The 2011-12 season was a banner year for area men’s basketball teams.
Two made the NCAA tournament. Four earned postseason invitations. Two were regular-season conference champs. Two won league tournament titles. Four had 20-win seasons.
Uncertainty awaits as an encore, with two schools (Vanderbilt and Lipscomb) embracing young and inexperienced talent; one (Belmont) adjusting to a new conference home; another (Tennessee State) to a new coach; and one (Middle Tennessee State) welcoming back its entire starting five except for the league’s top player.
Here are five big questions for 2012-13 as teams tip off this weekend, starting with Belmont and Lipscomb’s latest installment of the Battle of the Boulevard rivalry on Friday at Lipscomb.
Who will score for Vanderbilt?
The Commodores return three starts. Not starters but total starts. Three. The only SEC team with fewer is defending national champ Kentucky with zero.
Sophomore point guard Kedren Johnson returns as the top scorer after averaging 3.1 points. The Marshall County product is a distributor first but will have to drive to the basket more and look to score. Everyone will. Vanderbilt lost its top six scorers and 88.1 percent of its offense.
Early signs in practice point to small forward Rod Odom as the go-to guy. The lanky 6-foot-9 junior was a 3-point specialist the past two years, shooting 40.9 percent beyond the arc. But Odom has beefed up and could be asked to play power forward, especially while center Josh Henderson recovers from a foot injury.
“Rod is significantly better,” coach Kevin Stallings said. “He is the unquestioned leader on our team.”
Odom is one of two juniors on a senior-less team. The other is guard Kyle Fuller, who returns with an improved jumper. Sophomore power forward Shelby Moats will fill in for Henderson. And freshman Kevin Bright, a perimeter threat from Germany, could start right away.
So there will be plenty of points to be had for this young and inexperienced bunch. Whether they’ll be scored remains to be seen.
How will Belmont do in the Ohio Valley Conference?
If you ask the league’s coaches and sports information directors, the Bruins will be just fine.
With its top two scorers and five seniors back, as well as coach Rick Byrd’s typically deep bench, Belmont was picked to win the East Division in its first year in the OVC.
The road to a sixth NCAA tournament appearance in eight years, however, figures to be tougher. Luckily, Belmont has to see defending OVC champ Murray State just once in the regular season.
But the Bruins might be in the tougher division. Tennessee State is an emerging power. Tennessee Tech returns three starters after winning 19 games, and Morehead State is a wild card with new coach Sean Woods.
Belmont’s success hinges on the play of senior guards Ian Clark and Kerron Johnson. The preseason All-OVC selections have provided steady presences for Byrd, and the dynamic Johnson expanded his role last year to lead the team in scoring.
The biggest question is the low post. The forceful center tandem of Mick Hedgepeth and Scott Saunders is gone. Brandon Baker, Trevor Noack and Blake Jenkins will all give up size to fill the void.
Strength in numbers gives Belmont an edge once again. Even in a tougher conference, the Bruins will be a contender right away.
What impact will the coaching change have at Tennessee State?
When John Cooper left for Miami-Ohio in April, TSU made a safe hire. The Tigers stayed internal and promoted assistant Travis Williams. The move kept a talented roster intact — one that is built to compete right away.
With their top four scorers back from a team that won 20 games and reached the OVC tournament title game, the Tigers can have immediate success under Williams.
Cooper took a dormant program to 20 wins in three years and had a knack for motivating. Williams appear to be cut from the same cloth. Known as a solid recruiter — he receives much of the credit for nabbing big man Robert Covington — Williams believes his history with this group is already paying off.
“The guys have bought in,” Williams said. “They have a totally different approach. They came so close. They can touch it. They’ve got a chance to be a very, very special team.”
It starts with 6-foot-9, 215-pound Covington (17.8 points per game). A preseason All-OVC selection and NBA Draft hopeful, Covington is an agile big man who can shoot outside and dominate inside. Combined with savvy guard Patrick Miller and glue men Kellen Thornton and Jordan Cyphers, the experienced Tigers could challenge last year’s finish.
Perhaps the biggest impact of the coaching change will be seen in how Williams manages the tight games.
Can MTSU break through and reach the NCAA Tournament?
In his 10th year, coach Kermit Davis hushed job security chatter with an expected 27-win season and Sun Belt Conference championship.
But arguably the best team in school history failed to get over the hump and reach the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1989. Instead, the Blue Raiders settled for the NIT and a rare win over Tennessee.
MTSU is loaded for another run.
Four starters and preseason All-Sun Belt selections return — Raymond Cintron, Marcos Knight Bruce Massey and JT Sulton. Along with six seniors, Davis again plucked from the junior college ranks. Neiko Hunter, a 6-foot-7 forward fresh off a trip to the junior college national championship, is expected to add depth inside.
The biggest loss is the departure of LaRon Dendy. In his lone year, the skilled 6-foot-9, 230-pounder led the team in scoring and rebounding and was named the Sun Belt’s Player of the Year.
With a talented backcourt and depth down low, the Blue Raiders should be able to overcome the lack of one go-to guy. Another run to the postseason — perhaps to the NCAA Tournament — is on the horizon if similar team chemistry develops.
Better free-throw shooting wouldn’t hurt either. MTSU shot a horrid 63.5 percent from the line. The Blue Raiders ranked 310th out of 338 Division I teams and the flaw cost them in the conference tournament, ending their NCAA Tournament hopes.
Can Lipscomb stay together and start winning again?
The drop-off after the graduation of inside-outside duo Josh Slater and Adnan Hodzic was steep and noticeable. The Bisons failed to stay together — literally. Four players were dismissed and promising freshman Zavion Williams transferred after the season. As a result, they stammered to a 13-18 finish and their second losing season in five years.
They once again face heavy turnover with only one senior, just six returning lettermen and nine newcomers, including seven freshmen. The early go-to weapons are sophomore forward Malcolm Smith (9.9 points per game) and senior guard Deonte Alexander (8.9 points).
This could be a pivotal year for Scott Sanderson, who enters his 14th season as coach. Since succeeding Don Meyer in 1999, he has guided the program from the NAIA to NCAA Division I. The Bisons have captured only two Atlantic Sun Conference titles, sharing both with Belmont. He’s compiled three 20-win seasons — two coming before the Division I era — the last in 2005-06.
Since then, Belmont has reached the NCAA Tournament five times. Lipscomb has yet to reach the Big Dance.
With Belmont out of the league, the A-Sun isn’t as daunting, but Lipscomb has a lot to prove.