Can Commodores make it back to the Dance?

Will Vandy dance again?  (AP / Mark Humphrey)

The quest for a second straight trip to the NCAA's begins Friday for the Vanderbilt men's basketball team. Can they make it back? VandyMania's Bryce Wells sizes up the team and its schedule. <I>The Commodores tip off vs. Toledo at Memorial Gym Friday at approximately 8:30 pm (no TV). The women's team opens vs. St. Francis at 6:00.</i>

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 defensive rebounding.

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:

Non-conference schedule: 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 season.

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 East.

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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