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The standard has been set over two decades of excellence. In 1999-2000, as always, Vanderbilt expects nothing but the best. It only adds to the sense of anticipation that the Commodores know they will face the best.
Check the Commodores' schedule.
The opener is against George Washington University, an NCAA Tournament team a year ago, followed by road games at Purdue and Duke, the two teams that played for the NCAA Championship in March.
"Our philosophy is that we want to compete every year," coach Jim Foster said. "One way to find out how good you are is to play a strong schedule early. Others do it differently, but that is how we have always done it."
The truth is that while Vanderbilt seeks a return to the national prominence that slipped away in 1998-99, its means of doing so is decidedly cutting edge. The Commodores have tapped into emerging sources of knowledge to fill out their coaching staff and they have reached out across the globe to gather talent for the roster, yet they believe the formula for success is firmly rooted in the program's past.
They also feel time is of the essence.
"For the first time, our team realized that you can't live off tradition," junior point guard Ashley Smith said. "We took advantage of where we were ... (and) we hit rock bottom. The way we look at it is we were the team that got us to rock bottom, so we better be the ones to bring us back."
Look down the VU lineup and there is a sense that history might actually repeat itself.
There is Chavonne Hammond, a 6-0 senior swing player. For three years her athletic ability has allowed her to excel as a defensive stopper. As a freshman she shut down Kansas' Tamecka Dixon in an NCAA Tournament game and has taken on opposing teams' stop scorers ever since.
By all accounts, she now has harnessed her physical gifts through torturous offseason work and has drawn comparisons to Sheri Sam, Vanderbilt's last All-America.
"I'm excited about seeing Chavonne this year, she has worked really, really hard," senior forward Jennifer Holmes said. "When I see the players on campus, I ask who has played well in pickup games," Foster said this summer. "Inevitably, the name Chavonne comes up early and often. At any level of basketball, even the NBA, the hardest thing to do is to shoot off the dribble. I'm not talking about a layup, I mean a jump shot, and she has that ability. Sheri was that way."
Zuzana Klimesova, a 6-foot-2 sophomore forward who was among the top freshman in the country a year ago, has worked to make herself into a perimeter player ala Shelley Jarrard, who was at Vanderbilt from 1989-93 and was All-SEC first team as a senior. Jarrard, 6-foot-1, was only an occasional starter during her first two years and attempted only two 3-point shots. As a junior she was moved to the wing and immediately doubled her scoring average. In two seasons she made more than 100 3-pointers and shot 38.4 percent from that distance. Klimesova, who earned a spot on the Czech Republic's National Team this summer, offers similar promise after she excelled in the low post as a freshman but attempted no 3-point shots. On the outside with her will be sophomore Jillian Danker, who stands at 6-foot-1.
"Our most successful teams here were big on the perimeter, we had big wings," Foster said. "The last three years have been something different. We're going back to what worked. If you're getting pressure it helps to have someone in the middle of the offense who is big and makes an easy target for a pass, and it sure makes our press look strong."
They also are going back to being big on the inside. At 6-foot-6, freshman Chantelle Anderson rekindles the tradition of 6-foot-10 Heidi Gillingham (1990-94) and 6-foot-7 Angela Gorsica (1994-97), two of the SEC's premier shot blockers this decade. Anderson, the first Parade first-team All-America in Vanderbilt history, will fill the middle alongside Holmes, a senior who led the SEC in rebounding and was fourth in blocked shots a year ago, junior Candice Storey and sophomore Leigh Strahinic, who has soft hands and good game sense.
"We expect our shot blocking to improve," Foster offers succinctly.
Smith, a junior, will run the attack for the third consecutive season. She has the opportunity to rewrite the program's record book for assists and steals. Freshman Ashley McElhiney will be groomed to follow in the footsteps of the older Ashley. Another freshman, Julie deGroot, from Australia, and senior Cion Washington complete the backcourt.
deGroot is the second international player in as many years signed by Foster, which represents a change in the direction of the program. Klimesova carved out a bit of history of her own in 1998-99 when she was the first foreign-born player ever to suit up for the Commodores. She earned a starting spot midway through her first season and became the first Vanderbilt freshman to average better than 10 points per game since Julie Powell - another Commodore legend - in 1991, a feat that might be matched by the sharp-shooting De Groot.
"If Zuzi is any reference point, (deGroot's) combination of enthusiasm and appreciation for what it is she has will make her a great asset," Foster said. "I've always felt that your athletic program, whatever sport it is, should be a reflection of your university's student body. We have students from 78 different countries at Vanderbilt."
Foster started a tradition of his own more than 20 years ago when he took his first head coaching job at St. Joseph's. He hired Geno Auriemma - now the head coach at Connecticut - to be his assistant and has continued to develop some of the game's top teachers. Among those who once toiled under Foster are Debbie Patterson (Kansas State), Muffett McGraw (Notre Dame) and Cindy Anderson (Loyola-Maryland).
This offseason Julie Plank, an assistant for three years, left for a position with the U.S. Olympic women's team. Also Brad Smith, who spent one season at Vanderbilt, left for personal reasons. Foster tapped into the rapidly expanding pool of knowledge for women's basketball and tapped Debbie Black, a current WNBA player, and Pete Gaudet, a longtime assistant in men's college basketball, to complete his staff.
The lone returning assistant is Erin O'Brien, whose father, Jim, led Ohio State to the men's Final Four.
"This staff has a great understanding of what this thing is, and a lot of times people don't quite understand it," Foster said. "Pete Gaudet recognizes the trappings surrounding a program such as this at a private school like Vanderbilt, and Erin probably forgot more about basketball at the dinner table than a lot of people ever know."
Black played for Foster at St. Joseph's and currently is the starting point guard for the Utah Jazz. Gaudet was a longtime aide of Mike Krzyzewski of Duke who most recently was on the staff of the Vanderbilt men's program.
"Brad was like our energy, but we've played (pickup) with Debbie Black and she is a ball of energy, she'll fill that role for us," Holmes said. "And coach Gaudet, he's considered a post coach and I can't wait to work with him. I think the fact that he's only coached men helps us. Maybe women are a little more sensitive, but I think he fits in well. I'm really looking forward to it."
Of course, everyone involved with the program is looking back as well. Back to when 20 wins and a spot in the top 10 was the norm. Back to all the things that have worked so well in the past. Back to the basic notion that the only way to get better is to play the best.
After all, one forgettable season does not diminish the value of the
past or dampen the prospects for the future.
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