Youth will be served in '09

Nov. 6, 2008

Festus Ezeli

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By Ryan Schulz

There is no better example of how quickly things can change from year to year in college basketball than this year's Vanderbilt men's basketball team. Gone are three senior starters, including all-time leading scorer Shan Foster. In their place is a talented, but unproven, freshman class of five players.

After having one of the most veteran squads in the SEC last season, the Commodores will now have one of the youngest. The team has just two upperclassmen (Jermaine Beal and George Drake); neither is a senior.

With a young and inexperienced team, Head Coach Kevin Stallings knows how important it is for the team's veteran players to step into leadership roles.

"We lost some really good leaders," Stallings said. "When you look at any season, leadership, toughness, experience, team chemistry are all questions that are going to have to be answered as the season unfolds. We can pick the captains, but we can't pick the leaders."

Among the players that Stallings will count on to provide the leadership needed to take the Commodores back to the NCAA Tournament for a school-record third time in a row are Beal, Drake and A.J. Ogilvy.

"I think those guys are very capable of providing us with leadership," Stallings said. "How a team gets along, how supportive they are with one another and how team-oriented they are when the distribution of playing time occurs is going to be a critical element."

Although the Commodores lost three starters from last year's squad, the cupboard of talent is far from bare. Last season, Ogilvy averaged 17.0 points and a team-high 6.7 rebounds, and Beal led the team with 4.6 assists per game. Mix a recruiting class hailed as potentially the best in school history with the solid nucleus of returning players, and you have a team that could surprise some people this season.


Complimenting Ogilvy in the paint will be sophomores Joe Duffy and Darshawn McClellan, redshirt freshman Festus Ezeli and true freshman Steve Tchiengang.

Ogilvy enters his sophomore season after one of the best freshman campaigns in school history. Last year may have been just the tip of the iceberg for Ogilvy, who added another element to his game this offseason with the improvement of his shooting range. His increased range will make him even more difficult to guard this season.

"I think we'll see him make more jump shots, and I think he'll make some threes," Stallings said. "That's not where we're going to live and die with him, but you'll see him step outside and make some jump shots and make a few threes."

Vanderbilt's top reserve a year ago, McClellan will be counted on more heavily this season after averaging 2.7 points in 14.1 minutes per game.

One of the most intriguing players to watch this season will be Ezeli. Listed at 6-foot-11, Ezeli could form one of the country's tallest frontcourts when paired with Ogilvy.

"He is undoubtedly the most improved player in one year that I've ever coached," Stallings said. "He came in last year and really could barely make it through an individual workout. Now, he's a good runner, and has an absolutely incredible body with a 7-foot-5 wingspan."


Beal, Drake and Andre Walker return to stabilize a backcourt that is in transition after losing Alex Gordon and Foster to graduation. Also helping to fill the void will be walk-on sophomores Elliott Cole and Jamie Graham, redshirt freshman Charles Hinkle and freshmen Lance Goulbourne, Jordan Smart, Jeffery Taylor and Brad Tinsley.

"Obviously when you have two guys who started a large amount of games, that's a lot of minutes, a lot of three-point baskets made, a lot of savvy leadership and a lot of winning mentality that just graduated," Stalllings said. "Jermaine (Beal) is going to have to take a big leadership role with those guys and play like a solid veteran."

If his numbers last year were any indication, Beal should be ready to live up to those expectations. On top of his assist numbers, Beal posted a 3.10 assist-to-turnover ratio, ranking him first in the SEC and third in the nation.

Drake, one of the team's best athletes, will have an ample opportunity to start at shooting guard, but he will be pushed by Tinsley and Hinkle.

At the other guard slot, Walker will have an opportunity to start after showing flashes of outstanding play last season. Also battling for time will be Taylor and Goulbourne.

Graham, who was the only one in the SEC to play football and basketball in 2007-08, will once again join the team after football season. Last year, his defensive ability and energy gave the team a huge lift off the bench.

Despite the lack of experience at the position, the addition of a talented freshman class blended with a veteran presence should make Vanderbilt's guard play a strength this season.



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