June 17, 2009

Stability makes Vanderbilt an SEC contender

NASHVILLE, Tenn. At least one team seems immune from the change in the SEC Eastern Division this offseason.

Kentucky hired John Calipari from Memphis and lost guard Jodie Meeks to the NBA, though the Wildcats did land the nation's premier recruiting class. Georgia also made a coaching change, hiring Mark Fox away from Nevada. Florida guard Nick Calathes ended his college career to sign with a pro team in Greece.

Vanderbilt didn't lose anyone from its 2008-09 team, and the only addition the Commodores made was the signing of five-star prospect John Jenkins. Not that the lack of turnover is a bad thing. The more things stay the same at Vanderbilt, the more likely things will change for the Commodores at the end of the season.

"We were inexperienced last year," Vanderbilt forward Jeffery Taylor said. "During the course of the season, we had to learn some things, sometimes the hard way. That's going to make us a better team this year. We know what ups and downs a season can have."

Last season, Vanderbilt had more downs than ups, at least in the early going. Vandy lost five of its first six SEC games and ended up digging itself too deep a hole. The Commodores ended the regular season on a three-game winning streak that included a road victory over SEC champion LSU, but their 19-12 record still kept them out of the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2006. They also were left out of the 32-team NIT field.

"It's something we can use as motivation this year," Vanderbilt center A.J. Ogilvy said. "We don't want to be in the same situation next year."

A look at Vanderbilt's roster makes that scenario seem unlikely. After emerging as one of the SEC's most promising freshmen last season, Taylor seems headed for an exceptional career. Point guard Jermaine Beal isn't a star, but he provides steady leadership. And the Vandy frontcourt got a major boost when Ogilvy decided to return to school instead of pondering whether to launch a pro career.

"I thought about it a little bit and had some conversations with Coach [Kevin Stallings] and with my parents and some other people," said Ogilvy, an Australian. "I really didn't feel good about going out because of how last year ended. I wanted to come back. I know we have a great team this year and a great chance to do some big things. That was something that definitely helped me make my decision."

Ogilvy struggled with a heel injury and an upper respiratory virus for much of his sophomore season, but his late-season surge offered hints of his potential. After scoring 28 points in a 96-83 victory over South Carolina that helped knock the Gamecocks out of NCAA tournament consideration, Ogilvy collected 33 points and 10 rebounds in 75-67 upset at LSU.

Ogilvy is hoping to avoid the physical breakdowns that hampered him last season and caused his scoring average to drop to 15.4 points, down from the 17 points he averaged as a freshman. Ogilvy never got much of a chance to rest after his freshman year because he spent the summer trying out for the Australian Olympic team. This year, he went back home to Australia after finishing final exams in May. Now he's back on campus and feeling better.

"Not having an offseason for a couple of years straight started to take a toll on my body," Ogilvy said. "I needed to take some time off to just get fresh again. I feel like I'm there. My body's feeling good."

Vanderbilt needed huge production from interior players such as Ogilvy last season because the Commodores lacked the perimeter shooting that helped them reach the NCAA tournament each of the previous two years. Last season, Vanderbilt plummeted to 11th in the league in scoring (70.5) and eighth in 3-point percentage (.339). Jenkins' arrival ought to correct that problem.

Rated as the No. 15 prospect in the country, Jenkins averaged 42.3 points as a senior at Station Camp High in the Nashville suburb of Gallatin. Jenkins, a 6-foot-4 guard, was a two-time Tennessee "Mr. Basketball" selection who scored at least 30 points in every game he played as a senior.

"He very well might be the best shooter in this freshman class," said Jerry Meyer, a national recruiting analyst for Rivals.com. "And he's developed the rest of his game so that he can score at an SEC level. He's not just a shooter. Over the last year, he's really improved his offensive game. He's a smart player, and this system will work for him. Vanderbilt does a lot of creative things to get shooters shots, and I think he'll be a focal point of their offense."

Jenkins' addition should make the Commodores much stronger. Then again, they'll have to be a whole lot more explosive to contend in the SEC. Last season, the SEC sent only three teams to the NCAA tournament and had no team seeded better than eighth. Next season, the SEC figures to rank among the nation's toughest conferences.

Consider that Vanderbilt finished the 2008-09 season tied for fourth with Kentucky in the Eastern Division. Since then, Kentucky's offseason moves have turned an NIT team into a legitimate Final Four contender.

Vanderbilt also must find a way to get more competitive with Florida and Tennessee. The Commodores went 0-4 against those two teams last season, losing by an average margin of 17.8 points.

"We're definitely going to have to step it up a lot," Ogilvy said. "We know we have the players to do it and we have the coaches to help us get there."

They also have the experience they lacked last season. That inexperience was painfully obvious when Vanderbilt struggled through the first part of the SEC schedule.

Taylor looks back on his freshman year with amazement at how fast everything went. By the end of the year, he realized the season can end in a flash if a team doesn't make the most of each moment.

"You look back at games on the schedule and think you should have won those games," Taylor said. "That's what we don't want to have happen this year. You don't want to be looking back at games and think about what could have happened."

Taylor and his teammates have no need to look back anymore. They're too busy looking forward.

Steve Megargee is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at smegargee@rivals.com.


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