Vanderbilt has spent most of the past five seasons putting together good-but-not-great records that end with earlier-than-expected exits from the NCAA tournament, but there's plenty of reason to believe the Commodores are on the verge of something special.
Just about every preseason forecast has Vanderbilt in the top 10; some even have the Commodores cracking the top five. Vanderbilt's highest preseason ranking in The Associated Press poll was fifth in 1965, when the Commodores were coming off an NCAA regional final appearance and on their way to a 24-4 season.
"I think we actually deserve it," junior guard John Jenkins says. "We have a lot of guys coming back. We had a great year last year. We just couldn't finish.
"It's not like we had a bad year or anything. We have guys who know how to win, guys who are willing to win, and I think we're hungrier than ever."
The optimism surrounding the Commodores began as soon as Jenkins, Festus Ezeli and Jeffery Taylor announced they were staying in school rather than entering the NBA draft. Their return assured that Vanderbilt would bring back all five starters and 10 lettermen from a team that went 23-11 last season.
Jenkins led the SEC in scoring at 19.5 points per game last season and earned first-team all-conference honors from the league's coaches and media. Ezeli, one of the nation's most improved players last season, was a second-team All-SEC selection by the league's coaches. Taylor has earned second-team All-SEC honors in each of the past two seasons.
All three likely would have been drafted if they had chosen to turn pro last summer, but they felt they had unfinished business. Although they have helped Vanderbilt post a combined record of 47-20 over the past two seasons, they've never won an NCAA tournament game.
they're all back
Vanderbilt returns all five starters and 10 lettermen from a team that went 23-11 last season. Here's a look at the starting lineup from last season.
C Festus Ezeli (6-11/Sr.) Key stats: 13.0 ppg, 6.3 rpg, 2.6 bpg, 58.8 FG%
The buzz: The Nigerian-born Ezeli earned second-team All-SEC honors last season. He has 152 career blocks, five short of Will Perdue's school record.
F/G Lance Goulbourne (6-8/Sr.) Key stats: 6.9 ppg, 7.3 rpg
The buzz: Goulbourne ranked seventh in the SEC in rebounds last season. He came off the bench to record 17 rebounds in a win over LSU, the highest single-game total by a Vanderbilt player since Kevin Stallings took over as coach in 1999.
F/G Jeffery Taylor (6-7/Sr.) Key stats: 14.7 ppg, 5.5 rpg, 2.4 apg, 1.1 spg
The buzz: Taylor has earned second-team All-SEC honors in each of the past two seasons. The native of Sweden has started all but one game for Vanderbilt since arriving on campus. He averaged 21.7 points per game in last season's SEC tournament.
G John Jenkins (6-4/Jr.) Key stats: 19.5 ppg, 40.8 3-pt FG%, 89.4 FT%
The buzz: Jenkins led the SEC in scoring and in 3-pointers per game (3.1) and ranked second in the league in free-throw percentage last season. He averaged a team-high 13.5 points per game for the U.S. team that finished fifth in the World University Games this summer.
G Brad Tinsley (6-3/Sr.) Key stats: 10.6 ppg, 3.7 rpg, 4.6 apg, 82.4 FT%
The buzz: Tinsley led the SEC in assists last season, his third as a starter. He opened last season by recording the first triple-double in school history with 11 points, 10 rebounds and 10 assists against Presbyterian.
"It all goes back to the disappointment of losing, that feeling that we could have done so much better," Taylor says. "It draws you back. As a competitor, you always want to do well and want to leave some kind of legacy. We feel as though we've won big games, we've done well, we've been ranked high. But we haven't hung any banners. That's what it's all about in the end."
Vanderbilt has the pieces in place to hang some banners this season. Jenkins, Taylor and Ezeli give the Commodores a top-level guard, wing and big man.
Jenkins, a 6-foot-4 junior from the Nashville suburbs, generally is regarded as one of the nation's best shooters. Jenkins, a former five-star recruit, shot 89.4 percent from the free-throw line and made 100 3-pointers last season while scoring in double figures in every game he played.
Taylor, a senior swingman from Sweden, has started all but one game for Vanderbilt since arriving on campus. He used his extraordinary athleticism to compensate for his lack of bulk earlier in his career, but Taylor since has added 25 pounds to his 6-7 frame and now weighs 225.
