Jan. 4, 2013
by Chris Weinman
On a team that featured a total of six seniors and three 2012 NBA Draft selections, no one expected that the play of the year would come from a freshman. Not one who had been averaging just three points per game.
One year later, sophomore Kedren Johnson will now be relied upon to be a team leader for a reloaded Commodore squad with just two upperclassmen--a pair of juniors.
Vanderbilt trailed top-seeded Kentucky by seven points in the closing minutes of the championship game of the 2012 Southeastern Conference Tournament in New Orleans. That's when Head Coach Kevin Stallings put freshman Kedren Johnson back in the game alongside four upperclassmen.
The point guard from Lewisburg, Tenn., was not satisfied to just be a bit player in that game full of stars.
"It was just a close game and I was trying to be aggressive," Johnson said. "During that time, most freshmen would probably tighten up. I was just trying to embrace it. Most people don't get the chance to play in the SEC championship game, so I just wanted to make the most of it. Plus, we were close to winning, so I was just trying to push us over the top."
As the 6'4" guard brought the ball up the court with less than two minutes to play and the game knotted up at 62-62, he saw an opening. After a slight hesitation at the three-point line, Johnson needed only two left-handed dribbles to get by his defender and under the basket, where he switched the ball to his right hand for a reverse layup.
Fouled on that drive, Johnson made his free throw to convert the traditional three-point play and give the Commodores a lead they would not relinquish. Vanderbilt ended up finishing the game on a 16-2 run to capture its first SEC Tournament title since 1951.
Thinking back on the play eight months later, Johnson cannot recall his exact thought in that moment, but he believes the play came naturally to him after years of preparation.
"I've done that move like 600 times, so it's hard to remember exactly what I was thinking," Johnson said. "But I just know I was trying to be aggressive and I just really wanted to win that game."
As a freshman Johnson embraced his role off the bench, seeing action in all 36 games while averaging the seventh-most minutes on the team. With all of the talent and experience on last year's team, Johnson knew he'd be allowed to slowly adjust to the speed of the collegiate game without being expected to put up huge numbers in that first season.
He also realizes that having John Jenkins, Festus Ezeli and Jeffery Taylor all selected in the draft--while five other Commodores were lost to graduation--will change dramatically what is expected of him.
"I knew we had a stacked team last year and it was going to be tough not knowing anything when these guys had been together for three or four years," Johnson said. "I wasn't expecting to come in and play a crazy amount of minutes. I knew I was going to have to come in and wade into it.
"[Now] I'm still just trying to do whatever the team needs me to do. We have a totally different team from last year. This team requires me to be a little more aggressive, so I'm trying to do that."
Johnson's Commodore teammates have known that he is capable of filling up the scoresheet while also providing opportunities for them to score points. And they expect Vanderbilt fans to see more statistical output from Johnson this year.
"He can make plays for other people. He's an excellent passer," fellow sophomore Shelby Moats said. "But he's also stepped up as a leader and a scorer. We always knew he had it in him and now he has the opportunity to do that."
The Commodore coaching staff also is looking to Johnson to step into a bigger role both offensively and defensively. Johnson and his coaches both mention his jump shot and his defense when asked about the parts of his game that improved the most over the course of offseason workouts.
Johnson--a product of Marshall County High School, located one hour south of Nashville--could score at will in high school, once netting 55 points against East Hickman to break a single-game Tiger scoring record which had been untouched for 50 years. He departed as the school's career record holder in both points and assists. Johnson had a number of offers from other schools in the southeast, including Florida and Alabama, but chose to stay close to home.
"I just wanted my parents to be able to come to the games," Johnson said. "My sister had just had my niece right around the time I was making my decision and I had to factor that into it, too. Plus, Vanderbilt did a great job recruiting me."
Home is where Johnson gained his love for music, a passion that he still regularly explores by writing and recording his own original songs.
"I've been doing it since I was 10 years old," Johnson said. "I have a lot of family members that are really into music. Around the time I was 16, it started to pick up a little bit and it was getting better, and now it's really good."
Johnson sees music as a good way to focus his creative energy, and notes that there are parallels between his mindset on the court and in the studio.
"You can be creative in basketball or in music," Johnson said. "I don't know what to expect when I sit down to write a song, just like I don't know what to expect when I'm going out on the court to play a game. Both of them are unpredictable. And I guess that what's I like about both of them."
While the fate of the 2012-13 men's basketball season also may be unpredictable, Commodore fans can look forward to seeing Johnson's creativity featured prominently at Memorial Gymnasium this year.