This is it.
I remember when the VSL braintrust pontificated over this year's seniors. We were coming off a sweet 16 run in the previous year, and at the early signing period we were fired up about landing Lance Goulbourne (ESPN 84, Rivals 72, Scout 4-star) and Steve Tchiengang (ESPN 88 rating, Rivals 4-star, Scout 4-star). We had this guy named Ogilvy who was supposedly very undervalued. In other words, we appeared to be adding to an already solid group of players, including Jermaine Beal.
Then, in the spring, we added Jeffery Taylor (ESPN 69, Rivals 52, Scout 3-star) and Brad Tinsley (ESPN 93, Rivals 94, Scout 3-star). Vandy shot up into the top-15 in recruiting class rankings. These kids got to campus with high expectations, but fell short of the tournament as freshman despite their strong efforts and those of Ogilvy and Beal. Though they still managed a 19-11 mark.
Perhaps prematurely, I thought that our true breakthrough would come in that class' sophomore year. Ogilvy was a junior, Beal a senior. Taylor, Tinsley, Tchiengang and Goulbourne were a year more seasoned. Andre Walker was an underrated player who could do a lot of great things, and we had a freshman stud in John Jenkins, who we didn't think would be asked to do too much (ESPN 21, Rivals 15, Scout 4-star). We also had this guy Festus who was coming off a redshirt and supposedly had incredible talent but was very raw.
That team whipped highly-touted Tennessee and Florida twice and finished second to a very strong Kentucky team in the SEC East. But a disappointing first-round exit to Murray State put a damper on the season. My thought that the program would take the next major step that year were incorrect.
Last year, with Ogilvy choosing to leave early and with Beal's graduation, much of the team was question marks. How would Tinsley, who slumped in his second year, handle the point? Would Taylor play more like the guy who lit Tennessee up for 26 points and 7 boards in 2009-2010, or would he play like the guy who disappeared against Murray State? What was a realistic expectation for John Jenkins? Would Festus be able to handle the everyday duties at center?
Fortunately, the majority of those questions were answered affirmatively. Depth issues plagued the team last year, specifically bench scoring and backcourt depth. Perimeter defense became an issue. But Vandy found its answer at point in Brad, Jenkins led the SEC in scoring, Festus went from difficult to watch to absolute stud, and Taylor, though still suffering from inconsistency, played great defense and appeared improved. The Commodores found valuable reserves in Rod Odom and Kyle Fuller, and Lance Goulbourne finally broke through and became a rebounding machine at the power forward spot.
Vanderbilt got it done on the recruiting end as well, landing the guard depth they needed in Kedren Johnson (ESPN 85, Rivals 80, Scout 4-star), a solid, rock-steady scoring point guard and Dai-Jon Parker (ESPN 33, Rivals 63, Scout 4-star), a perimeter defense stalwart. In addition, the team added redshirt reserves in Josh Henderson and Bamba Siakam. They also added depth at forward in sharp-shooting Shelby Moates.
Still, disappointment struck the Commodores as they fell to Richmond in the first-round. They officially obtained the label of first-round flameouts.
When Jenkins, Taylor, and Ezeli decided they would be returning for their senior year, the message was clear. They felt their work at Vanderbilt was not yet done. They weren't going to leave Nashville with the bitter taste of consecutive first-round defeats. They wanted to leave this program with an indelible mark and send Vandy to new heights of national relevance.
People will say that this team is basically the same team as last year, that all the players have hit their ceiling. Have they? Have they hit their ceiling? I think most of the Vanderbilt faithful would say that they have not. Additionally, such claims do not look beyond our already touted starting 5. They ignore that Rod was merely a freshman. They ignore that Dai-Jon Parker shut down the most prolific scoring guard recruit in the nation TWICE (Austin Rivers). They ignore the gaudy stat lines that Kedren Johnson put up as a senior at Marshall County and his two time Mr. Basketball election. They ignore the solid depth that is added from our redshirt additions. And we haven't even gotten into Jenkins improvement from sophomore-to-junior year thanks to working with USA Basketball, or Festus' continued improvement, or Taylor's work with Kevin Durant this summer.
Now Vanderbilt sits at the precipice of something great, an incredibly talented team (7 top 100 players NOT including Festus), a boatload of reserve talent, a killer scorer, recruits skilled at last year's weaknesses, and perhaps most importantly, senior seasoning. They come in with a pre-season #7 ranking and high expectations.
They have the tools. They have the talent. This is the team. This is the year.