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 Tuesday, November 2
Blue Ribbon Yearbook

LOCATION: Nashville, TN
CONFERENCE: Southeastern (Eastern Division)
LAST SEASON: 14-15 (.483)
NICKNAME: Commodores
COLORS: Black & Gold
HOMECOURT: Memorial Gymnasium (15,311)
COACH: Kevin Stallings (Purdue '82)
record at school First year
career record 123-63 (6 years)
ASSISTANTS: Tim Jankovich (Kansas State '82)
Jeff Jackson (Cornell '83)
Steve Shurina (St. John's '88)
TEAM WINS: (last 5 years) 13-18-19-20-14
RPI (last 5 years) 94-61-43-46-109
1998-99 FINISH: Lost in conference first round.

ESPN.com Clubhouse

In the spring of 1997, it seemed so certain that Kevin Stallings, then the head coach at Illinois State, would switch to Tennessee that two state newspapers reported it as fact. Proving yet again that you can't believe everything you read, Stallings, after a visit to Knoxville, told Tennessee thanks, but no thanks.

Stallings might not have taken the job, but he hasn't been forgotten by Volunteer fans. Somehow, his career path keeps taking him close to Tennessee's doorstep.

The first time was a year after he turned down Tennessee. The scene was the first round of the NCAA Tournament in Sacramento, Calif., where Stallings and his Illinois State team were paired against Tennessee, which by this time was coached by Jerry Green.

The NCAA Tournament selection committee claims it doesn't go out of its way to plan intriguing first-round matchups, but this one seemed fishy. Paired against one another were teams coached by two men who had served on Roy Williams' staff at Kansas. One of them could have had the Tennessee job, and the other took it.

Much to the dismay of Tennessee fans, Illinois State won in overtime despite playing without starting guards Skipp Schaefbauer and Jamar Smiley, who were out with injuries.

The Big Orange faithful hadn't quite seen the last of Stallings. Imagine their surprise last spring when they picked up their newspapers and read who arch-rival Vanderbilt hired to replace former coach Jan van Breda Kolff. You guessed it.

Blue Ribbon Analysis

Kevin Stallings was destined to coach college basketball in Tennessee. After briefly considering the Tennessee job and then turning it down, Stallings went back to Illinois State for two seasons and waited for a big-time job to come open. He interviewed at Michigan and Ohio State, among others, but when Vanderbilt came calling, he thought the fit was perfect.

"It was a combination of fit and timing," Stallings said. "It's a good fit, because I think a lot of what's wrong with college basketball right now, you can avoid by coaching at Vanderbilt. It's tough for me to get into specifics, then it looks like I come out for a cause.

"Just say that at Vanderbilt, you have a chance to combine the best of both worlds, academically and athletically. It's obviously a great school, and basketball-wise, I just thought the tradition and level of enthusiasm among the fans and alumni were tremendous assets."

It might take Stallings a year or two to get the program running smoothly. Former coach Jan van Breda Kolff who resigned in February and was later hired at Pepperdine left behind some good players, but not much depth.

Our call for the Commodores is fourth place in the SEC East. With a little luck, that might be enough for an NIT bid.

After negotiating with three coaches with Duke connections Mike Brey of Delaware, Bob Bender of Washington and former Blue Devil assistant Quinn Snyder and being turned down by two of them, Vanderbilt athletic director Todd Turner lucked into the man many think was the right one for the job all along Kevin Stallings.

Turner didn't hire Stallings merely to gig Tennessee fans, but he received that little side benefit when Stallings, who had been in serious negotiations for at least two Big Ten jobs the last two years, came to Nashville.

"There has been some irony about the whole thing, certainly," Stallings said. "A lot of people I've run into in my travels around the state have asked 'Why Vanderbilt? Why not Tennessee?' Obviously, there are a large number of Tennessee fans in this state.

