A Fall Hoops Preview

By Jimmy Davy

Lounging on a couch in his office, Vanderbilt basketball coach Kevin Stallings momentarily was taken aback by the question.

Do you believe that this Commodore team will be better than what all but the most zealous Vandy fans expect?

He says it depends on which way the predictions are based.

"You can look at it two ways,'' Stallings said very forcefully. "You can look at last year and say, Gosh, they were just above .500 and they lost three of their top four scorers. Instead of getting older, in some ways they have gotten younger. They had three seniors last year, none this year except a walk-on. They will be one of the youngest teams this season and you could say they should go down,'' said Stallings, offering the first look.

Obviously, this isn't the one he prefers as an outlook in the 2002-03 season for the Commodores.

"I personally think that we have a chance to be significantly better,'' he said. "We have depth; we have enough athleticism to guard people. We are going to be more athletic and more physical, particularly close to the basket. And I think that being bigger and more athletic at the same time will allow us to defend and rebound better than at any time since I've been here.''

He says that he feels the team will figure out ways to "score the ball'' even without the 3-point marksmanship that has been a trademark of the program -- a less physical program, it could be argued -- for years.

Stallings says this Vanderbilt squad, despite 10 underclassmen, is going from "living and dying with how well we shot the ball to live and die with how we defend and rebound. I like this. It gives us a chance to be more consistent.''

From the tone of his voice, it is obvious that Stallings is personally excited about the upcoming season, beginning with an exhibition game with the Harlem Globetrotters Nov. 11 at Memorial Gymnasium.

There is no "Sweet Georgia Brown'' being played and buckets of fake water (paper) being dumped on fans when these 'Trotters play. "They have two serious traveling teams which I think has only lost one game, I believe to Michigan State the year they won the NCAA championship,'' Stallings said, smiling.

As is the case most years when there is a solid freshman group finally on campus, the conversations of alumni and fans have centered on the five recruits that Stallings says potentially is easily the best class since he's been at Vanderbilt.

Stallings said that he believes each recruiting class in the last three years has been better than the previous one.

"Three years ago we had a solid class with Matt Freije, Russell Lakey, Billy Richmond and Brendan Plavich. Last year, with Jason Holwerda, Brian Thornton, David Przyszewski and Corey Smith, was a little bit better,'' Stallings said. "We feel that this class is potentially better than either.''

As a reminder, the freshmen coming into the program are point guard Mario Moore, guards Adam Payton and Bryson Krueger, forward/center Julian Terrell and center Ted Skuchas.

But at the time of the interview he had only had two days of brief coaching periods with limited numbers of players (no more than four at a time) allowed by the NCAA. This brief look, plus a lot of reports coming from veteran players this summer, has convinced the coach that no mistakes were made in the recruiting process.

Fate also played a hand in landing the player in this class judged to be the most athletic. He is Payton, the 6-foot-3, 191-pound second guard, whose recruiting generated more off-season talk than any of the others with greater prep credentials.

"The veteran players on our team have consistently said all summer that Payton has done the best job and played the best of the freshmen in the pickup games,'' Stallings said.

When Plavich walked into Stallings' office one morning and told the coach that he had decided to leave the program, the staff was in a scramble mode because it had not been recruiting anyone for that guard position. Four hours later, assistant Jeff Jackson gave Stallings a list of four or five of the best prospects left unsigned who had the academic backgrounds to get into school.

One of those on the list was Payton, a guard at The Lawrenceville School, in Burlington, N.J. The staff had never seen him play and made the effort to get a quick look. Stallings says that Payton's recruitment was "not so far along that we couldn't get involved and we were thrilled to get him.''

Talks shows, internet chat boards and fans on the street have been abuzz with questions and comments about why the Commodores would use up their last grant on a late signee that had been passed over by many programs and was not to be found on those addictive high school recruiting lists.

Stallings can provide the scoop. "Adam is a tremendous athlete and it didn't take long to figure that out. He is the most athletic player on our team. He has quick feet, good speed, good jumping ability and a good sense for how to play the game,'' he said.

As for being out of scholarships, he says: "Being out of scholarships is really good if the 13 we have will make us as good as we want to be. It's bad if they are not.''
Stallings has the usual precautionary terms when talking about the new faces on the scene. He repeatedly uses the word "If.'' As in if they can accept coaching and if they can be patient waiting for significant playing time.

