Vanderbilt enters the 2011-12 men's basketball season with its highest preseason ranking in more than 45 years largely because of who returned — all five starters and the top three reserves.
Not to be lost in the shuffle is what the seventh-ranked Commodores gained.
Practicing together since the summer are three highly heralded freshmen: a talented point guard, a shooting guard known for his defense and a big man who can shoot.
Coach Kevin Stallings, however, cautions that before that trio receives extended, significant minutes they must adjust to a pace they aren’t used to. What they will encounter the next four years, he warns, is entirely different from what they experienced over the last four.
“It is like Spanish and French. It is a different language,” Stallings said. “There is a different level of intensity and physicality required. That is what these guys are trying to get used to.”
Kedren Johnson, Dai-Jon Parker and Shelby Moats will get their first taste of big-time Division I basketball when the season starts at 9 p.m. on Nov. 11 against visiting Oregon. All three could take the floor three days before that when the Commodores host NAIA foe Xavier (La.) in an exhibition contest at 7 p.m. on Monday.
There is no question all three enjoyed successful high school careers — most notably Johnson, a local product from Marshall County. He was named Mr. Basketball in Class 2A and averaged 27.3 points, 10 rebounds, eight assists and 3.6 steals last year. The 6-foot-4, 215-pounder left as the school’s all-time leading scorer and assist leader.
But just three weeks into practice, Johnson already concurs with Stallings that college basketball is a different animal.
“Every drill is intense,” Johnson said. “High school has never been like that.”
Still, Johnson adds depth to the point guard position, which returns senior starter Brad Tinsley and sophomore reserve Kyle Fuller.
“Every player wants competition,” Johnson said. “I am going into every practice, going as hard as I can, just like everybody else, trying to earn playing time. Nobody ever wants to be satisfied.”
Stallings said Johnson has made progress and is gaining confidence but also said it has been “a little bit of a struggle at times for him.”
“A freshman point guard has the hardest transition of anybody,” Stallings said. “Not only are you trying to get a feel for what is supposed to happen offensively, you need to feel the coaches are looking for and what the coaches are wanting. You also have the ball in your hands more than anybody else so the defense tends to put a lot of pressure on you.”
Parker is a 6-foot-3, 190-pound shooting guard who was a two-time defensive player of the year while at Milton High School in Alpharetta, Ga. He averaged 14 points, six rebounds and five assists as a senior in a starting lineup that had three other players receive Division I scholarships.
His vibrant personality spills onto the court as his energy irritates opposing guards. His one-the-ball defense, which Stallings said can still improve, could help bolster a perimeter defense that was more than shaky last year.
“I just like taking the ball from people,” Parker said. “That is the point of the game, to have the ball. If you don’t have the ball you can’t score. ... I want to be energetic off the bench and on the bench. I can harass the ball a little bit.”
Moats is a 6-foot-8, 225-pounder from Waconia, Minn., who averaged a double-double (22 points, 12 rebounds) last year. But he is not just a body inside, capable of stepping outside and draining 3-pointers.
“I’m more of a shooter than anything,” said Moats, who was the valedictorian of his class. “But I feel like I am strong enough where I can bang in the post and guard the post. If there are minutes for me, I would love that. If there is not, I am just going to keep doing what I’m doing in practice just by making everyone else better and hopefully that will translate into minutes on the court.”
With 6-foot-11 center Festus Ezeli out for at least the next six weeks due to a knee injury, Moats, Johnson and Parker could see their chances at playing increase. Stallings said the Commodores will tinker with several starting lineups and rotations, some that might be smaller than he would prefer.
The veteran coach, however, isn’t ready to say if his freshman will chew up valuable minutes.
“Those guys are talented but they’ve got a long way to go in terms of understanding the intensity and the effort level you have to play at this level of college basketball,” Stallings said. “We’re just going to have to wait and see how that plays out.”