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
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
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,
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
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
"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
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.''