"But with the success Jerry's had at Tennesseee (41 wins and two NCAA trips in two years), I don't think there's any feelings among Tennessee fans that they missed out on anything. I don't feel any of that."

Nevertheless, the rivalry between Tennessee and Vanderbilt, which had begun to swing the Vols' way in the last two years of van Breda Kolff's tenure, is about to get interesting.

It might take Stallings a while to get things going, though. Van Breda Kolff left behind a team with some talent, but little depth. Stallings, who likes to lay up-tempo offensively and defensively, might have to shelve some of his system until he can recruit more players.

Stallings had a unique opportunity to get a head start on the rest of the SEC when he took the Commodores on a tour of Europe in August. Vanderbilt was 3-2 against European pro teams on the trip, but more importantly, the Commodores were able to get to know Stallings and his system.

"I like our level of togetherness," Stallings said. "I think our chemistry is pretty good. We have guys who want to please, who want to play hard and do the right things. We're not very deep, but just because of our numbers, not because of the level of quality. That will make it a challenge."

Stallings has a solid nucleus, led by 6-11 senior forward Dan Langhi (17.7 ppg, 7.3 rpg, 36 assists, 23 steals, .385 3 PT), a certain first-team All-SEC pick. Langhi is on Blue Ribbon's preseason All-SEC team, and with good reason. No player in the league and few in the country can match his combination of size and skill.

"Dan, as well as any player I've ever coached, has the three ingredients of a good offensive player," Stallings said. "He's got an excellent post-up game, an excellent perimeter game and an excellent mid-range game.

"He can put the ball on the floor and get to the foul line. He can get in the lane and pop up and shoot. He can post you and he can hit the three. He can score in any way with regularity. That makes him difficult to cover."

A year ago, Langhi led the Commodores and was second in the SEC in scoring. He was also seventh in field-goal percentage (.418), sixth in three-point percentage and ninth in rebounding as he earned second-team All-SEC honors.

Langhi comes into his senior season slightly bigger and stronger (thought still no heavyweight at 215 pounds). And judging by Vanderbilt's August practices and games, his jumper was on automatic pilot. He led the Commodores in scoring in every game during the trip, once torching a team from France with 36 points.

"It's kind of an amazing thing," Stallings said. "I don't know if I've ever had a guy who can (score) from so many places on the floor as Dan."

Langhi can play either forward spot, but after the mid-August departure of Michael LeBlanc, a 6-7 junior who was dismissed from the team, he will play small forward.

With Langhi at small forward, it leaves the power-forward spot open for 6-7 junior Anthony Williams (5.3 ppg, 5.8 rpg), a rebounding machine who played in all 29 games last season, starting five. Williams was Vanderbilt's second-leading rebounder last season. He finished his high school career in Alabama as that state's all-time leading rebounder with more than 1,400 and that skill has translated well to the college game.

Williams got adventurous last season and moved his game outside the paint. That didn't do wonders for his field-goal percentage (.400), but he managed to shoot a respectable .313 percent (10 for 32) from three-point range.

Stallings will probably coax Williams back to the low post, where he can help out 6-9 junior center Greg LaPointe (9.4 ppg, 4.3 rpg, 25 assists, 16 steals, 16 blocked shots). LaPointe is a versatile player who has the full range of skills. Unfortunately, he didn't get much use from Vanderbilt's trip to Europe because of back problems.

"But he'll be a mainstay for us, a real steady guy," Stallings said. "He's definitely our best post player."

Stallings hopes work-in-progress Darius Coulibaly (1.0 ppg, 2.2 rpg, eight blocked shots), a 7-1 redshirt sophomore, continues his development. Coulibaly has put in his time trying to get bigger and stronger, and now weighs 240 pounds. There's no question he'll see more action than he did last season (6.7 minutes per game).

"Darius is going to play," Stallings said. "I think he can help. He's got some learning to do, but he's willing. And he's obviously got some things going for him that you can't teach."

