Despite departures, Stallings sees 'plenty to work with' at Vanderbilt

Tuesday, July 30, 2013 at 12:22pm

Kevin Stallings won’t call this a rebuilding season. He doesn’t see any last-minute help arriving before the season begins.

And he isn’t concerned about any extra pressure surrounding his job security entering his 15th year as Vanderbilt’s men’s basketball coach.

One day after the announcement that two of last year’s starters, including leading scorer Kedren Johnson, no longer are on the team Stallings remains positive about the 2013-14 season.

“It is not that you ever are prepared for stuff like that but coaching college sports is a fluid deal,” he said on Tuesday. “Things change quickly and often. You just have to be prepared for it. The challenge is everybody else has to do more. I think what this does, it provides opportunities for other guys to step up and have a greater role than they might have had, which is kind of what they all work for and desire anyway.

"Hopefully we have some guys who are prepared and ready to take on more responsibility. That is what just has to happen. It is what has to happen any time you have a loss of any kind. I think our guys will do that.”

On Monday morning, shooting guard Kevin Bright signed a professional contract with a team in his native country of Germany in an effort to be closer to his ailing mother. Bright spent just one season at Vanderbilt and averaged 6.9 points and a team-high 5.5 rebounds. He also led the team in 3-point shooting (41 percent).

Later in the day, Johnson announced he would not be on the team or enrolled in school for the 2013-14 school year. In an open letter posted on Vanderbilt’s website, he said he was suspended from the university because of “very poor judgment” and a “violation of the good expected of all Vanderbilt students.”

Johnson, a Marshall County product, has played in all 69 games the last two seasons. Last year, the point guard led the team with 13.5 points and 3.6 assists a game. The 6-foot-4, 215-pounder was recovering from shoulder surgery in the offseason.

Stallings steered clear of directly addressing the significance of Johnson’s absence and cited “federal laws that we have to be real careful with. I’m just not able to really say anything about that.”

As for whether the Commodores can add a late arrival — either an incoming freshman or transfer — before the season begins in November, Stallings sees “nothing on the horizon.”

“We don’t have any irons in the fire relative to that,” he said. “Both of the things that came out [Monday], one was more sudden than the other but they both have been extremely recent occurrences. It wasn’t as though we were preparing for those losses. It will shorten our margin a little bit but I think we have plenty of to work with and have a good team with.”

The losses, coupled with the earlier transfers of freshmen Sheldon Jeter and A.J. Astroth, leave Stallings with just nine scholarship players and two walk-ons as the Commodores prepare for a 10-day, four-game trip to Greece and Italy that begins on Aug. 10.

Forward Rod Odom (10.4 points per game) and guard Kyle Fuller (8.7 ppg) return for their senior seasons. Junior shooting guard and defensive specialist Dai-Jon Parker is also back after averaging 7.2 points and emerging into a 3-point threat after he was suspended for eight games.

In the post — a glaring weakness last year, Josh Henderson (5.4 ppg) and Shelby Moats (3.0) hope to receive some immediate help from freshman Damian Jones. The 6-10, 230-pounder from Baton Rouge, La., averaged 15.4 points, eight rebounds and four blocks while leading Scotlandville Magnet to a second straight state championship.

In addition, guard Eric McClellan is eligible after sitting out a year due to NCAA transfer rules. As a freshman at Tulsa in 2011-12, he averaged 8.5 points and 2.2 assists in 16 starts. At 6-4 and 180 pounds, McClellan can play multiple positions though he said recently he prefers running the point. Stallings expects McClellan to make a significant and immediate impact. 

“I certainly wouldn’t call it a rebuilding year,” Stallings said. “Our goals and our commitment to being the best team we can be that won’t change. It won’t waver. We still think we have plenty enough to be very competitive and have a good team. I think this team proved last year they are very resilient. They are very coachable and those are two really good qualities to have. I see no reason those qualities won’t continue.

“I think if they are a group who wants to be coached like they exhibited last year, if they are a high energy, high intensity group like they were last year, I think we will see them make a lot of progress like we did last year.”

Stallings is set to become the program’s all-time leader in wins this season.

The 52-year-old has a 277-176 record in 14 years and is one win shy of tying the late Roy Skinner (278-135) for the most in school history.

Stallings has taken the Commodores to six NCAA Tournaments, including two Sweet 16 appearances. From 2010-12, Vanderbilt made three straight NCAA Tournaments for the first time in program history.

But the talent that led the Commodores there — namely future NBA draft picks John Jenkins, Festus Ezeli and Jeffery Taylor — are gone. So are the coaches who played a huge role in their recruitment. Former assistants King Rice (Monmouth) and Dan Muller (Illinois State) are now head coaches.

The talent departure had a massive impact last year when Vanderbilt lost 13 of its first 20 games. The Commodores made a late charge and showed improvement but still finished 8-10 in the Southeastern Conference and 16-17 overall, their first losing season since 2003.

Recruiting also has taken a hit. The entire 2012 signing class of Bright, Jeter and Astroth is gone. The 2013 class featured just two players — Jones and forward Luke Kornet. A third, Murfreesboro product Darius Thompson, de-committed and signed with rival Tennessee. Vanderbilt has not yet received any commitments for the 2014 class.

With the program in a state of flux, Stallings remains confident with his current state.

“In my dealings with our administrators, I have not heard or felt dissenting reviews or pressures,” he said. “I think they have been appreciative of the job we’ve done. I think that they will continue to be appreciative of the job we do. We’ll try to do it to not only to the best of our ability but in a way that our fans and our students and our alums can be proud. It is really not about the pressure I feel. The pressure I feel is really an internal pressure to help these guys on my team have a great college experience.

“I know winning always enhances the experience. So that is the pressure I feel to win is that I want these guys to look back on their four years and say it was four of the greatest years of their life. Putting them in positions to be successful is a primary criteria of that. In terms of job pressure, I’m not concerned about that. If [athletic director] David [Williams] or [chancellor] Nick [Zeppos] become displeased with the job I’m doing, I’m sure they’ll let me know.”