BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings is nothing if not optimistic.
In late June Stallings, his confidence lifted by the Commodores’ strong showing in the SEC tournament last March, was convinced that their sub-.500 record, the program’s first in 10 years, was nothing more than an aberration. The 2013-14 season, Stallings was convinced, would fall in line with Vanderbilt’s production during the previous nine years, during which it averaged 22 wins a season and made eight postseason tournament appearances, six of them to the NCAAs.
June is a long way from the start of the season, but there’s seldom any off-season personnel movement at Vanderbilt, almost never anything that could adversely affect the program going forward. So Stallings had every reason to be positive.
This offseason turned out to be the exception to the rule. In a bombshell released on July 29, Vanderbilt announced that two key starters, junior point guard Kedren Johnson and sophomore three man Kevin Bright, were off the team. Johnson, as vital a player to the Commodores’ success as any, actually announced his own one-year suspension in the form of an open letter to, as he put it, “My Vanderbilt Family.” No explanation was given, except that it was a university, not a program suspension.
“It hurts me when I realize the consequences of my action, which happened near the end of the last school year,” Johnson wrote. “It was a violation of the good conduct expected of all Vanderbilt students. I take full responsibility and now must begin working to regain the trust and respect of my school, the student body, our fans and especially my coaches and friends on the team. I understand this will take time.”
Simultaneous to Johnson’s suspension, Vanderbilt announced the departure of Bright, who had played so well in replacing for Commodore star Jeffrey Taylor, leading the Commodores in rebounding and 3-point percentage.
After Bright, who’s from Germany, learned his mother had taken ill, he decided to return home and signed with pro team there.
Just like that, a team Stallings was so bullish on in late June had been gutted. On July 29, it was far too late to recruit any replacements, though it was rumored that Vanderbilt literally combed the world looking for someone who could at least provide depth. Without Johnson and Bright, the Commodores are down to nine scholarship players, a turned ankle away from disaster.
“I’ve lost three guys in the summer before,” Stallings said at the Southeastern Conference media days on Wednesday, “but it tends to be for graduation. The timing was peculiar. … Are we disappointed with these losses? Absolutely. Could we have been a better team? Absolutely. If all the guys were back, we certainly felt like we were a better team at the end of last season.
“… (But) I believe we have added some guys that will help make those losses easier and give us a chance to be successful despite the fact out team does not look like we hoped it would.”
One reason Stallings can still be cheery after losing Johnson is that he still has two other capable point guards, one of whom, 6-4 sophomore Eric McClellan, is a transfer from Tulsa who sat out last season. The other is senior Kyle Fuller, who had his best season a year ago.
McClellan isn’t the only Tulsa transfer becoming eligible in the SEC this season. Missouri adds guard Jordan Clarkson, and Tiger coach Frank Haith describes him in much the same way Stallings does McClellan.
“There were a lot of days, and I mean a lot of days, last year in practice where Eric McClellan was the best player in the gym,” Stallings said.
Like Clarkson, McClellan left Tulsa after former coach Doug Wojick was fired and replaced by Danny Manning. In his only season with the Golden Hurricane, McClellan started 16 games and averaged 8.5 points, 2.5 rebounds and 2.2 assists and shot .383 from 3-point range and .739 from the free-throw line. He reached double-figure scoring 11 times, including a career-high 25 in a triple-overtime game against Marshall.
After watching McClellan during a 10-day trip to Italy and Greece in August, Stallings is convinced McClellan’s play during his redshirt year was indicative of what he’s going to deliver.
“Eric’s a good player,” Stallings said. “He’s got a gear a lot of guys don’t have. For him, he’s just got to try to make the game become easy. If he keeps things simple, he’s going to be really, really good.”
Another player that gives Stallings reason for hope is freshman post Damian Jones, the kind of player Vanderbilt doesn’t come across too often. He was a four-star recruit who grew up in the Deep South, more specifically in LSU’s backyard (Scotlandville Magnet High School in Baton Rouge).
“He gives us a defensive presence at the goal we didn’t have a year ago,” Stallings said. “He plays hard, he’s very long and he’s bouncy. He’s a guy who will play consistently above the rim.”
Jones is far from one-dimensional. In addition to being a shot eraser, he’s also got an offensive game.
“He’s got a good little jump hook,” Stallings said. “And he makes his free throws. I’m not sure he ever took a 3 in high school, but in shooting drills over the summer, he made 93 of 150 from 3 (62 percent). Don’t get me wrong. I don’t fancy he’s gonna be shooting a bunch of 3s for us. But he’s got the touch. He makes 15- to 17-footers with regularity.”
Vanderbilt senior forward Rod Odom, has seen plenty of Jones in practice and recognizes a different sort of talent when he sees it.
“He brings some things we haven’t had,” Odom said. “He’s athletic. He can block shots and get rebounds. He’s definitely a talented player.”
Vanderbilt’s summertime trip to Europe turned out to be more important than Stallings initially thought it would. The games the Commodores played were secondary to the opportunity to practice, bond and adapt to the losses of Johnson and Bright.
“We have seen the benefits from (the trip), both from where we are able to start our practice sessions and the executions of some of the things we have been trying to do,” Stallings said. “So I like where we are at. (But) certainly you do not really know until you play someone else.”