Austin Peay-Vanderbilt Preview
(AP) - Vanderbilt has heard all the talk about how it should be a very good team this season. The 18th-ranked Commodores are doing their best to tune out all that chatter before Friday night's opener against Austin Peay and prove how quickly they've grown up.
''It's tough to block it out, so we hear it,'' sophomore guard Matthew Fisher-Davis said. ''But we try to block it out as much as we can as we come in and practice day by day and get better.''
That approach worked last season when Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings fielded the fourth-youngest team in all Division I with the Commodores the only team in the SEC to start three freshman guards.
The youth took a bit of a toll with a seven-game skid in SEC play in January, but the Commodores finished the season with 10 wins in 14 games after losing 78-75 in the NIT quarterfinals at Stanford for a 21-14 record overall.
Now Stallings has four starters back from the SEC's best shooting team overall or from 3-point range with four Commodores who shot at least 40 percent from beyond the arc. That's why Vanderbilt was picked to finish second in the SEC, the highest the Commodores have been voted since 2011-12 when they won the league tournament by knocking off Kentucky - the Wildcats' last loss before winning the national championship.
Stallings likes working with this group and that expectations haven't changed at all internally.
''Hopefully that won't change our behavior or our approach to what we're doing,'' Stallings said.
Top scorer Damian Jones (14.5) has done his best to take talk of his future off the table by deciding earlier this year that he will enter the NBA draft after his junior season. Now the 7-foot, 245-pound center can focus on this season, not whether he'll be a lottery pick in June. Jones also spent the offseason working on his shooting and ball-handling.
Wade Baldwin IV, Riley LaChance, Jeff Roberson and Fisher-Davis came in as freshmen and embraced the challenges of playing immediately last season, and Baldwin, Roberson and Fisher-Davis all shot at least 40 percent from 3-point range.
LaChance led SEC freshmen in scoring and was second on the team with 12.3 points a game, and he hit a relatively measly 38.2 percent beyond the arc himself. Vanderbilt led the SEC and ranked 19th nationally in 3-point shooting at 39.2 percent.
As far as newcomers go, the Commodores got to practice against 6-4 guard Nolan Cressler last season while he sat out after transferring from Cornell. Now he's finally cleared to play, and he averaged 16.8 points for Cornell in his last season there.
Stallings also has four freshmen led by 6-3 guard Camron Justice, another 3-point shooter who was Mr. Basketball and Kentucky's Gatorade Player of the Year who left Knott County Central as the third-leading scorer in that state's history. Joe Toye is a 6-7 wing from Chicago, and 6-9 Samir Sehic averaged 20 points and 14 rebounds as a senior in Texas. Djery Baptiste is a 6-10 center bringing depth in the middle.
Vanderbilt opens the SEC portion against No. 21 LSU on Jan. 2. The Commodores also play second-ranked Kentucky twice.
''They're telling people to schedule up, and we're scheduling up and hope it's a benefit to us,'' Stallings said.
First on the schedule is Austin Peay, which went 8-22 a season ago and has lost 14 of 15 all-time meetings with the Commodores.
Horton had 16 points and 10 boards in the last meeting, a 58-56 loss at Vanderbilt in December 2013.
"Chris has proved himself to be a legitimate all-conference type performer," coach Dave Loos told the school's official website. "He has had three good years and we are looking for an even better year this season."