SEC preview: The Vanderbilt Commodores

Prior to the commencement of the 2008-2009 college basketball season, I will profile teams in two conferences, as well as various other teams around the country. Today begins Southeastern Conference coverage, with the Vanderbilt Commodores.

If last year was a rebuilding year for Vanderbilt, as many said, then they did well. SEC coaches and media members last week tabbed the Commodores as this year’s conference champions, topping Tennessee by 12 points and second runner-up Auburn by 27.

Yet, in an ESPN poll just released today, Vanderbilt is picked to finish 12th (while Tennessee is seventh – Whichever the case ends up being, the word is out that the Commodores will be in the running.

Much of this is due to what the Vandy coaching staff refers to as “the two-headed monster” of guards Jence Rhoads, a sophomore, and junior Jessica Mooney. Rhoads started her team’s final 21 games last season and earned SEC all-freshmen honors, while Mooney was named the conference’s sixth woman of the year. Head Coach Melanie Balcomb said the combination is dangerous because Mooney allows Vandy to “wear down other teams while we have fresh legs.”

In that case, maybe the Commodores have a six-headed monster. After graduating three all-conference seniors in 2007, last year’s team featured one senior and several underclasswomen. This year, all five starters, plus Mooney, return.

“We’ve never had that here,” Balcomb said. “We’ve been graduating our leading scorer almost every year – usually more.”

Last year’s scoring leader was forward/center Christina Wirth. Along with fellow senior guard Jennifer Risper, Vanderbilt’s second-leading scorer, the two are poised to lead the team. Balcomb said both are well-conditioned, and their “mental toughness” will lead a group that includes four sophomores and two freshmen.

Other returning starters are guards Merideth Marsh and Rhoads, and forward Hannah Tuomi. Marsh, a junior, played point guard in high school, but moved to shooting guard with the arrival of Rhoads last year. Balcomb was pleased with Marsh’s work at the 2, and will keep her there.

The coach also indicated she will rely heavily on the bench this season for paint play – specifically, forwards Amber Norton, Rebecca Silinski and Amy Malo. The latter two have battled injuries the last couple years, but are ready to make a contribution.

Vandy’s two new freshmen are Tia Gibbs from Louisville, KY and Jordan Coleman of Orlando, FL. Gibbs lead her team to a state championship last year, and was named Ms. Kentucky Basketball. Coleman won all-state honors in both track and basketball.

The Commodores get their start tomorrow with a home exhibition game against Tusculum. After a second pre-season game, their schedule gets brutal.

In November, they face Texas A&M, Western Kentucky, East Tennessee State and Michigan. A California trip will take them to Cal State Fullerton (I’m going to that one) and UC Riverside in December. After that, they go home to face Liberty and Notre Dame at the end of the month. The team will play their home games on a brand-new floor.

“Last season, we started what I thought was our best defensive team since I’ve been here, so I’m really looking forward to seeing what we are capable of defensively this year,” Balcomb said.