Monday November 2nd, 2015

NASHVILLE — The snipers work in secret. Vanderbilt’s three-point shooters won’t say exactly when their competitions occur or how often, but when inspiration strikes, they challenge each other to see who the deadliest Commodore from deep is. “We’ve never had a set competition,” sophomore guard Riley LaChance says. “But sometimes before or after practice, we’ll screw around, shooting against each other. It’s fun to watch.”

It’s hard to blame Vandy’s backcourt for seeking to anoint its top ‘Dore. Consider the talent on this roster: Four players hit at least 40 three-pointers last season, the most of any team in the SEC. This year all four of those players return to Nashville after helping Vanderbilt finish as league’s top three-point shooting team (39.2% on threes) in 2014-15.

So who holds the title as Vandy’s most lethal sniper? “I’m the best shooter on the team, by far,” says sophomore guard Wade Baldwin IV. He laughs, nodding to his teammates on the court. “Everybody here thinks we’re the best,” he says, “but we combine it in a team way. It’s a competition everyday.”

That bravado is one factor behind renewed expectations for Vanderbilt basketball. The Commodores enter the year boasting a future NBA lottery pick (junior center Damian Jones), a highly touted transfer (junior guard Nolan Cressler) and, yes, a host of sharpshooters like guards Baldwin, LaChance and Matthew Fisher-Davis. Vanderbilt has missed the NCAA tournament in each of the last three seasons, but that hasn’t prevented outsiders from labeling the ‘Dores as legit threats to Kentucky in the SEC this year.

“Expectations have changed a little bit—from the outside, not from the inside,” Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings says. “Hopefully, that won’t change our behavior and our approach.”

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Stallings, in his 17th season in Nashville, believes this team can handle high hopes. After all, he watched a less-seasoned roster weather adversity last year. Vandy suffered through a seven-game losing streak in January after starting the season 11-3. Stallings had tasked Baldwin, Fisher-Davis and LaChance with orchestrating the Commodores’ offense as true freshmen. Those young contributors realized just how steep the learning curve is in the SEC.

But Vanderbilt found its footing towards the end of the year, winning 10 of its final 14 games. Even though the ‘Dores missed the Big Dance, chemistry developed within their youthful core during conference play. “We just stuck together,” LaChance said. “We started clicking really well.”

Those freshmen are now sophomores, and the Commodores add even more firepower to the perimeter in 2015. Cressler, the transfer guard who averaged 16.8 points at Cornell in 2013-14, is eligible after sitting out last season. He wasted no time making an impact in workouts; he’d routinely school his new teammates as a member of Vandy’s “gold” practice squad. “Destroying us,” Baldwin says. “We knew right away last summer, this guy’s serious.”

Those guards team up with one of the league’s best big men in Jones. Last season, Jones earned All-SEC honors after putting up 14.5 points and 6.5 boards per game, developing into one of the league’s top double-double threats. But he’s just one of three seven-footers at Stallings’s disposal; Luke Kornet, the son of former NBA player Frank Kornet, does his best Dirk Nowitzki impression from beyond the arc (40% last season), while Josh Henderson is a dependable backup center. That group takes pressure off Baldwin and the rest of Vanderbilt’s backcourt.

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Jones, the headliner of the program, flirted with an early departure to the NBA last season. But the engineering major—he did an internship with Exxon while in high school at Scotlandville Magnet in Baton Rouge, La.—decided in February to return to Nashville. He has already declared this as his last college season, making the process “drama-free,” says Stallings. In the meantime, Jones is fine-tuning his ball-handling and perimeter game. “Scoring off the dribble, things like that,” Jones says.

Stallings expects the rest of the league to notice a more physical player, as well. “I think they’ll see his skill level has gone up immensely since last season,” the coach said. “Anytime you go up a level, when you’re a gifted offensive player like he is, the next-level coach wants to know, can he defend? Can he guard? Can he rebound?”

That confluence of talent could push Vanderbilt out of a holding pattern in the SEC. Stallings has eight 20-win seasons in Nashville—the most in of any coach in program history—and is the school’s all-time wins leader (313). He’s also reached the NCAA tournament six times, including two trips to the Sweet 16. But the Commodores haven’t qualified for the Big Dance since 2012. Moreover, they’ve never claimed the SEC regular-season title and have just one conference tournament championship (2012) under Stallings.

College Basketball
College basketball conference previews: SEC

That challenge didn’t get any easier this off-season, when the SEC lured coaches like Ben Howland (Mississippi State), Rick Barnes (Tennessee) and Avery Johnson (Alabama) to reinvigorate programs. Yet Stallings says the league was deep enough already. “Yeah, we brought in some high-profile coaches,” Stallings said, “but no more high-profile than the one [Florida’s Billy Donovan] that just left.”

But those new SEC coaches need time to rebuild. Vanderbilt can win now, which is why league media picked it as the preseason No. 2 team behind Kentucky. The Wildcasts are still the Big Blue elephant in the room, even if ‘Dores don’t use that approach. “I don’t know if we look at it as being a threat to them,” LaChance says, “We’re just trying to get better.” Regardless, the Wildcats enter the season as a top-ranked team despite the loss of seven players to the NBA. Vanderbilt hasn’t forgotten last season’s meeting with the ‘Cats, when it stood toe-to-toe with Big Blue in a tight 65-57 loss at Rupp Arena last January. A more seasoned roster could turn a close loss into a win.

The Commodores can still get better before opening against Austin Peay on Nov. 13.  They need to improve on defense after finishing last season eighth in the SEC in points allowed per possession (1.00) and rebounding margin (+1.9). But now the level of competition is different in Vanderbilt’s locker room. The Commodores don’t care who wins those post-practice shootouts; in truth, the program wins when players challenge one another. That’s the foundation of preseason practice in Nashville.

But soon Vanderbilt will face actual SEC competition. That’s when we’ll learn if the ‘Dores have truly returned to contention. “We feel we have all the pieces,” Baldwin says. “We trust in each other and the coaching staff. Why can’t Vanderbilt be the top dog?”

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