores also have experience in redshirt junior center Josh Henderson, junior forward Shelby Moats and junior guard Dai-Jon Parker, who was the fourth leading scorer last season.
"I don't think it's going to be any one person trying to take that load on himself," Odom said. "I think everybody will step up and do a little bit more. I think that's how you'll see that void get filled."
Five things to watch for during Vanderbilt's men's basketball season:
SIZE: The Commodores now have the size and athleticism in the post they lost when Festus Ezeli left for the NBA after helping win the 2012 SEC tournament title. Stallings said freshman center Damian Jones is a legitimate above the rim player who already has developed since arriving on campus. Jones is listed at 6-10, 235 pounds. He will push 6-11 Henderson who started 21 games last season. Luke Kornet also is 6-10, a freshman who grew 7 inches his last season in high school.
DEFENSE: Vanderbilt certainly played stingy defense last season. The Commodores ranked third in the Southeastern Conference holding opponents to 60.1 points per game, sixth allowing 40.7 percent shooting and third defending outside the arc (31.1 percent). The points per game was Vandy's best since the 1950-51 season.
TAKING POINT: Stallings expects redshirt sophomore Eric McClellan to handle the point along with Fuller. The 6-4 Texan started 16 of 30 games at Tulsa averaging 8.5 points before transferring to Vandy. He practiced all last season with the Dores. "He's a very talented player, so he's certainly probably as much as anyone, more than anyone will help alleviate Kedren's not being here," Stallings said.
STALLINGS: He won his 400th career game and 277th at Vanderbilt in the SEC tournament as the Commodores advanced to the semifinals for a fourth straight season. His next win will tie him with Roy Skinner as the Commodores' all-time winningest coach.
SCHEDULE: Stallings isn't easing into the season. They open Nov. 12 hosting Georgia State and host Lipscomb before playing Butler in Indianapolis. They also visit Texas on Dec. 2 and host Georgia Tech on Dec. 21 followed by a visit from St. Louis. But the SEC schedule eases because Vandy hosts preseason No. 1 Kentucky on Jan. 11 without having to visit Rupp Arena and Florida on Feb. 25 with no return trip. Vandy hosts Tennessee on Feb. 1 before visiting the Vols on March 1.
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