Vanderbilt's men's basketball team is just seven games into the season, but it has already faced more personnel losses in the first month of the season than most teams do in an entire season.
First it was freshman Steve Tcheingang, who was forced to sit out the first six games by NCAA rule. Before the second game of the year, fellow freshman Lance Goulbourne contracted mononucleosis and late in the third game against Middle Tennessee State, sophomore Andre Walker had a season-ending knee injury. The team had a slight reprieve against Central Arkansas, but was quickly dealt another blow when Festus Ezeli was unable to make the trip to Cancun because of personal reasons.
Through it all, the team has managed to post a 5-2 record and even won the Cancun Challenge.
However, because of the rash of personnel losses, the coaching staff has had to work with a cast of available players that has almost changed on game-by-game basis. Because of the shortening of the bench, it has opened the door for players, who normally wouldn't get the opportunity to play as extensively.
One of those players is redshirt freshman Charles Hinkle, who missed all of last season with a broken left foot. After playing sparingly in three of the first four games of the season, Hinkle burst onto the scene in Cancun, Mexico, and has averaged 25 minutes in Vanderbilt's last three games.
"Forget the foot injury, Charles has improved greatly from last year to this year," Stallings said. "I called him in a couple of weeks ago and told him `you are down the depth chart, but I feel badly for you because you've played well.' -- this was obviously when Lance (Goulbourne) was playing and Andre (Walker) was playing -- `but I can't play this many guys on the wing. However, if for any reason you get in the game, I'll have full confidence because you've played very well,' and he has.
Against Drake, Hinkle logged 31 minutes -- six minutes more than he had previously played in his entire career. He contributed five points, three rebounds, one block, one steal and an assist.
The following day in the tournament championship against VCU, the Los Alamitos, Calif., native played 23 minutes while adding four points and one rebound. On Wednesday, Hinkle had four rebounds, two points and an assist in a loss to Illinois-Chicago.
For Hinkle, each opportunity he has to get back on the basketball court reaffirms him that the hours spent in rehab last year and the hours spent on the court this past offseason is paying off.
"It was frustrating, but at the same time I was just happy to be here and I knew my time would come," Hinkle said. "I was just patient. I've had a lot of struggles in my life as far as basketball and I just knew how to work and stay dedicated to my game and eventually it led me to be where I'm at now."
Last year's foot injury may not have been in Hinkle's plans, but it could have been a blessing in disguise because it gave him an opportunity to get the extra time in the weight room that he needed.
"I'm stronger now because of (the injury)," Hinkle said. "Since I was hurt, I was able to really get in the weight room and get bigger."
The increased bulk to his 6-foot-6 frame, has afforded Hinkle the opportunity to play more than just the Nos. 2 and 3 positions on the court.
"He has a high basketball intellect which allowed him to play at a post position (in Cancun) for us that he had not practiced at all," Stallings said, and he did it quickly because he is a smart kid and he was able to do some different things for us that really helped us down there."
Before his injury, Walker was Vanderbilt's Mr. Versatility. He'd play anywhere from point guard to power forward. Now with him lost for the season, Stallings believes that he will be able to use Hinkle in many of the same ways he did Walker because of his versatility.
"Usually you don't have (that type of versatile player)," Stallings said. "We felt like we had lost our guy who is able to do that and that is Andre Walker. Andre has been the guy that we can move around and he's bright and gets things quickly. Then all of a sudden, we don't have him and you put Charles into that spot and Charles adapted even more quickly then Andre. Charles really figured out what he needed to do fast."
You don't necessarily want to get your opportunity because of the misfortunes of others, but once you get your chance, you have to take advantage of it. So far, Hinkle has done just that by making himself invaluable because of his flexibility.
"It reminds me of what Lou Holtz said that a player should learn what every player on the field was supposed to do in every play, so that it might get him on the field," Stallings commented. "Charles' intellect and basketball IQ got him on the floor for a lot of minutes."
As Hinkle keeps on developing, those minutes are almost certain to continue to increase.