I wouldn't go so far as to say that I am a big Kevin Stallings' detractor, I simply wonder if perhaps he has run his course at Vanderbilt. But today I'm going to eat just a feather or two of crow.
I understand if some of y'all aren't at that point yet. After all, this Vanderbilt team is merely 5-4, has a horrible double-digit loss to Marist under its belt, and has yet to enter conference play. If you are concerned about having horrible losses on your resume, then you aren't understanding what this year for Vanderbilt basketball is all about. You can't say never, but this team's chances of making the big dance are slim to say the least, and the only situation in which a bad loss really matters is when the Selection Committee is making decisions for the field of 68. Therefore, take those poor performances and add context to them, because they are more about how the team responds than they are about how the season will play out.
I'm sitting down at the table early for my avian fare because I believe the early exit polls show there is far more in this cupboard than most initially thought. It's hard to quantify it with numbers at this point because nine games is such a small sample, but there's just something there when you watch these guys that makes you think a couple of key cogs could drastically improve the team as a whole.
This is a different perspective than I had at the end of last season, where I looked at recruiting strike-outs and player losses and arrived at the conclusion that it would be a long time before this program was back on the national radar. There are two reasons for my sudden change in attitude: 1) a deeper and more talented than expected backcourt and 2) Kevin Bright.
The backcourt's offensive and defensive capabilities have surprised to a large extent, thanks to big improvement out of Kedren Johnson and Kyle Fuller. Kedren was somewhat of a known commodity, but his offensive numbers have been stellar when compared to his freshman year, and further when compared to the rest of the SEC. He's averaging 17 ppg and shooting .418 from three. Per Ken Pomeroy, he is 10th in the SEC in effective Field Goal% (fgs made/field goals attempted with heavier weight on threes) and has improved that rating by over 20% from last year (59.4%). The important thing to note is that Kedren is utilizing nearly 28% of the team's possessions at this point while taking more shots than anyone else on the team. He has thrived as his minutes have tripled, and he's only going to get better.
Much the same can be said about Fuller. Thought to be in line for transferring last year, Fuller opted to stay on and has gotten his opportunity due to Dai-Jon Parker's suspension. To say he's made the most of it is an understatement. While Fuller still struggles with scoring consistency (only a 47.4 eFG%), his biggest jump has been his ability to limit his OGKF moments. Per Ken Pomeroy, his turnover rate (turnovers/possessions where the player touches the ball) is nearly half what it is for his career, while his assist rate (assists/field goals made by player's teammates while he is on the floor) is nearly identical to Kedren Johnson's. Furthermore, Fuller has demonstrated himself to be the only capable free throw shooter on the team while getting to the line about four times a game. He has also proven himself to be a good perimeter defender. But what has really impressed me about Fuller has been the intangibles. Twice now Kyle Fuller has turned it on huge in big points of games, most notably his 12 point onslaught in overtime against Xavier. He plays much more within himself and controlled, making heady decisions with the ball. But even more than that, he's learned to use his agility and ball-handling to create penetration into the lane. Don't believe me? Go watch the Cornell game, specifically at 5:12 in the first half. Fuller's move to the rack was a thing of beauty.
This backcourt duo has been the rock for this squad thus far, and it's only going to get better with Dai-Jon Parker now back from suspension, and next year will have more depth with Tulsa transfer Eric McClellan in the fold. The other part of this equation, Kevin Bright, needs even less explanation.
It's hard not to look at the way Bright plays and be impressed. Bright is a more developed freshman than most, having spent a signficant amount of time in international play. This does raise some questions about his ceiling (a la A.J. Ogilvy), but right now you gotta think his play will only get better. Bright is averaging about 7 ppg while scoring a ridiculous 61.2 % eFG (good for top 100 in the nation!). He's arguably the team's best three point shooter, where he has more FGs made than 2 point attempts. What's amazing is that he is a tremendously efficient defensive rebounder, on par with Lance Goulbourne in his junior and senior year. He is top 50 in defensive rebounding %. Bright is yet another gem from the foreign pipeline for Stallings, and solidifies the three spot in future years. Place developmental guys like Sheldon Jeter, Bamba Siakam, and A.J. Astroth in there and there's some depth at the wings without too much pressure to develop quickly.
The real question lies in our post play, an area where we sorely need help from top-100 recruit Damian Jones. While Josh Henderson, Shelby Moats, and Rod Odom have fought admirably, Vanderbilt's defensive woes rest inside the three point line, where they allow teams to score on 47.6% of their 2-point attempts. They do a nice job of not fouling and also of limiting opposing offensive rebounds, but are weak at getting their own put backs. This is the unit where the loss of our big three (Jenkins, Taylor, Ezeli), is most strongly felt, as Festus was in the top-50 in the nation in block percentage for two years straight, very tough shoes to fill. The addition of a strong defensive post like Jones will bring a strong positive impact for this squad.
In addition, Vanderbilt is heavily reliant on the three offensively, where they are among the tops in the NCAA in bombing away, and among the bottom in shots inside the arc. Of course, this leads to less free throw attempts, where the 'Dores are again among the bottom dwellers in the NCAA, which may not be a bad thing entirely when you consider how poorly they shoot free throws (a near NCAA worst 59.5% as a team!)
These observations don't come without a caveat. Vanderbilt has feasted on some fairly weak opponents of late and is about to hit a difficult stretch to close out 2012 (against MTSU on neutral court, against Butler at home). While expectations should remain somewhat low in those matchups, they are opportunities for these guys to taste high level competition, so watching how they respond will be interesting.
Free throw shooting can be improved on a yearly basis, as can interior scoring, but the team could sorely use a defensive body in the post. Given the solid base that our backcourt provides, the team desperately needs improvement out of Josh Henderson, Shelby Moats, and Rod Odom. A boost from any one (and preferably two), along with a solid freshman campaign from Jones, could legitimately have this team back near the tournament bubble by season's end next year, a far cry from where I initially thought (my original prediction was 2014-2015). With a little bit of recruiting luck, Vanderbilt could get their shot as a top 25 squad in perhaps three years, and could provide what most Vanderbilt fans truly crave, a deep March run.