HOOVER, Ala. — No basketball team in the Southeastern Conference outside of Kentucky lost as much talent from last season as Vanderbilt. The difference between the two programs is how they go about replacing that talent.
Kentucky coach John Calipari has made a tidy living stockpiling five-star recruits who stay one season and bolt for the NBA. Vanderbilt’s Kevin Stallings, out of necessity, has had to adopt a different approach. The three Commodores taken in the first two rounds of the NBA Draft last June—John Jenkins, Jeffrey Taylor and Festus Ezeli—left with a combined 12 years of experience.
“There’s a standard that we’ve been able to set and identify in our program that has worked for us,” Stallings said at the SEC’s media day on Thursday. “Hopefully our guys understand very well that we’re not going to compromise or lower our standard even though we’ve had a great deal of turnover.”
That standard involves player development. Whereas Kentucky can replace an Anthony Davis with a Nerlens Noel, Stallings has to develop and elevate. The system has worked the last few years, during which the Commodores have become regular participants in the NCAA Tournament, but it will be tested this season as players who were formerly in support roles have to markedly increase their production.
Two in particular stand out.
Rod Odom, a 6-8 junior, started eight games as a freshman. A year ago, playing behind two future draft picks, his minutes were down slightly. This season, he’ll find himself back in the starting lineup.
Odom prepared accordingly during the offseason. Emulating his departed teammate John Jenkins, Odom practically took up residence in the gym, practicing three times a day, often on his own.
The result is a more balanced offensive game. Perhaps overly reliant on the 3-ball in the past, Odom has now learned—again, just like Jenkins—that mixing the drive in occasionally can come in handy. By all accounts, Odom has become adept at getting to the rim.
“He has shown the ability to do that,” Stallings said. “Quite frankly, far better than I would have even thought he’d be able to by the time he was a senior. That’s what stood out about him in practice, his ability to put the ball on the floor, get in the lane, jump up and make shots.”
The other player who has to emerge for Vanderbilt is sophomore point guard Kedren Johnson. He gave a glimpse of what he’s capable of in last year’s SEC tournament title game against Kentucky. With 1:32 to play, he drove through traffic for a layup, scored, got fouled and made the free throw. That gave Vanderbilt a 65-64 lead and was probably the turning point in the game.
Judging by preseason practice, Johnson is ready to make more plays like that one.
“Kedren Johnson has been the guy among our perimeter players,” Stallings said. “He essentially stepped forward and identified himself as a guy we can play through and go to. He’s a talented offensive player. He’s got an atypical point guard body; he weights 215 pounds and carries that weight well and still runs and drives. He can move his body well. Deceptively fast. Kedren’s a guy that we’ll be able to count on and will have to play well.”