Shortly after the news a year ago that Vanderbilt’s top three scorers would return for the 2011-12 season, lofty expectations poured in.
With the entire starting five from the previous season and seven seniors, the Commodores were tabbed seventh in two preseason national polls and considered a sleeper pick to reach the Final Four.
Twelve months later, things are much different. In short, not much is being expected of the 2012-13 squad.
“We’re playing like we have a chip on our shoulder,” rising sophomore guard Dai-Jon Parker said outside of the Vanderbilt weight room last week. “We’re young, coming out every night like we have seniors. We’re going to have everybody be a leader, and we need people to step up every game.”
With two-time SEC scoring champ John Jenkins announcing last week he’ll forego his senior season and enter the NBA draft, Vanderbilt lost its entire starting five and top six players from a team that won 25 games, captured the SEC Tournament championship and reached the third round of the NCAA championship.
Coach Kevin Stallings now faces his biggest rebuilding project yet after losing eight lettermen who accounted for 88.1 percent of the scoring.
“There is a lot more points to be had from all of us,” point guard Kedren Johnson said. “We just all have to work on the strengths of our game and just chip away and try to replace all the pieces we lost.”
For just the second time in Stallings’ 14 years on the job, they’ll be without a senior. He’ll be drawing up a new starting lineup too after the combination of Jenkins, Jeffery Taylor, Brad Tinsley, Festus Ezeli, Lance Goulbourne and Steve Tchiengang totaled 505 starts since 2008-09. That’s an average of 21 starts a year.
Of the seven returning players, only juniors Rod Odom (10) and Kyle Fuller (1) have started. Just three — Johnson, Odom (2.7 ppg) and Parker (1.7 ppg) — played in all 36 games last year.
Stallings was unavailable for comment.
Johnson is the top returning scorer, at just 3.1 points in 14.5 minutes as a freshman. The 6-foot-4, 215-pounder developed into a viable option at point behind Tinsley, finishing second with 66 assists. He scored a career-high 12 points in just his third game of the season against Bucknell but never scored more than seven points in an SEC game. The former Class 2A Mr. Basketball averaged 27.3 points as a senior at Marshall County High School. His 55 points in an 81-54 win against East Hickman broke the school’s 50-year-old single-game scoring record.
“Most of the time I’m trying to create for my teammates,” Johnson said. “But I’m really trying to make the right play, so I’m not going to be able to foresee me being the leading scorer or anything like that. I know I am just going to try my hardest and do what I can.”
Odom, a 6-foot-9 forward, returns as arguably the best perimeter threat. As a sophomore he made 15-of-40 3-pointers (37.5 percent). Vanderbilt’s returning players combined to attempt 145 3-pointers — and made just 38 — in 2011-12. Jenkins sank 134 3-pointers out of 305 attempts — both single-season school records.
“It will be a little balanced. It is whoever’s hot. That is how I look at it,” Parker said. “Whoever is hot, feed them, and whoever is the open man, hit him.”
Of bigger concern is the low post. Having not played organized basketball until 2007, 6-foot-11, 255-pound center Festus Ezeli became one of the most improved players in the country and is projected as a second-round pick in this year’s NBA draft.
Filling that void will be difficult, and right now the Commodores are scarce on candidates.
Josh Henderson played in the first seven games this season as a redshirt-freshman, helping fill in for Ezeli, who missed the first eight games due to an NCAA suspension and knee injuries. Henderson, a 6-foot-11 center, averaged just 2.6 points and 2.9 rebounds before suffering a stress fracture in December. He returned late in the season, only to play two minutes in the SEC Tournament. He underwent a second surgery on his foot recently but should be back by the time practices begin in October.
Shelby Moats stands at 6 foot 8 and weighs 225 pounds, but the rising sophomore is not the typical post player. Of his 13 shots last year, 11 were taken from 3-point range.
The Commodores only have two signees for the 2012 class — Kevin Bright, a 6-5 small forward from Germany, and A.J. Astroth, a 6-6 shooting guard from Florida — which means they still have four scholarships to fill.
And plenty of questions to answer.
“I know we’re not looking at it as a rebuilding year,” Johnson said. “I know all of us are used to winning, so we’re just going to try to keep that trend going.”