Ezeli, a 6-11 fifth-year senior from Nigeria, had played little organized basketball when he got to Vanderbilt. Now he's five blocks away from the school's career record held by former NBA first-round pick Will Perdue.
The website draftexpress.com forecasts Ezeli as the No. 16 pick and Taylor as the No. 19 selection in its 2012 NBA mock draft. It has Jenkins getting selected with the fourth pick in the second round.
But each of the trio decided the NBA could wait at least one more year, and a second consecutive opening-round loss in the NCAA tournament made that choice much easier.
"It probably would have been more tempting to leave if you had actually accomplished something as a team," Taylor says. "But it was just the fact that we love representing Vanderbilt and want a lot of good for Vanderbilt. As a group, we haven't really accomplished a lot of what he had set out from the beginning to do."
Taylor is perhaps overly harsh in that assessment. Vanderbilt has done just fine of late. The Commodores went 23-11 last season and earned a No. 5 seed in the NCAA tournament. They went 24-9 and received a No. 3 seed a year earlier.
The problem is the way those seasons ended.
Vanderbilt fell 69-66 to Richmond in its opening NCAA tournament game last season after losing 66-65 to Murray State on Danero Thomas' buzzer-beater in a 2010 first-round contest. Those two losses continued a recent Vanderbilt tradition, as the Commodores also were upset 83-62 by No. 13 seed Siena in the first round of the 2008 tournament.
Although Vanderbilt has earned an NCAA bid in four of the past five seasons, the Commodores haven't won a tournament game since reaching the Sweet 16 in 2007.
"Of course, we hear [about] it," Jenkins says. "You hear a lot of things as a basketball player in the SEC. You hear a lot of things you're not going to like. We kind of use it as motivation. We hear what people say about us in the tournament. They're going to say what they say. Our main focus is getting better every single day."
The best way to answer those skeptics is by hanging on to the leads that slipped away much too often last season. Vanderbilt blew an 11-point lead in its loss to Richmond, which continued a trend that haunted the Commodores all season. The Commodores squandered double-digit advantages in five of their 11 losses.
one and done
Vanderbilt is hoping this season doesn't end with another early exit from the NCAA tournament. The Commodores have lost their first tournament game to double-digit seeds in each of their past three NCAA appearances.
2011: Richmond 69, Vanderbilt 66 The buzz: As the No. 5 seed in the Southwest Regional, Vanderbilt owned an 11-point lead late in the first half before stumbling the rest of the way against the 12th-seeded Spiders. After averaging 21.7 points per game in the SEC tournament, Jeffery Taylor shot 1-of-10 and scored just four points against Richmond.
2010: Murray State 66, Vanderbilt 65 The buzz: Danero Thomas made a 15-footer at the buzzer to give the 13th-seeded Racers the victory over No. 4 Vanderbilt in the West Regional. Murray State's B.J. Jenkins had missed a 3-pointer just a few seconds earlier, but the Racers got one final chance when the ball went out of bounds off a Vanderbilt player. The Commodores shot 4-of-12 from 3-point range and 17-of-29 from the line.
2008: Siena 83, Vanderbilt 62 The buzz: Vanderbilt was the No. 4 seed in the Midwest Regional, while Siena was seeded 13th. They played as though their seeds should have been reversed. Kenny Hasbrouck scored 30 points and Tay Fisher made all six of his 3-point attempts as Siena shot 56.5 percent overall. The only current Vanderbilt player on the roster at the time was Festus Ezeli, who redshirted that season.
"It just can't happen like that," Jenkins says. "We've got to be able to finish games. We went through a stretch where we were finishing games, and then it kind of haunted us in the tournament, when it really matters. ? We've just got to be more aggressive and not let up at any time during the game."
Vanderbilt's experience ought to prevent those types of collapses this season.
Point guard Brad Tinsley is a fourth-year starter who led the SEC with 4.6 assists per game last season. Lance Goulbourne is a glue guy who ranked seventh in the SEC with 7.3 rebounds per game last season. Steve Tchiengang comes off the bench to provide toughness in the paint while also sinking the occasional jumper. All three are seniors.
In fact, Vanderbilt's starting lineup figures to include Jenkins as the lone junior in a starting lineup that otherwise features three seniors and one fifth-year senior. That kind of experience is rare for a major-conference team in this era, when freshmen seemingly make more of an impact on the game with each passing season.
These guys realize it's their last chance. They're ready to make the most of it.