When the Skip Prosser Classic got cancelled last year, Xavier replaced Wake Forest on the schedule with a home-and-home arrangement against Vanderbilt. This was - as we pointed out at the time - and remains a huge step up in basketball terms for Xavier. As an added bonus, the game itself was wildly entertaining, with Xavier clawing back from down ten to tie it with a wheeling drive for Mark Lyons at the end of regulation before pulling away in overtime.
As I've looked over Xavier's early schedule, an interesting trend has emerged. The lower-profile teams that X faces from the offing are almost universally experienced and cohesive. They bring back almost all of the key components of their teams back, rendering them seasoned veteran squads. Vanderbilt and Purdue, however, are coming off of a good deal of squad turnover, leaving them in a position similar to that of Xavier.
Kevin Stallings, however, has been with Vanderbilt since 1999. He has put together an admirable run of success during that time; with the exception of a down year in 2009, he has had the team seeded 6 or higher in every tournament since 2007. Stallings doesn't seem to force his personnel into a system, preferring rather to run his team around who he has on the roster. Offensively, Vandy's tempo, percentage of field goals attempted from behind the arc, and even turnover rates have all varied pretty heavily under Stallings. The most consistent features have been fairly average offensive rebounding and very good shooting percentages. These have kept the Commodores in the top 50 in Adjusted Offense every year but one since 2004. Defensively, his teams have never been very focused on forcing turnovers, but they have done a good job at limiting opponents' attempts from behind the arc.
Vandy lost their top six players in terms of minutes played from last season. Leading the line was guard John Jenkins, whose 19.9/2.9/1.2 on .474/.439/.837 shooting made him - in Ken Pomeroy's estimation - the 16th best offensive player in the nation last season. Forward Jeffery Taylor wasn't far behind, putting up 16.1/5.6/1.7 with 1.3 steals per game courtesy of a .493/.423/.605 shooting line. Only his troubles from the line kept Taylor from boasting an even more impressive stat line. Point guard Brad Tinsley ran the show last season, with an A:TO of better than 2:1 on his way to 9.0/2.6/4.1 game line and a very efficient .474/.415/.855 shooting line.
Closer to the bucket, big man Festus Ezeli's entertaining name and 10.1/5.9/0.3 on .539/.000/.604 shooting will be missed by Vandy's fans. Lance Goulbourne rebounded at elite rates at both ends on his way to 8.7/6.9/1.2 with 1.5 steals per game last year on a .456/.309/.680 shooting line. Big body Steve Tchiengang didn't get as much press as the five players I listed above him, but his rebounding and width will leave a hole in the Commodore front line now that he, too, has used up his eligibility.
Really, not that many of note. In that Xavier fans count themselves unlucky that Travis Taylor's four and a half points per game lead all returning scorers, Vanderbilt supporters are no doubt chagrined that guard Kendren Johnson's 3.1 PPG are the best that any returning player can boast from last season. The face that he got them on .343/.238/.794 shooting is no doubt less than comforting for the Commodore faithful. The most prolific returning rebounder is 6'9" junior Rod Odom, who pulled down 73 in his 36 games last year. The only other returning player to feature in more than half of the team's games is Dai-Jon Parker, whose relative lack of success from deep (25%) last year didn't keep him from being fifth on the team in attempts despite being ninth in minutes played.
Painter has replaced his outgoing players with a troika of talented freshmen. Guard A.J. Astroth is a 6'6" pure shooter out of Florida with a quick release an buckets full of confidence. Astroth still needs to work on his secondary skills, but a player of his height with deep range has at least one ability that plays right away. Small forward Sheldon Jeter is lanky at 6'6", 185, but he has good athletic ability, especially in transition and a soft touch on his jumper. He'll need to add some pounds to be an effective defender at the NCAA level. Kevin Bright is a 6'5" slashing wing out of Germany with the athletic ability to finish above the rim. He has good handle and can hit open catch-and-shoot threes. Adding strength and adjusting to the US will be Bright's biggest challenges this season.
Vanderbilt, like Xavier, lost almost everything they had of value from last year's team. Like the Musketeers, they will have less than the full complement of scholarship players available when they begin this season. Both of these teams have great recent track records of success, and both will be looking to make sure this year doesn't go down as a turning point in the program's history. Vandy will be thin inside this season, but will have some intriguing players looking to make a mark on the perimeter. If things break right for the Commodores, this season could be the ground level of another good run. If not, well, there's always the CBI to shoot for.