Vanderbilt hoops starts with high hopes, punishing first practice

Sunday, October 16, 2011 at 8:37pm

For the last six months, accolades and expectations have poured in on Vanderbilt men’s basketball team.

With all five starters and the top three reserves returning, the Commodore program is eyeing its first trip to the Final Four.  

On Friday, though, at the end of their first practice of the season, that same group looked exhausted.  Vanderbilt was welcomed — and humbled — by head coach Kevin Stallings with a “grueling” workout that lasted more than two hours and left many players grasping for air and applying bags of ice to aching joints.

“He doesn’t hold back. He never holds back,” guard Brad Tinsley said. “That is what makes his teams tougher — mentally tough, physically tough. It is not what every kid wants, but it makes you better in the long run.”

A few hours later, though, Stallings was lightening the mood.

For the first time in six years, Vanderbilt held a Midnight Madness session to kick off the season. The two-hour event, which was watched by more than 3,500 fans, included an autograph session, a scrimmage and a 3-point shooting and slam dunk contest.

Stallings, however, stole the show. As the Vanderbilt women’s basketball team wrapped up drills with heaves from half-court, the veteran coach strolled to the same spot.

He grabbed a basketball and whipped in a half-court shot — from behind his back.

“He stole the show,” forward James Siakam said. “That was a great shot. I’ve seen him make it a couple times [in practice] but that is the first time I have seen him make it on the first try. It wasn’t a surprise, really.”

The arena — and the Vanderbilt men’s basketball team — went crazy and his players mobbed the very relaxed Stallings as he walked off the court.

“Actually I’ve never seen him practice it. I think it is just God-given talent,” freshman guard Dai-Jon Parker said. “It is just like Larry Bird putting the ball in the basket. It just happens.”

Stallings said beforehand that it wasn’t his decision to have the Midnight Madness festivities for just the second time in his 13 years at the helm. Instead, he said he would have rather spent the night watching playoff baseball — as Stallings is a native of the St. Louis area and avid Cardinals fan.

But he appeared to enjoy himself. He grabbed the microphone and ribbed his players for a less-than stellar dunk contest that Parker eventually won.

“I really thought the purpose of a dunk contest was to make a dunk,” Stallings said. “So if you guys can’t make a dunk, just lay it in. ... I do want to apologize for that terrible dunk contest. It is the worst I’ve ever seen.”

That sense of humor might come in handy for Stallings with such lofty expectations for the Commodores, who most likely will be ranked in the top 10 in many preseason polls.

Last year, the team went 23-11 but underwhelmed again in the postseason, losing in the opening round of the NCAA Tournament for the second straight year.

Vanderbilt hopes to make a deeper run in March, especially with its heavy firepower back after Jeffery Taylor, John Jenkins and Festus Ezeli all turned down the NBA Draft. The trio combined to average 48 points a year ago and will be in the starting lineup when the season begins on Nov. 11 at home against Oregon.

“More than ever before, we are going to be the hunted rather than the hunter,” Stallings said. “We expect to get everyone’s best shot. We look forward to getting everyone’s best shot. We are excited about perhaps being a program that can have that said about them.

"Quite honestly, we have never been that program before. That has always been Kentucky or Florida or somebody else in the [Southeastern Conference]. Maybe, we have a chance to be that program now.”