Heading into the first game of the season on Friday
night against Toledo (pre-season pick for MAC
Champion), questions remain regarding who will put
this team on his back and get Vanderbilt back to the
NCAA tournament. Vanderbilt fans should expect some early growing pains from this team as the seniors look
to exert their influence and the influx of talented freshmen look to prove their worth. If the exhibition
games are any indication, there will be at least 4 new
players on the court at any time who have never played
a collegiate game, much less run Vanderbilt's
complicated motion offense.
As Commodores Head Coach Kevin Stallings prepares his
2004 squad for this season, he's without the services
of the school's all-time leading scorer Matt Freije.
But this year's team will not only miss Freije's 18.4
ppg, they will sorely miss his leadership, as well as
the leadership provided by graduated seniors Russ
Lakey, Scott Hundley and Martin Schnedlitz. While
this year's team returns 3 seniors and 4 starters from
last year's Sweet 16 team and boasts a highly regarded
class of 5 new freshmen, there are still questions
about who can be counted on night after night to help
get Vanderbilt back to the NCAAs.
There's no lack of candidates. The pre-season
Second-Team All SEC Junior point guard Mario Moore is
considered the vocal leader of the team and has at
times single-handedly taken over games with his
outside shooting and pinpoint passing. The concern is
that he hasn't displayed that kind of brilliance on a
consistent basis outside of postseason tournament
games. Moore will have to be ready to perform each
night, not only getting his points but getting his
teammates into the flow of the offense, if Vanderbilt
is to repeat their success from last year.
Senior shooting guard Jason Holwerda is another vocal
leader on the court and is arguably the team's best
defensive player. He's also the second leading assist
man behind Moore, averaging nearly 3 a game last
season. And the coaches have looked to take advantage
of those passing skills early this season, flashing
Holwerda into the high-post on several plays during
the first two exhibition games.
But this year the pressure is on for Holwerda to be
more of a weapon on offense as well, an area in which
he hasn't been much of a factor the past three
seasons. The Chattanooga guard understands he needs
to contribute more points this season and says he's
worked on his outside shooting in the off-season.
"I think the coaches and my teammates have been
surprised with me this summer," said Holwerda,
"because the summer and this preseason, I've been
shooting a lot and hitting shots."
Evidence of that came during the second exhibition
game against University of Alabama - Huntsville where
he drained all three treys he attempted.
Senior Forward Corey Smith will also have to take on
more leadership and provide more consistency for the
Commodores this year - something he says he's prepared
to do and has worked on in the off-season.
"I'm working on trying to be more consistent on the
court," said Smith, "someone the coach can count on
a night-to-night basis, instead of him guessing
whether I'm going to show up or not."
But the coaching staff still worries about his
tendency to "float" through games. After a lackluster
first-half performance against UAH in the second
exhibition game, Smith helped keep the Chargers at bay
with 11 second-half points on 5 of 8 shooting -
including a few quality mid-range jump shots.
After being told during the UAH post-game interview
that Smith was selected as the player of the game,
Coach Stallings said "Well that's good. That makes me
feel smart, because he's one of the guys I got on in
the locker room at halftime. We need him to play like
he did in the second-half tonight."
The third returning senior is Dawid Przybyszewski, the
team's 7'2 Center . . . and best perimeter shooter.
Stallings expects great things from Przybyszewski this
year, especially if the Polish big man starts to
believe in his potential as much as the coaching
staff. But leadership isn't something that Stallings
and company are counting on.
"That's asking something of him that's not really in
his personality," said Stallings.
Instead, Przybyszewski will be counted on to continue
his exacting outside marksmanship (45% from three last
season) and try to "focus" on becoming more of a
presence on the low blocks - particularly for
So where does that leave this team?
In terms of the NCAA Tournament, I think this team is
squarely on the proverbial bubble until they display
the same chemistry and togetherness as last year's
squad. The other key is consistency - 3 of the
projected starters on this year's team (Corey Smith,
Mario Moore and Dawid Przybyszewski) averaged double
figure scoring in stretches last season - but Moore is
the only returning player to average double figures
for the season at 11.2 ppg. The freshmen, especially
Alex "Red" Gordon and Shan Foster, have already had
the Vandy faithful on their feet during the two
exhibition games, but will need to adjust to the
rigors of the college game and the physical demands of
the SEC. The talent is there; it's just a matter of
putting it all together on the court.
Here's how I see the season unfolding:
This year's non-conference schedule is packed with 20
game winners and NCAA Tournament teams from last
season. Throw in a few tough road games at Oregon and
Cincinnati and the wheels could come off in a hurry.
The Commodores face a big challenge right off the bat
as the Toledo Rockets come to Memorial to open the
season. I think Vandy wins this game, but will trail
at half-time. Look for Holwerda to keep pre-season
MAC Player of the Year Keith Tripplet under 20 points
and for Mario Moore to drain a number of second-half
threes to secure the victory.
Then the Dores should pick up two more wins against
much easier opponents in Tennessee State and Cal State
Northridge. From there, Vandy will head to Las Vegas
for the final two games of the Las Vegas Invitational
where they will meet Southern Illinois and possibly
UTEP (or Arizona State). Away from the friendly
confines of Memorial, I think we'll drop one of these
two games, bringing the team's record to 4-1 on the
The Commodores should take care of business when they
return home to face the Austin Peay Governors before
heading out on back-to-back road games at Oregon and
Cincinnati. I think Vandy fans will be delighted if
the team manages to beat either of those teams on the
road and improve their record to 6-2, but until this
team shows it can win in a hostile environment, I'm
going to put both road games down as losses - putting
the team's season record at 5-3.
The Dec. 18th game against TCU marks the first of five
straight non-conference home games where the Dores can
really make some waves. But college finals and the
"freshman wall" will take their toll - causing us to
drop at least one of the games against Appalachian
State, Dayton or Louisiana-Lafayette. That brings the
team to 9-4 on the season right before we play Alabama
at home in the conference opener.
An unusual non-conference game in February against
Texas Pan-American should improve the final
non-conference record to 10-4.
Conference Games (Against the East)
The Commodores have to win both games against Georgia
- no matter how tough conference road games are to
win. And if this Vandy team can break the Dave Odom /
South Carolina curse (Odom's Gamecocks are 5-1 against
Vandy) and split with South Carolina, winning the home
match, then I think they will upset one of the other
three teams in Memorial to finish 4-6 against the
Conference Games (Against the West)
Vandy will look to avenge their loss in Fayetteville
when the Hogs visit Memorial. Ole Miss and Auburn are
early candidates for the
"worst-SEC-teams-in-the-past-two-decades" award -
though again, Vandy will have to win on the road to
claim a victory over Auburn. That would give the
Dores 3 wins against the West.
Two key games that will decide Vanderbilt's postseason
fortunes are the conference opener at home against
Alabama and the final conference game against LSU in
Baton Rouge. Because of Vandy's recent success
against Alabama and the fact that John Brady is
relying on freshman Glen Davis to keep his job, Vandy
should be able to win one of those games - and
potentially both, especially if the leadership and
chemistry mentioned above has truly come together.
The scary thought is that this team could easily lose
both games as well.
For argument's sake, I think Vandy will find a fourth
win somewhere in the schedule against the West and
finish 18-12 overall, 8-8 in the conference. Despite
the fact that our RPI should be very good because of
the tough non-conference schedule, I think an 18-12
season puts Vanderbilt squarely on the bubble - not
the nicest of places for Vandy basketball teams the
past 5-6 years.
Only another deep run in the SEC Tourney like last season
will get these Dores dancing in March.
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