Oct. 23, 2007
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Recent Taste of Success Has Commodores Wanting More
Let's test your knowledge of Southeastern Conference basketball for a minute.
Can you name the only two programs in the league to advance to the NCAA Tournament's round of 16 twice in the past four years?
While two-time defending national champion Florida probably comes to mind instantly, you may struggle to find the second part of the answer.
"That is a question I think most people would have a hard time answering," Vanderbilt head coach Kevin Stallings said. "It speaks volumes to the job that our players and staff has done."
That's right, the other team is Vanderbilt. Thrilling second-round NCAA Tournament victories over Washington State in 2007 and N.C. State in 2004 have helped increase Vanderbilt's credibility and visibility on the national stage.
And Stallings and his 2007-08 Commodores want more.
"It makes a statement that we are certainly in the mix as a program that has to be reckoned with," Stallings said. "Success can be very fleeting, however, if you don't follow that up with more success and continued work. We think with the approach that our players have taken and hopefully with the approach that our staff takes on a daily basis our recent good fortune will continue."
Three Returning Starters
Guards Shan Foster and Alex "Red" Gordon and forward Ross Neltner return as starters from last year's unit that compiled a 22-12 overall mark and finished second in the SEC Eastern Division at 10-6 - Vanderbilt's highest finish in the league since 1993.
A candidate for the SEC's top performer, Foster ranks as the conference's third-leading returning scorer after pouring in 15.6 points per contest as a junior. Known for his outside shooting prowess, the Louisiana native and three-time All-SEC selection is within striking distance of becoming Vanderbilt's all-time leader in points (needs 572) and 3-pointers made (needs 64). But during his time in Nashville his resume also has grown to include the duties of clutch performer and defensive stopper.
"Shan's productivity over the course of his career necessitates that people give him a lot of respect," Stallings said. "There's no question that early on Shan will be our go-to guy. But he's also a great scorer who is willing to give his very best effort on the defensive end day-in and day-out and do whatever it takes to help his team win. That's what separates him at times from other guys who score a lot of points."
Gordon proved himself as a trustworthy facilitator at the point last season, finishing fourth in the conference with a 2.22-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio. A steady ball handler, Gordon committed only 51 turnovers on the season - the fewest among starting SEC point guards - and made just 12 miscues during 10 road games. He finished second on the team with 113 assists.
The solid numbers are a salute to Gordon who came to Vanderbilt known more for his offensive production. But according to his coach, the Florida native's final year as a Commodore could feature more of a dual role as floor leader and scorer.
"Alex's willingness to sacrifice some parts of his game last year was a very key component to our success," Stallings said. "He understood where the ball needed to be and at some times that meant somewhere other than his hands. Maybe you'll see him be more of a scoring option for us this season. At the same time, he'll still need to run the team very effectively. And he will."
Neltner provided Stallings with a versatile option in the post last season - the forward's first at Vanderbilt since transferring from LSU following the 2004-05 campaign. The Kentucky native helped provide toughness and rugged play in the interior, leading all SEC newcomers with a team-high 5.7 rebounds per game. At the same time, Neltner showed Commodore followers he could connect from beyond the arc (11-of-28 attempts from 3-point range) and pass the ball to open teammates (74 assists).
"A guy that can step out and make shots and can pass the ball like Ross has always made teams that I coach a lot better," Stallings said. "His emergence last year was critical to the team and he should have a similar impact this season."
Joining Foster and Gordon at the guard position will be sophomore Jermaine Beal, redshirt-sophomore George Drake, freshmen Keegan Bell and Charles Hinkle, and freshman walk-on Elliot Cole.
Beal, who brings good size to the Commodore backcourt, averaged 3.8 points in 16.8 minutes a game in 2006-07. He ranked among the SEC's freshmen leaders in steals (fourth at 1.06 per game), free throw shooting (fifth at 80 percent) and assists (sixth at 1.79). One of Beal's biggest contributions came early in the year when his conventional 3-point play on a driving layup in the closing seconds against Toledo led Vanderbilt to a 98-93 overtime win. The hard-fought victory proved to be a catalyst for the Commodores' turnaround from a 1-3 start.
