There are plenty of reasons why optimism is palpable surrounding the Vanderbilt men’s basketball team. With a roster featuring just one senior in point guard Jermaine Beal, one wouldn’t think experience would be one of them, but it is.
Last season, a youthful squad featuring seven freshmen and a 1-5 start to Southeastern Conference play hurt the Commodores in the early going. As the season wore on, the talented Class of 2012 elevated its play, especially forward Jeffery Taylor and guard Brad Tinsley, now sophomore starters and seasoned veterans compared to a year ago.
“The experience factor is so much better this time around,” said Vanderbilt head coach Kevin Stallings. “It’s very difficult in a league like ours to have the success you want to have when over half your team is truly first-year guys. I think with those guys becoming sophomores — and not only just becoming sophomores, but getting older, getting stronger, getting better — our team is in a much better position for success because of the progress that our guys have made from a year ago.”
Tinsley became the team’s most accurate 3-point shooter, averaging 11 points per game and tying a Vanderbilt freshman record set by Shan Foster in 2004-2005 with 69 made shots from beyond the arc.
“I think we grew a lot,” Tinsley said. “Just the experience of getting to play in almost every game, and that’s the only way you can get experience. Coaches did a good job of getting us well-prepared for the games and I thought we did a pretty good job.”
Taylor was named to the All-SEC Freshman Team after the 2008-09 season, starting all 31 games and averaging 12.2 points and 6.2 rebounds. Both he and Tinsley saved their best for last, scoring a career-high 27 and 20 points, respectively, in a narrow loss to Alabama in the first round of the SEC Tournament, and ultimately their last game of the year when they rejected an invitation to the College Basketball Invitational.
Despite coming up short of more postseason play, it demonstrated a season-long period of improvement that only continued with the team’s trip to Australia this summer.
“I think we matured a little bit along the way, and I think we gained a lot of experience with the playing time we had and just going through the SEC season,” Taylor said.
Taylor scored 19 points in just 21 minutes of play to lead the Commodores in their exhibition win on Nov. 10 against Alabama-Huntsville. Tinsley scored 12 and fellow sophomore Steve Tchiengang had 11 in a 91-56 blowout win. Vanderbilt had 19 assists on its 32 baskets.
“I think that we will have a very unselfish basketball team, and that will make some nights look awfully good offensively,” Stallings said.
Yet, the team was only picked by the media to finish third in the SEC East behind rivals Kentucky and Tennessee. But as far as expectations, there is only one set that the Commodores care about: their own.
“It’s not where you start, it’s where you finish, and we keep that in mind and our goal is to finish high,” Stallings said. “We don’t care where they put us to start.”
They hope to start the way they finished last season, winning seven of their last 10 conference games before falling to the Crimson Tide. A 19-12 record and 8-8 mark in conference play weren’t enough even for an NIT bid in a down year for the SEC that sent only three teams to the Big Dance.
Of course, every team is trying to reach the NCAA Tournament, and if the Commodores make it, that would be their third trip in four years. But any specific goals they have stay private, Stallings says, save for one.
“The No. 1 goal that we have each season is to try to come and close to reaching our potential as a basketball team as we can, and that’s what we’ll set out to do,” Stallings said. “That’s what we’ve already set out to, and hopefully that’s what we’ll accomplish."