Throughout Nashville’s sports history, little has captivated the city like Vanderbilt basketball when the Commodores field a good team. VU has fielded many of them over the years, including the 2011-12 team that upset eventual national champion Kentucky to win the Southeastern Conference Tournament.
That squad may have been the most talented team that coach Kevin Stallings has fielded. The veteran coach hit a rough patch for the next 2 1/2 seasons, but his freshman-heavy squad came on in February 2015 to finish a surprising 9-9 in the SEC and win two NIT games.
It was enough to spawn talk that the 2015-16 Commodores could return to the level they reached four seasons ago. If you watched the team come together down the stretch of last season, it’s easy to see why.
The 2015-16 Commodores might be the deepest club Stallings has ever fielded. Between the number of talented players and their interchangeability, VU might be able to sustain an injury or two that would derail another team. However, two players are indispensable to the Commodores: point Wade Baldwin and center Damian Jones.
Baldwin came to Vanderbilt a year ago as the No. 100 recruit in America according to Rivals. He was far better than advertised and was debatably the team’s most valuable player last season. Name a standard by which you measure a point guard, and Baldwin hit the mark.
Despite starting just 24 of the team’s 35 games—fellow freshman Shelton Mitchell, who’s since transferred to Wake Forest, got the nod for the first part of the season—Baldwin finished fifth in the SEC in assists at 4.4 per game. Among the league’s top 35 players in assists, only three players had a better assist-to-turnover ratio than Baldwin’s 2.3, and none of them logged close to Baldwin’s 28.8 minutes per game.
Baldwin also shot 43.9 percent from 3-point range, making him one of the league’s more efficient long-distance shooters. Vanderbilt never had to worry about putting the ball in Baldwin’s hands in late, close-game situations, as he shot 80.2 percent from the free throw line. His 50 steals ranked him among the top 10 in the league also.
It may be the intangibles that define Baldwin as much as anything. He’s Vandy’s floor leader and plays with a palpable intensity and swagger, the latter not something you often see at VU.
That said, ask most SEC observers who the Commodores’ best player is, and the answer is usually Jones. If the junior has the year expected of him, he’ll more than likely be in the NBA for 2016-17.
Jones gives VU what the majority of college basketball teams don’t have: a game-changer on both ends of the floor. Vanderbilt hasn’t had a rim protector of Jones’ caliber since long-time NBA player Will Perdue roamed the Memorial Gym paint; he swatted 70 shots a year ago to rank third in the league in blocks per game. Jones also led the league in field goal percentage (56.2 percent) among players who averaged at least five made field goals per game while leading VU in scoring (14.5 points per game).
There are some holes in Jones’ game; he hit just 59.9 percent of his free throws a year ago. Last year, he had three turnovers for each assist. Much of his offensive game centers around dunks or other point-blank opportunities at the rim, and he didn’t rebound (6.5 per game) like an elite center last year.
Don’t let the criticisms form your opinion of Jones. Anyone with his natural ability is going to be put under a microscope, and his sophomore year was a step in the right direction. His free throw percentage was five points better than in his freshman year, and his assist total went from seven to 26 in a year’s time. He’s shown flashes of developing a jump shot. Jones also reportedly grew two inches over the summer, making him a legitimate seven-footer.
Jones drew high praise for his work at the Nike Academy over the summer. He already has athleticism and a 7-foot-2 wingspan; with continued skill improvement and a little more aggressiveness, this is the winter he can become one of college basketball’s elite players.
Players like Baldwin and Jones can carry a team if needed, but there’s plenty of other help. On any given night, the Commodores could be led by a slew of other players. Stallings’ biggest challenge in 2015-16 could well be keeping them all happy with enough playing time.
Until a late-season fade last season, freshman Riley LaChance had an argument as VU’s MVP. He finished second to Jones (12.3 points per game) on the team in scoring, hit 38.2 percent of his 3s, led the team in minutes (1,166) and had one of the league’s better assist-to-turnover ratios at 2.2.
LaChance is primarily a shooting guard, but he could see time backing up Baldwin also. However, his role is a bit unsettled because Stallings has accumulated a lot of parts at the two and three spots, all capable of contributing in big ways.
