The depleted 'Dores need a Dumbledore — and it just might be Kevin Stallings 

Abandon All Hoop

Abandon All Hoop

Following the predictable departures after the 2012 season of Festus Ezeli and Jeff Taylor — both to graduation — and John Jenkins, who left school early for the NBA, Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings was expected to lead a rebuilding team to a mediocre season last year.

At times, those 2012-13 Commodores were all fits and starts. But Stallings gushed about his squad.

It's often hard to coach stars — the Commodore teams bolstered by the Big Three were tagged as underachieving — but Stallings relished the opportunity to truly coach last season.

The payoff was that the team got steadily better. For the second straight season, Vandy defeated Kentucky in the SEC tournament before losing to eventual champions Ole Miss in the semifinals.

Getting that far was a surprise and by most measures a success for Vandy. Even as Ole Miss guard Marshall Henderson preened and posed on the floor of Bridgestone Arena, what was to be a dim season ended with an understated glimpse at a new dawn.

But the dawn proved false, and a spring of hope rotted into a summer of discontent.

Stallings lost an entire recruiting class in one summer. Three freshman — guards A.J. Astroth and Kevin Bright and forward Sheldon Jeter — left Vandy. Astroth and Jeter transferred, and Bright signed a professional contract in Germany. All three played significantly for Vandy in the rebuilding year. Bright started 29 games.

Wiping out an entire set of scholarship freshmen is a giant step back. But it only portended worse news.

Guard Kedren Johnson was suspended indefinitely for an as-yet-undisclosed off-the-court violation. He led the 'Dores in scoring, assists, steals and minutes last season, starting every game.

What's left is a husk of a team that perhaps overachieved, but was still 16-17 in the regular season and finished 10th in the conference.

Rebuilds use construction metaphors for a reason. There's a period of teardown, the laying of a new foundation, then steady addition with flourishes added at the end before the topping-out, when a new structure is ready for the world.

Vandy went through the teardown, and Stallings thought he had laid down a new foundation. But the damn thing got swallowed by a sinkhole.

It's not just that he's left with sub-par material to began anew. It's that he's got precious little material at all. Just 11 players are on his roster, only two of them seniors — a commodity Vanderbilt has used to great success in the past. Players who come to Vanderbilt tend to stay for their entire college careers rather than bolting for the bright lights and big dollars of the NBA (Jenkins being a notable and predictable exception). While often outmatched in talent, Stallings has been able to use the experience of upperclassmen to win games.

This year, though, Stallings may need not just Memorial Magic, but actual magic. The kind that wizards use to ride unicorns, and call up thunderstorms, and spur the rapid development of guys like 7-foot freshman forward Luke Kornet and fellow freshman Damian Jones.

But if there's a guy who can turn scattered flotsam into a serviceable ship, it's Stallings, who time and again — notably last season — has success making mediocre teams competitive.

He's been on West End since 1999, and whispers occasionally bubble up wondering if he's reached the end of his run. Barring a truly dismal season, this won't be Stallings' last. He's earned enough benefit of the doubt and lowered expectations so dramatically, his job is safe — at least for another year and the start of another rebuild.

But if there's another exodus like the summer of 2013, those famous floor stomps may be silenced for good.

Email editor@nashvillescene.com.

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