Jeffery Taylor, John Jenkins and Festus Ezeli made the sensible, if somewhat reluctant, decision to investigate their NBA draft potential after last season. "I think they had decided they were not going to leave [even] prior to the info coming back, which was surprising to me," Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings says. "I was telling them they should go if they were a lock for the first round, and they were telling me, 'You aren't going to make us, are you?' It was not your typical situation."
Now that all three have returned, Vanderbilt is not in a typical situation either. For the first time in Stallings's 13-year tenure, all five starters (four seniors and a junior) return, and they return to a team that made its fourth trip to the NCAA tournament in the past five years. Expectations are high. "I think we are ready to move away from a team that is viewed as the underdog," says Taylor, "to one that is stepping into the big lights."
Jenkins, one of the nation's premier shooters, led the SEC in scoring with 19.5 points and worked on his defense this summer during a stint on the U.S. World University Games team. Ezeli, who will miss six to eight weeks with a sprained right knee, is a 6'11" fifth-year senior who broke the school single-season record for blocks (87) in 2010--11. But it is Taylor who usually appears first among Commodores on NBA mock draft lists. An athletic wing who has improved his range during three seasons in Nashville, Taylor can be his own worst enemy, letting a bad play carry over for a few possessions or more. "He wants to be perfect," says Stallings, "and sometimes he lets perfect interfere with good."
Vandy's big three, along with point guard Brad Tinsley (SEC-best 4.6 assists per game), forward Lance Goulbourne and a freshman class that will add needed perimeter depth, give the team a shot at its first SEC title since 1993 and first NBA lottery pick since Will Perdue in 1988. But to have a truly special season, the Commodores will have to avoid the upset bug—first-round losses in their last three NCAA tournament appearances—that has plagued them.
"We are not going to let [those defeats] define who we are," says Stallings. "We're better than that. We feel certain we'll have a different story to tell this time around."
PROJECTED STARTING FIVE
COACH Kevin Stallings (13th season)
2010--11 RECORD 23--11 SEC 9--7 (T-3rd, East)
NCAA TOURNAMENT Round of 64
1--7 VANDERBILT'S RECORD in games decided by three points or fewer or in overtime last season. The Commodores also surrendered double-digit leads in five of their 11 losses.
Vanderbilt stays healthy, its stars live up to expectations and Kevin Stallings wins his first SEC championship and finally gets to the Final Four.
The NBA agendas of the big three disrupt team chemistry, the perimeter defense does not improve and Vanderbilt struggles to make the tournament.
JEFFERY TAYLOR The Swedish swingman has a chance to become the second Commodore to score 2,000 points for his career.