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October 29, 2011

Preseason Top 32: No. 8 Vanderbilt

STRENGTHS: There are a lot of positives. First, all five starters return. Second, this is an experienced group, with four seniors and a junior scheduled to start. Third, there is a nice influx of talent, led by freshman G Dai-Jon Parker. Fourth, coach Kevin Stallings is a solid tactician on the bench. Junior G John Jenkins is one of the best shooters in the nation, and he has great range. He is a career 43.7 percent shooter from 3-point range and is almost automatic from the line. He led the Commodores in scoring at 19.7 points per game last season.

Senior C Festus Ezeli made as much improvement as anyone in the nation last season. He always has been a defensive presence - he is five blocks away from holding the school career record in that category - but has greatly ramped up his offensive production. Ezeli is athletic and can run all day, and he began putting those traits to good use on the offensive end last season, averaging 13.0 points and shooting 58.8 percent from the field. He understands his offensive limitations - he never is going to be consistent from 15 feet, for example - and his shooting percentage should climb over 60 percent this season. He also averaged 6.3 rebounds, and that average needs to climb by at least two this season. Ezeli has been suspended for the first six games of the season for receiving impermissible benefits (a meal and a hotel room) from a Vandy alum.

C Festus Ezeli (6-11/255, Sr.)
F Lance Goulbourne (6-8/225, Sr.)
F Jeffery Taylor (6-7/225, Sr.)
G John Jenkins (6-4/215, Jr.)
G Brad Tinsley (6-3/210, Sr.)
F/C Steve Tchiengang (6-9/240, Sr.)
F Rod Odom (6-9/210, Soph.)
G Kyle Fuller (6-1/180, Soph.)
G Kedren Johnson (6-4/215, Fr.)
G Dai-Jon Parker (6-3/190, Fr.)

Coach: Kevin Stallings (13th season at Vanderbilt)
Last season's record: 23-11 overall, 9-7 in SEC (T-3rd in SEC East)
Postseason: Lost to Richmond in first round of NCAA tournament
Final regular-season RPI: 27th
Last time didn't made NCAA field: 2009
Senior Brad Tinsley isn't the prototypical point man, but he handled the role with aplomb last season, averaging 4.6 assists per game. He is a good shooter with range, but he can be exploited defensively by quick point guards. PF Lance Goulbourne is a sort of glue guy who does a lot of important little things. He's not necessarily a talented offensive player, but he is a good rebounder and defender. The final starter is senior F Jeffery Taylor, who averaged 14.7 points and 5.5 rebounds last season. Senior Steve Tchiengang provides a physical frontcourt presence off the bench. Sophomore F Rod Odom has some outside pop off the bench, but needs to get tougher. Backcourt depth will come from sophomore Kyle Fuller and freshmen Kedren Johnson and Parker. Fuller and Johnson are more point guards types, while the athletic Parker can score.

WEAKNESSES: There aren't many from a talent standpoint. Still, Vandy has a reputation for softness, and until the Commodores win some games in the NCAA tourney, that tag isn't going away. They lost in the first round as a No. 5 seed last season; they lost as No. 4 seed in the first round in 2008 and '10, as well. We don't want to pick on Taylor, but he may as well be called "the confounding Jeffery Taylor." He is supremely athletic and gifted, but he never quite has reached his potential. He too often disappears during games, which should never happen with a guy as talented as he is. He was great in the SEC tourney last season (62 points in three games), then scored just four points in a first-round flameout in the NCAA tourney against Richmond. The Commodores can be sloppy with the ball, finishing with just 13 more assists than turnovers last season. Get this: Ezeli had six assists - and 60 turnovers. Vandy also needs to show it can pull out close games; the Commodores lost six times by five or fewer points last season, and won just three such games.

[More Vanderbilt coverage: VandySports.com]

OVERVIEW: Expectations are sky-high for this team, and they should be. Ezeli, Jenkins and Taylor all flirted with the idea of turning pro, but decided to remain in school, giving Stallings an experienced and talented squad. There is excellent depth, as well, and a solid recruiting class helps in that regard, especially in the backcourt. But for all its basketball success, Vandy never has advanced past the Sweet 16 in its history and has been upset in the first round in each of its past three appearances. Again, as talented as this team is, there also seems to be a sort of softness that surrounds the squad. They should be tested quite often in the SEC, which looks as strong as it has been in a while. Indeed, while we are picking Vandy eighth in the nation, we're also picking the Commodores third in the SEC, behind Kentucky and Florida. The non-conference portion of the schedule has some challenging opponents, which should help the Commodores prepare for the SEC race - and for March. There is no reason this team shouldn't be a viable factor in the SEC race and contend for an Elite Eight berth.

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Mike Huguenin is the college sports editor for Rivals.com. He can be reached at mhuguenin@rivals.com.

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