Former Vanderbilt forward returns to Memorial as an opponent

Sunday, November 27, 2011 at 9:45pm

Andre Walker never imagined this situation.

Over the last four years, the forward played in 84 games for Vanderbilt, starting in 40 and helping the Commodores reach the NCAA Tournament three times.

On Monday, though, he’ll walk into Memorial Gymnasium in an unfamiliar role — as an opponent.

Eight months after his last game with Vanderbilt, Walker leads 12th-ranked Xavier into a Top 25 matchup with the No. 18 Commodores (6 p.m., ESPN2).

“It has been kind of surreal. I never thought I would be playing there as an opponent,” Walker said. “Preparation has been the same but it is just a weird experience. I don’t know how many people transfer and actually go play their former team. I don’t know. It should be a good game.”

Walker graduated from Vanderbilt in May with a degree in human and organizational development but had one year of eligibility remaining. So he transferred to Xavier, where he is a graduate student and is pursuing a master’s degree in sports administration.

At Vanderbilt, he became the “glue guy.” Though he never averaged more than six points and five rebounds in a season, the 6-foot-8, 225-pounder was an excellent passer (160 assists) and solid defender.

Walker’s time at Vanderbilt, however, was filled with heartache and injury.

In 2008-09, in the third game of the season he tore his ACL. Two months later, his mother, Jane, died of cardiac arrest after during a lung transplant.

Devastated, Walker returned in 2009-10 and averaged career-highs of 6.1 points and 5.4 rebounds. Last year, though, Walker battled mononucleosis, playing in just 15 games and averaging only three points and three rebounds in 17.7 minutes.

“I was injured a lot at Vanderbilt so I couldn’t really play how I wanted to,” Walker said.

Walker, a native of Flossmoor, Ill., has developed into a familiar role at Xavier (4-0), which has four players averaging double figures. The Musketeers are led by guard Mark Lyons (17.8 ppg) and defending Atlantic-10 Conference player of the year Tu Holloway (15.0 ppg).

Walker has started three of four games and is averaging 4.8 points and four rebounds in 26.3 minutes.

“I think I have done pretty well,” Walker said. “It has been a little hard, being my first year and I didn’t get to sit out and learn the system or anything like that. I feel like I have done a pretty good job but I feel like as it goes on I will improve more.”

It will be the second reunion of sorts in four days for Vanderbilt. On Friday, the Commodores defeated Monmouth, which is coached by former Vanderbilt assistant King Rice.

Many of the plays the Hawks ran were similar to the Commodores’ schemes.

“It was really weird,” guard John Jenkins said. “A lot of the plays, they called the same thing. Coach told us before the game that it was going to be that way. They were just calling them out and we knew them. It was just weird.”

Unlike Rice’s situation, Vanderbilt forward Jeffery Taylor doesn’t expect Walker’s familiarity with the program to give Xavier an edge.

“We have changed a lot of things,” Taylor said. “Guys have gotten better. Guys are playing in different ways now. I don’t think that gives them any kind of advantage.”

Taylor, a senior, remains good friends with Walker and talks to him once a week.  Monday’s matchup, however, hasn’t come up in recent conversation — with any of his former teammates.

“We don’t mention the game,” Walker said. “But we just talk about how it will be good to see each other and just hang out for a little bit.”