"College offers a whole new look. Much depends on how this class reacts to adversity, going through a growing process,'' Stallings said. "If they react the right way, all five will be really good.''

But he is willing, even eager, to offer his quick evaluations of them individually. For example, one of the freshmen he was asked to talk about was Skuchas, the 6-foot-11 243-pound post from Germantown Academy in Audubon, Pa.

"He is a big, long kid with good hands and good touch,'' said Stallings calmly.

Then with his enthusiasm rising, he added: "He has a real nice affection for physical play. He enjoys the physicality of what takes place in the post. He is very bright and he is already very big. But he is going to get really, really big. We think his future is extremely bright.

Stallings says that for the first time there is true depth at center for the Commodores with Terrell, the 6-foot-9 225-pounder from Nashville's Ezell-Harding Academy, joining Skuchas and lettermen Thornton and Przybyszewski. Martin Schnedlitz, a redshirt sophomore, could be in the mix if his surgical knee holds up.

"Brian [Thornton] had a great year, in some respects, as a freshman, although a little undersized for a post player. But I think that Brian will be one of the most improved players on the team,'' Stallings said.

"Skuchas gives is a new hunker-down guy under there and we needed a guy like Terrell to give us versatility. Both compliment each other and both are good shooter from 15 feet,'' the coach said. "And Przybyszewski is accepting the challenge to play with his back to the basket after years in Europe where his background and experience was facing the basket.''

Stallings, as fired up as he is with the newcomers, says that it will be a challenge for any of them to jump into the starting lineup. And significant playing time off the bench will come from practice impressions against the veterans _ although many as sophomores and a few juniors.

Freije, the junior from Shawnee Mission, Kan., is one of the Southeastern Conference's talented players and his role at power forward of small forward is secure. If Vanderbilt is an improved team he must have a breakout year and it's possible.

"To a degree Matt has separated himself from the others. I think he is working as hard as ever and that is saying something. He's always been a hard worker,'' Stallings said.

Stallings says "There are a lot of opportunities to play but at the same time there are a lot of guys who have played for us before that I'm comfortable with and I think can help us, unlike last year when we knew that a freshman would start in the post. Thornton and Freije have been through the wars and each one is better than a year ago. It's the same thing with Lakey if he stays healthy. And Holwerda, Smith and Hundley have played the wing. At least we have experienced players at each position.''

"So if the freshmen aren't ready, I don't have to do what was done to Holwerda last year when Lakey went down and he had to play whether he was ready or not,'' the coach said.

Holwerda, the celebrated member of last year's freshman class from Chattanooga, was pressed into service at point guard and Stallings says it's his fault that his first year didn't match his high school credentials.

"Point the finger at me,'' said Stallings. "Lakey went down and we were left with a terrible situation without a true point guard. I put him in spot where as a freshman he was overwhelmed. This year we'll see a much different player and a higher level of confidence. Holwerda will be playing the position he's made for [second guard], where both freshmen, Krueger and Bryson are capable.''

For those who like to play with possible lineups in the pre-season, Stallings has some groupings _subject always to change and in no particular order.

At the small forward, it will be Smith, Hundley and even Freije on occasions. Freije, Terrell and Przybyszewski are so-called power forwards with Lakey and Moore running the show at point guard.

With so many players in the freshman and sophomore classes, Stallings says the crowded conditions and the tough competition for playing time will challenge both the coaching staff and the young players.

"I think that there will be some guys this year who won't play as much as they hoped. And those guys have to understand they have from now until game times to prove they deserve to play as opposed to the guys which whom they are competing,'' the coach said.

Stallings says that red-shirting is a possibility this year for one or perhaps two players, although he said two might be stretching it.

"There is always the possibility of red-shirting, but I have no way of telling at this time who it would be, if anyone,'' the coach said. "What we can't do is to burn a year [of eligibility] with five or six minutes a game for a player who potentially is going to be an impact player in years to come, averaging 27 or 28 minutes.

"That mistake has been made in the past. We do a player a disservice if we don't give him this option.''


Vanderbilt Athletic Department
2601 Jess Neely Drive
Nashville, TN 37212
615-322-GOLD (4653)