Drake averaged 2.7 points and 10.3 minutes in his first season on the court. An athletic leaper and great worker, Drake hit a pair of 3-pointers early and finished with eight points against George Washington, helping ignite the Commodores to an easy 77-44 first round win at the NCAA Tournament. He was named a three-time 2A Player of the Year at Calera High School in Alabama.
Bell brings good basketball instincts from Hazel Green High School in Alabama where he averaged a double-double with 19.3 points and 10 assists in his lone year as a Trojan. The Super Metro (Huntsville) Player of the Year and member of the Birmingham News Super Seniors List at No. 4, Bell connected on 43 percent of his 3-pointers and scored more than 2,100 combined points at Hazel Green and Bob Jones - where he attended high school for his first three years.
Hinkle comes to Vanderbilt as a talented wing prospect with a strong feel for the game. He averaged 10.0 points and 5.0 rebounds as a senior for his Los Alamitos (Calif.) High School team, who won a sectional championship for the first time in school history. Last year at Hebron Academy in New Hampshire, he averaged 16.3 points, 5.9 rebounds, and 2.1 assists per game.
Cole joined the Vanderbilt squad after a stellar senior season at Memphis University School, where his team captured the Tennessee Division II state championship in 2007.
Accompanying Neltner at the forward position will be freshmen Andre Walker, Darshawn McClellan, and walk-on Joe Duffy.
Walker comes to Nashville as a versatile player who possesses great shooting range. Named one of the most complete players in the Chicago area by the Chicago Tribune following his senior season of 2006, Walker averaged 15 points and 8.2 rebounds at Homewood Flossmoor High School in Illinois. He attended Brewster Academy in Wolfeboro, N.H., last season where a foot injury kept him from playing most of the season.
McClellan posted a double-double with 18 points and 10 rebounds in his senior year at Edison High School in Fresno, Calif. A powerfully built player, McClellan will offer toughness at either post position for the Commodores.
Duffy, a Charlotte, N.C. native, joins the Commodores as a walk-on after averaging 15 points and nine rebounds at Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire.
Senior Alan Metcalfe and freshman A.J. Ogilvy will roam the center position for Vanderbilt. True freshman Festus Ezeli, who signed in early August with the Commodores, will redshirt the 2007-08 season.
Metcalfe had an outstanding summer leading into the 2006-07 campaign and started the first two games of last season before a foot injury sidelined the Englishman for a good portion of the non-conference schedule. Metcalfe possesses a good scoring ability around the basket and also can hit from the perimeter. He managed 7.5 minutes a contest a year ago, averaging 2.6 points and 1.9 rebounds.
"Alan has proven to us in practice that he is a very capable Southeastern Conference player," Stallings said. "Unfortunately, his injury a season ago was one of the things that impacted his ability to prove that on a consistent basis during the games. Alan certainly will have an opportunity to show himself and everyone else what he's capable of."
Ogilvy has attended the Australian Institute of Sport (AIS) for four years where he has developed into a highly regarded interior player. The big man owns a strong presence inside and recently averaged 18.3 points and 7.4 rebounds in a partial season for AIS in the South East Australian Basketball League. Ogilvy's time in the SEABL was cut short while he prepared to compete at the Under 19 World Championship in Nov Sad, Serbia in July.
"There is a lot of opportunity for all of our returning non-starters to make an impact for us this season," Stallings said. "A lot of what happens for the incoming freshmen will be based on how George and Jermaine emerge into more significant roles that will benefit our team.
"The freshmen class can have an impact as well," Stallings added. "They will have to come in and learn and find their way. Those that do it the fastest and with the best results will be the ones who play the most."