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September 27, 2011
NASHVILLE - Most of the early prognostications for the 2011-12 season have the usual contenders atop the national rankings.
Vanderbilt has spent most of the past five seasons putting together good-but-not-great records that end with earlier-than-expected exits from the NCAA tournament, but there's plenty of reason to believe the Commodores are on the verge of something special.
Just about every preseason forecast has Vanderbilt in the top 10; some even have the Commodores cracking the top five. Vanderbilt's highest preseason ranking in The Associated Press poll was fifth in 1965, when the Commodores were coming off an NCAA regional final appearance and on their way to a 24-4 season.
"I think we actually deserve it," junior guard John Jenkins says. "We have a lot of guys coming back. We had a great year last year. We just couldn't finish.
"It's not like we had a bad year or anything. We have guys who know how to win, guys who are willing to win, and I think we're hungrier than ever."
The optimism surrounding the Commodores began as soon as Jenkins, Festus Ezeli and Jeffery Taylor announced they were staying in school rather than entering the NBA draft. Their return assured that Vanderbilt would bring back all five starters and 10 lettermen from a team that went 23-11 last season.
Jenkins led the SEC in scoring at 19.5 points per game last season and earned first-team all-conference honors from the league's coaches and media. Ezeli, one of the nation's most improved players last season, was a second-team All-SEC selection by the league's coaches. Taylor has earned second-team All-SEC honors in each of the past two seasons.
All three likely would have been drafted if they had chosen to turn pro last summer, but they felt they had unfinished business. Although they have helped Vanderbilt post a combined record of 47-20 over the past two seasons, they've never won an NCAA tournament game.
"It all goes back to the disappointment of losing, that feeling that we could have done so much better," Taylor says. "It draws you back. As a competitor, you always want to do well and want to leave some kind of legacy. We feel as though we've won big games, we've done well, we've been ranked high. But we haven't hung any banners. That's what it's all about in the end."
Vanderbilt has the pieces in place to hang some banners this season. Jenkins, Taylor and Ezeli give the Commodores a top-level guard, wing and big man.
Jenkins, a 6-foot-4 junior from the Nashville suburbs, generally is regarded as one of the nation's best shooters. Jenkins, a former five-star recruit, shot 89.4 percent from the free-throw line and made 100 3-pointers last season while scoring in double figures in every game he played.
[King: Pre-conference tourney breakdown]
Taylor, a senior swingman from Sweden, has started all but one game for Vanderbilt since arriving on campus. He used his extraordinary athleticism to compensate for his lack of bulk earlier in his career, but Taylor since has added 25 pounds to his 6-7 frame and now weighs 225.
Ezeli, a 6-11 fifth-year senior from Nigeria, had played little organized basketball when he got to Vanderbilt. Now he's five blocks away from the school's career record held by former NBA first-round pick Will Perdue.
The website draftexpress.com forecasts Ezeli as the No. 16 pick and Taylor as the No. 19 selection in its 2012 NBA mock draft. It has Jenkins getting selected with the fourth pick in the second round.
But each of the trio decided the NBA could wait at least one more year, and a second consecutive opening-round loss in the NCAA tournament made that choice much easier.
"It probably would have been more tempting to leave if you had actually accomplished something as a team," Taylor says. "But it was just the fact that we love representing Vanderbilt and want a lot of good for Vanderbilt. As a group, we haven't really accomplished a lot of what he had set out from the beginning to do."
Taylor is perhaps overly harsh in that assessment. Vanderbilt has done just fine of late. The Commodores went 23-11 last season and earned a No. 5 seed in the NCAA tournament. They went 24-9 and received a No. 3 seed a year earlier.
The problem is the way those seasons ended.
Vanderbilt fell 69-66 to Richmond in its opening NCAA tournament game last season after losing 66-65 to Murray State on Danero Thomas' buzzer-beater in a 2010 first-round contest. Those two losses continued a recent Vanderbilt tradition, as the Commodores also were upset 83-62 by No. 13 seed Siena in the first round of the 2008 tournament.
Although Vanderbilt has earned an NCAA bid in four of the past five seasons, the Commodores haven't won a tournament game since reaching the Sweet 16 in 2007.
"Of course, we hear [about] it," Jenkins says. "You hear a lot of things as a basketball player in the SEC. You hear a lot of things you're not going to like. We kind of use it as motivation. We hear what people say about us in the tournament. They're going to say what they say. Our main focus is getting better every single day."
The best way to answer those skeptics is by hanging on to the leads that slipped away much too often last season. Vanderbilt blew an 11-point lead in its loss to Richmond, which continued a trend that haunted the Commodores all season. The Commodores squandered double-digit advantages in five of their 11 losses.
"It just can't happen like that," Jenkins says. "We've got to be able to finish games. We went through a stretch where we were finishing games, and then it kind of haunted us in the tournament, when it really matters. ? We've just got to be more aggressive and not let up at any time during the game."
Vanderbilt's experience ought to prevent those types of collapses this season.
[Recruiting: Top 25 team rankings for 2012]
Point guard Brad Tinsley is a fourth-year starter who led the SEC with 4.6 assists per game last season. Lance Goulbourne is a glue guy who ranked seventh in the SEC with 7.3 rebounds per game last season. Steve Tchiengang comes off the bench to provide toughness in the paint while also sinking the occasional jumper. All three are seniors.
In fact, Vanderbilt's starting lineup figures to include Jenkins as the lone junior in a starting lineup that otherwise features three seniors and one fifth-year senior. That kind of experience is rare for a major-conference team in this era, when freshmen seemingly make more of an impact on the game with each passing season.
These guys realize it's their last chance. They're ready to make the most of it.
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