Despite key losses, don't overlook 'Dores

As Vanderbilt's starting point guard, Dee Davis specializes in setting others up.

But at the recent SEC media day, the junior had no trouble taking on the tough questions by herself.

"We're not expected to be a team to be reckoned with," Davis said.

That's because last season's top scorer and rebounder, Ashley Earley, has graduated, as well as Abi Ramsey. Combined, the two accounted for 38 percent of Vanderbilt's 77 points per game in 2004-05. Earley, who averaged 18.4 points and 9.4 rebounds, was a unanimous All-SEC first-team honoree last season. Ramsey set a single-season record last year with 87 3-pointers made.

Still, the Commodores are regarded as one of the top four teams in the highly competitive SEC, return plenty of talent and welcome a heralded group of freshmen that was ranked as high as the nation's No. 7 recruiting class.

Junior post Carla Thomas -- who like Davis was an All-SEC second-team pick last season -- is the top returning offensive threat. She's extremely versatile -- "She can drop down, hit a 15-17-foot jumper or drive to the basket," Vanderbilt coach Melanie Balcomb says -- and often creates matchup problems for opponents. Thomas ranked second on the team last season in both scoring (15.9 ppg) and rebounding (6.5 rpg), and shot 54 percent from the field and 80 percent at the free-throw line.

Davis dished out 192 assists last season, sank 40 3-pointers and ranked third in scoring (13.3 ppg). She'll likely be joined in the backcourt by Caroline Williams, who started 14 games last season. More importantly, Williams knocked down 48 3-pointers, hitting 51 percent from downtown (48-for-95).

Only one other returner -- junior guard Cherish Stringfield -- started at least one game last season (she started three), but don't panic yet. Liz Sherwood, a 6-foot-4 center who sat out last season after transferring from Connecticut, is expected to team inside with Thomas. She could give Vanderbilt a potent high-low game, and needs to take advantage of the extra space she might get under the basket when Thomas and her solid jump shooting draws the defense away from the hoop. Sherwood, a Big East all-freshman team selection in 2004, averaged 4.3 points and 1.8 boards while 58 percent from the field in only 8.5 minutes per game.

Another transfer, 6-3 forward Rachel Brockman (Daytona Beach CC), also is a newcomer worth keeping an eye on.

Of Vanderbilt's four freshmen, 6-1 guard/forward Christina Wirth is the most notable -- and most likely to break into the starting lineup. She's versatile enough to play the four and can extend out where her height can create some mismatch problems and get her some open looks from beyond the arc. The Arizona native, whose father, Alan Wirth, played baseball for the Oakland Athletics and San Francisco Giants, tallied 2,550 points, 1,173 rebounds, 312 steals, 266 assists and 120 blocks in high school. Wirth also has won two gold medals with USA Basketball, on the U-19 team this past summer and the 2004 Junior World Championship squad.

Balcomb, who's entering her third season at Vanderbilt and has put together an extremely tough nonconference schedule, has led the Commodores to two consecutive trips to the Sweet 16. Vanderbilt came on strong late last season, winning 11 of its final 14 games, ending the season with a loss to Michigan State, which went on to reach the NCAA title game.

Vanderbilt will most likely replace Earley's points by committee, but rebounding remains the biggest question. The Commodores ranked seventh in the SEC last season in rebounding -- and that was with Earley. That said, the team is bigger and expected to be stronger than last season.

Melanie Jackson coordinates ESPN.com's women's basketball coverage. She can be reached at melanie.j.jackson.-ND@espn3.com.