Another youngster who could develop into a player before he leaves Nashville is 6-8 redshirt freshman Sam Lekwauwa, who was such an excellent student in high school he graduated at 16 and enrolled at Vanderbilt. Lekwauwa is still only 17 and has a lot to learn, but Stallings likes him.

"Sam made the most progress of anybody from the start of practice to the end," Stallings said. "He's very athletic, and does a good job of posting and a good job of rebounding. He's young, and he's got a chance to make a lot of progress. His effort level has increased so much. Having not played last year, he didn't know what it was all about."

Lekwauwa is intelligent, which will speed his development. He scored 1340 on the SAT when he was 15, so he's more than equipped for the academic load at Vanderbilt and Stallings' playbook.

Lekwauwa played his final season of high school basketball at Mt. Tabor in Winston-Salem, N.C., averaging 14.3 points, 10.0 rebounds, 3.6 assists and 1.7 blocked shots.

If Vanderbilt seems a bit thin in the frontcourt, the backcourt situation isn't much better, despite the presence of three veterans. The quality is good, the quantity not nearly so after the defection in September of sophomore Deandre Moore, who took a free trip to Europe before announcing he was transferring to rejoin van Breda Kolff at Pepperdine.

Stallings likes his backcourt trio of 6-1 senior point guard Atiba Prater (5.9 ppg, 2.2 rpg, 82 assists, 42 steals), 6-3 senior shooting guard James Strong (9.1 ppg, 3.1 rpg, 73 assists, 77 steals) and 6-3 redshirt sophomore Sam Howard (8.0 ppg, 2.1 rpg).

Prater is a solid lead guard who can become Vanderbilt's all-time assist leader this season. He has 338 career assists, seventh on Vanderbilt's all-time list. Prater needs to hand out only 118 assists to break Frank Seckar's school record of 455.

Prater's shooting (.336 FG, .282 3 PT, .568 FT) can use some work, but Stallings isn't counting on him to score that much.

"Atiba really played well on our trip," Stallings said. "He did a great job of controlling things and controlling the tempo. I was really pleased with his play."

Prater is also a good defender, but Strong might be even better. A year ago, he set a school record with 77 steals. His average of 2.66 steals per game led the SEC. Strong, like Prater, isn't the greatest outside shooter (.308 percent from three-point range), but he finds ways to score. He excels in the open court.

"James is so athletic," Stallings said. "His athleticism makes him a factor both defensively and offensively. Our philosophy is to try to play the game in an open court situation as much as we can. That will really benefit James."

If Stallings needs some perimeter scoring, he can turn to Howard, who shot .367 percent from three-point range as a freshman. Howard would be the first to admit his defense is weak, but he makes up for that deficiency with his shooting ability.

Howard reached double figures 11 times as a freshman, scoring his career high of 22 points (on six of 11 three-point shooting) against eventual Final Four team Ohio State and its great backcourt of Scoonie Penn and Michael Redd.

"Sam does so much to stretch the defense," Stallings said. "He's dangerous and a real scoring threat. He'll be an asset to us because of that ability."

Stallings didn't have time to recruit much help. He got involved with several prospects, but was able to lure just one, Rick Jones of Scott County (Ky.) High School, to Nashville. Stallings had some anxious moments waiting out Jones, with whom he had developed a relationship while recruiting him to Illinois State.

As most good high school players in Kentucky do, Jones grew up dreaming of playing college ball at the state school. Jones held out hope that Kentucky coach Tubby Smith would extend a scholarship offer or even invite him to walk on. When no offer came from Lexington, Jones decided to go with his original instincts and play for Stallings.

The 6-1 Jones is definitely an SEC-level player. Kentucky's Mr. Basketball a year ago, he averaged 17.5 points and 5.0 assists. Jones is a point guard by trade, but his shooting range is deep. That skill might allow him to back up both guard spots.

With just 10 players on the roster, Jones will get some minutes.

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