This baptism by fire isn’t all it is cracked up to be.
After six games, Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings laments challenging his young team with a rigorous schedule. The Commodores (2-4) have played four games outside of Nashville, which has contributed to their worst start since the 1988-89 season.
The tests continue when they travel to Cincinnati to play perennial mid-major power Xavier on Thursday (6:30 p.m., ESPNU).
“I didn’t do our team any favors with this schedule the first seven games,” Stallings said. “I feel badly about that. I regret that a little bit – seriously, I do. I probably should have just scheduled us a bunch of easy wins and maybe given us a chance to develop some confidence. I really didn’t do that. We threw them into the fire. I just hope when we come out of it that we can be better for it and not worse off for it.”
The Commodores’ schedule has lacked a ranked opponent and probably will until Southeastern Conference play begins next month. But already they’ve faced two teams (Oregon and Villanova) from power conferences and were exposed against lesser names (Davidson and Marist) at the Old Spice Classic in Orlando, Fla.
So far scoring is the biggest issue for team without any seniors or returning starters. A national audience picked up on that when Vanderbilt scored just 33 points in a loss to Marist on Black Friday.
The Commodores average just 58 points, which ranks 320th out of 345 Division I teams.
“Obviously we need to put the ball in the basket a little more proficiently and play more complete games. Our margin for error right now is not great. … I think the effort level has been great. I think it is just a matter of getting a little more proficient offensively and giving ourselves a better chance on that end.”
Guards Kedren Johnson (16.7 points per game) and Kyle Fuller (11.3) account for a huge chunk of the scoring, contributing 48.2 percent of the points. The inside game has been nearly non-existent. Big men Josh Henderson and Shelby Moats are averaging a combined 7.3 points. Neither has pulled their weight on the boards either with just 6.2 combined rebounds per game.
“Offensively, I feel we’re coming more together,” Henderson said. “We’re definitely way better than that Marist game. Our shots are falling more. So we just need to put it all together and have a good run.”
Xavier (6-1) reached the Sweet 16 last year but much of that team is gone. In fact, neither side returns any starters who played in last year’s matchup at Memorial Gymnasium, which the Musketeers won in overtime.
Despite going through its own youth movement with a freshman and two sophomores in the starting lineup, Xavier is off to a fast start.
The Musketeers knocked off Butler and Purdue, losing to only Pacific in a tournament in Anaheim, Calif. Paced by 16 points a game from freshman Semaj Christon, Xavier has won four games by less than six points.
After Thursday, the road to SEC play gets a little easier. Vanderbilt won’t return to the court until Dec. 15 due to finals next week and the next six games will be in Nashville. The most formidable challenges during that stretch appear should come from in-state rival Middle Tennessee State at Bridgestone Area on Dec. 21 and Butler more than a week later on Dec. 29.
“I think they understand our better days are ahead,” Stallings said. “We know that we’ve got some struggles right now and I don’t think it really surprises any of us. But we need to learn from these, get better from them and hopefully use them to our advantage as we go on in the season.”