Vanderbilt isn't accustomed to beginning ranked Commodores as they open the 2011-12 campaign against the Oregon Ducks in Nashville tonight.
Oregon's Dana Altman needs significant talent to win in the Pac-12, and it is fair to say that the coach is still trying to build his program to a level on par with the league's elite. Still, the Ducks did get a tremendous boost on April 1 by winning the CBI title with a two-point triumph over Creighton. Sure, the best player from that team is gone, but there are a couple of solid performers back in place.
It is easy to see why expectations are so high in Nashville, as Kevin Stallings has a wealth of proven returning standouts. To be specific, all five starters are back, and this marks the first time since 1993 that the program begins a campaign among the nationally ranked. Since Memorial Gym opened for the 1952-53 season, Vanderbilt is 52-7 in the 59-year history of the building in season openers, and Kevin Stallings is 11-1 in lidlifters during his tenure.
Vanderbilt owns a 4-2 series lead over Oregon, including a 76-75 thriller over the Ducks in the most recent meeting back in 2005.
E.J. Singler is the lone returning double-digit scorer for the Ducks, as he brings back 11.7 ppg and 5.6 rpg. The versatile Singler also blocked 29 shots a year ago while compiling 41 steals, but he will need help from what appears to be a modest supporting cast. Garrett Sim started 36 games in 2010-11, but his 8.2 ppg were far from impressive. Very few other returnees of consequence are in place, so Altman will undoubtedly rely on the contributions of four freshmen and some inexperienced sophomores. Tyrone Nared needs to take a giant leap forward for Altman's club, as the 6-8 senior has been little more than a role player to date. He showed great toughness during the CBI run of a year ago and must build on that.
Vanderbilt is absolutely loaded with returning talent. The Commodores possess two of the five players on the Preseason First-Team All-SEC squad in Jeffery Taylor and John Jenkins. Last season, Jenkins started 32 games for the 'Dores and scored 19.5 ppg on the strength of his accurate shooting from both three- point range and the foul line. As for Taylor, he brings 14.7 ppg to the mix. Festus Ezeli was recognized as a Preseason Second-Team All-SEC selection on the merit of his 13.0 ppg and 6.3 rpg a year ago. Ezeli is one of the elite shot blockers in the SEC, as he rejected 87 attempts a year ago despite logging fewer than 24 minutes per game, and he will be a force after returning from an early six-game suspension. It can be argued that head coach Kevin Stallings possesses the deepest bench in the SEC, and with Brad Tinsley back to take a run at a second straight league assists title, there is reason for high expectations in Nashville.