In a star-studded year for newcomers within the conference, few outside of Vanderbilt are talking about Cornell transfer Nolan Cressler. That should change.
Cressler, who averaged 16.8 points in his last collegiate season, was often a dominant scorer in VU practices last year—he didn’t play in games due to the transfer—and will see a lot of time at guard. A natural leader, Cressler figures to be a good perimeter defender, something VU has lacked in recent seasons. It’s possible he’ll be the team’s best shooter, which is saying a lot: five VU players hit at least 15 three-pointers while shooting over 38 percent behind the arc.
The team’s leader in 3-pointers last season was Matthew Fisher-Davis, who started 11 games. Hampered with injuries early, Fisher-Davis saw his game take off in March after he got healthier. The sophomore didn’t provide VU with much punch off the dribble last year, but he’s got the athleticism to attack the rim. He and Cressler can play either shooting guard or small forward.
Guard Camron Justice, the 2015 Mr. Basketball winner for Kentucky, could be a factor. Playing time will be tough to find, but Justice is thought to be in the same class with the team’s other terrific shooters.
Sophomore Jeff Roberson (6-foot-6, 220 pounds) started 24 games at small forward a year ago, but could see time at power forward instead. It was an odd freshman season for the Texan; thought to be perhaps the team’s biggest impact freshman, Roberson may have been VU’s best defender besides Jones, and also pitched in by hitting 45.5 percent of his 3s. But Roberson never asserted himself offensively, barely averaging three shots a game. With a plethora of wings on this year’s squad, he could see time as an undersized power forward.
True freshman Joseph Toye played power forward in high school, and at 6-foot-7, 201 pounds, is best suited for small forward in college. Toye has tremendous explosiveness and attacks the rim offensively, and he should develop into a good defender. Where he fits into a crowded rotation this winter remains to be seen, but he should have a bright future.
Luke Kornet, now at 7-foot-1, has grown roughly 11 inches since the start of his sophomore year of high school, when he was a guard. He’s also grown from a lightly-recruited high school prospect into a potential NBA player. Last season, Kornet hit 40 percent of his 125 threes and started 14 games at power forward, where he figures to start this year. His rebounding needs improvement and his defense needs work, but he’s started to assert himself on that end with 38 blocks.
Freshman Samir Sehic could also help at the four. Listed at 6-foot-9, 247 pounds, the Texan won’t blow anyone away with his athleticism, but he’s an excellent passer, has nice range on his jump shot, can run the floor and should provide rebounding help.
Sixth-year senior Josh Henderson could be Jones’ primary backup. Henderson has never stayed healthy for long, but he has some offensive skills. He started 21 games as a sophomore.
At 6-foot-10, 235 pounds and barely an ounce of body fat, Djery Baptiste, a native of Haiti, may be the most physically-imposing player VU has signed in decades. A ferocious dunker with some defensive skills, Baptiste has a limited offensive game and may benefit from a redshirt.
You can often tell what kind of team Stallings thinks he’ll have by looking at the schedule. Looking at this year’s slate, it’s easy to see he’s bullish on his team. VU has out-of-conference dates with potential NCAA Tournament teams in Texas, Baylor, Dayton and Purdue, will likely face Indiana in the Maui Invitational, and potentially Kansas also.
Within the league, VU has single dates with a talented LSU team that should make the NCAAs, plus Georgia and Mississippi State teams that could make it also. There are two games against Kentucky, perhaps the country’s most talented team, as well as a pair of dates against potential tourney teams Florida and Texas A&M.
That’s approximately half the schedule composed of teams that could be in the NCAA field of 68. No doubt, it’s a tall order. However, few teams have a point guard-center combo like Baldwin and Jones, and perhaps nobody has as many excellent outside shooters as VU. It’s no stretch to say that the Commodores will be a nightmare to defend.
Still, there are some questions to be answered. What if Baldwin or Jones gets hurt? With no other true point guard on the roster, who’ll back up Baldwin? Can the team address some glaring defensive issues, such as defensive rebounding and perimeter defense?
That said, few teams are perfect. It’s hard to imagine a 2016 NCAA Tournament without the Commodores in the field. A 4- or 5-seed is well within reach, even with some issues.
Either way, it’s sure to be an exciting ride.