NASHVILLE, Tennessee — Kevin Stallings has only two starters back and five freshmen expected to play early for the Vanderbilt Commodores, and he's cracking jokes.
The veteran coach says he could steal the line about sleeping like a baby only to wake up every two hours and cry with such a young team. But he survived the Southeastern Conference season with only seven scholarship players last season, lost three of the top four scorers off that squad and then kicked two players off in August.
Freshmen it is.
"We're not really looking at them like they're freshmen," Stallings said. "They're just our guys. Kentucky had a bunch of freshmen last year, and things ended up working out for that team OK."
The Wildcats wound up as the NCAA runners-up last season.
Stallings certainly needs these freshmen in a class ranked 24th by Rivals.com. Vanderbilt has three seniors with two starters back from a team that went 15-16 and 7-11 in the SEC. Center Damian Jones was on the SEC coaches' All-Freshman team averaging 11.3 points and 5.7 rebounds per game. James Siakam, now a senior, started 28 games, while Luke Kornet started the last two games of the season.
Shelton Mitchell, committed to Wake Forest until Jeff Bzdelik resigned in March, will be pushed by Riley LaChance. Wade Baldwin IV, Matthew Fisher-Davis and Jeff Roberson will fill out the freshmen backcourt, all are ready to play.
"It's something you kind of dream about from a young age coming in and playing at a big university," Roberson said. "The opportunity's here. The last few years are in the past, and we have a great opportunity."
Here are some things to watch as Vanderbilt opens the season Nov. 16 hosting Trevecca Nazarene:
MR. JONES: The center scored in double figures in 20 games and had five double-doubles. Stallings said the 6-foot-10, 248-pound sophomore needs to be the Commodores best player because he is and has talked with him about that frequently. "As I explained to him, I put a big ole pile of money over here and say if you do this, this and this, do you think you could do it for this big pile of money?," Stallings said. "His answer is always, 'Well, yeah I could do it.' Well OK, then do it because that's the big pile of money that's going to be waiting on you when you do it."
THE DEPARTED: Kedren Johnson was suspended last season before being kicked off the team in August for not meeting standards along with Dai-Jon Parker, who played every minute of eight SEC games. Rod Odom was the leading scorer averaging 13.6 points a game, and he and Kyle Fuller played a full five conference games.
TOUGH SCHEDULE: Those freshmen should be ready once SEC play starts Jan. 3 against Auburn at Memorial Gym. Vanderbilt is playing in the Barclays Center Classic in Brooklyn where they will play Rutgers and either Virginia or LaSalle. The Commodores also host Baylor on Dec. 4 and Purdue on Dec. 13, and Stallings takes them on the road to Georgia Tech and Saint Louis. Vanderbilt plays Kentucky only once at Rupp Arena on Jan. 20, but the Commodores host Florida in their only game on Feb. 3 to start a three-game home stand. And the SEC tournament starts its run in Music City starting in March a couple miles from campus.
HOPING FOR HENDERSON: Stallings hopes 6-11 center Josh Henderson. He picked Vanderbilt over the likes of Virginia, Wake Forest, Cincinnati and Maryland, but injuries limited him to eight games in 2011 and last season.
MAKE WAY FOR MOATS: Shelby Moats is a 6-8 forward who graduated from Vanderbilt in three years and has 10 career starts. Stallings says the senior who has a job waiting for him after graduate school has stepped up as a leader and has improved enough to force the coach to play him.