The upcoming trip to Greece and Italy already figured to be an enlightening one for the Vanderbilt men’s basketball team. Barely a week after losing two starters, though, it should prove educational on the court as well.
As excited as point guard Kyle Fuller is to visit Rome and try the food, the senior is just as intrigued to see how he and his teammates play in the four games planned during the 10-day trip, which begins Saturday.
“It is a big deal, especially now that we have to bond more and know more about each other’s games,” Fuller said on Wednesday. “Because we’re definitely going to have to play as one and as a whole than playing individually so it is a big deal. Everybody is going to get a lot of minutes. Everybody is going to have a lot of different roles. I’m looking forward to seeing people step up.”
Extra playing time is available after coach Kevin Stallings announced last week Kevin Bright and Kedren Johnson won’t be with the team for the upcoming season.
Bright, a shooting guard, signed a pro deal in his home country of Germany after just one year at Vanderbilt. Johnson, a Marshall County product and the team’s leading scorer, has been suspended from the school and the team for the 2013-14 school year for an undisclosed violation of school rules. He could re-enroll after this season.
That news came a couple months after guards A.J. Astroth and Sheldon Jeter announced they were transferring. The result of the mass exodus is that the Commodores have nine scholarship players and two walk-ons. This includes three newcomers — Tulsa transfer Eric McClellan and freshmen Damian Jones and Luke Kornet.
“Any time you’re trying to put a new team together, it is a good time to develop chemistry and some on-the-court togetherness,” Stallings said. “I’m optimistic we’ll play well. Our team has looked pretty good so far in the practices. I’m optimistic we’ll play well. We’ll have some challenges incorporating new guys and getting them used to what we’re trying to do. But certainly it will be a good opportunity for guys to start figuring out roles and what their strengths and weaknesses are.”
Stallings said he knows very little about Vanderbilt’s international competition. The Commodores will play the Athens All-Stars on Monday and Tuesday. They will also play Perugia Basket twice — on Aug. 17 and 18 in Rome. The teams consist of professional and pro-am players from the area.
For Vanderbilt, the starting lineups will vary each game and Stallings plans to empty his bench and sub often.
“It is not going to be one of those things where we’re trying to play our best five,” he said. “We’ll change the lineup and the division of playing time. Certainly the whole thing will be interesting in terms of how guys perform in a game setting.”
The team receives 10 extra practices for the foreign trip, which the NCAA allows a school once every four years. This is the fourth under Stallings, who enters his 15th season at Vanderbilt. The team went to Australia in 2009, Spain in 2004 and Monaco and France in 2000. After the 2009 trip, the Commodores went 24-9, placed second in the SEC East and reached the NCAA Tournament.
“In the past, when we’ve taken trips like this it has been a very big benefit. It has almost given you a head start,” Stallings said. “But I think with the new rules, with being able to have summer practices and start earlier in the fall, I think some of those advantages might be negated. But I certainly think it will give us a head start on the season.”
The team will spend three days in Athens. While also there, the Commodores will visit the Acropolis and the Parthenon. Players and coaches also will visit Delphi, Olympia and Patra, Greece before an overnight cruise to Italy.
They’ll visit the ancient ruins of Pompeii, tour the Vatican City, the Sistine Chapel and St. Peters Basilica. They’ll spend a day touring Rome and make stops at the Coliseum, Roman Forum, Piazza Navona, Pantheon, Spanish Steps and the Trevi Fountain. They head back to Nashville on Aug. 20.
The Commodores are trying to bounce back from their first losing season in 10 years. After making the NCAA Tournament three years in a row for the first time in program history, they went 16-17 overall and 8-10 in Southeastern Conference play.
• Recruits on campus: A pair of four-star recruits and their families attended practice on Wednesday as part of unofficial visits to Vanderbilt.
Point guard Alex Robinson from Arlington, Texas tweeted out a photo inside Memorial Gymnasium on Tuesday night. The rising senior is 6-foot-1 and 175 pounds and Rivals.com ranks him No. 71 in the 2014 class.
Makinde London, a rising senior who attends nearby Spring Hill High, also stopped by. The 6-foot-8, 195-pound power forward is ranked No. 83 nationally by Rivals.com.