Looking ahead: Vanderbilt Commodores

It’s never too early to start to look ahead to next season. Over the coming weeks, we will examine what comes next for each team in the Power 5 conferences and also those outside the Power 5 who could make noise on the national stage. Today: The Vanderbilt Commodores.

"Under the radar" is one of our most painfully overused sports platitudes, and just about everyone involved -- participants, media members and fans -- shares some of the guilt. Sheer overuse would be bad enough, but "under the radar" has the twin drawback of being maddeningly vague. Whose radar? How often does this radar ping? Are "people" giving your team enough credit? Which people? Meanwhile, for fans, "under the radar" seems to stand in for "hate" or "bias" -- the idea that a player or a team is being willfully disregarded. The best one can do is avoid such phrases altogether.

And yet, sometimes the phrase is just too evocative to avoid. Sometimes it just fits.

For example: The 2014-15 Vanderbilt Commodores.

Little attention was paid to Vanderbilt at the start of the 2014-15 season, and understandably so. After 16-17 and 15-16 records in back-to-back seasons, coach Kevin Stallings' rotation featured five freshmen, two sophomores and two seniors. One of seniors was forward Josh Henderson, who barely played. Stallings' 2014 class had talent a couple of four-star talents in its ranks, but no obvious, immediate stars. This was a young team with two forgettable seasons behind it; this was a rebuilding season. Why would anyone expect anything from that?

Then the Commodores closed out November with a neutral-court loss to putrid Rutgers. Worse yet was a 1-7 start in SEC play, which included a conference-opening win over Auburn and then seven straight losses. Vanderbilt was 11-10 overall on Jan. 31, its best win over a Purdue team that, to that point, still hadn't emerged as a Big Ten force. End of story, right?

Well ... sort of. Vanderbilt's struggles to that point made it safe to ignore them through the finish; the Commodores were guaranteed to be outside the NCAA tournament bubble no matter how well they played down the stretch. But Stallings' team went ahead and gave it a run anyway. From February on, Vanderbilt finished the regular season 8-2 -- the kind of second-half SEC turnaround that can't be entirely credited to a softer schedule, culminating with a road win at Ole Miss. By that point, Vanderbilt was 9-9 in league play and 19-12 overall, and its fans were tweeting a certain Bubble Watcher pleading for closer inspection. Once in the NIT, Vandy beat St. Mary's and South Dakota State before losing to eventual runner-up Stanford 78-75 at home.

Few outside Nashville noticed. But with the benefit of perspective, there is much more to like about Vanderbilt's 2014-15 than it seemed: An excellent offense that shot 39.6 percent from 3-point territory and finished fourth in the SEC in points per trip, and 19th nationally in adjusted offense, and a solid first-shot defense that merely needs to rebound better to take a major leap forward.

By the time Vanderbilt finished its entirely unheralded 2014-15 season, the Commodores ranked 36th in adjusted efficiency. And they are only getting more experienced and talented, this summer.

What the immediate future holds:

First, the first half of that equation: Essentially everyone -- reserve freshman guard Shelton Mitchell notwithstanding -- from the 2014-15 roster will be back in 2015-16. Vanderbilt's bright young things are led by center Damian Jones, who became a serious shot-blocking force on defense as a sophomore, took on large shares of both touches and shots (and drawn fouls) on offense, and improved as a rebounder on both ends of the floor. Similar improvement as a junior will earn Jones an even greater share of NBA draft hype, which first flared up in earnest this spring.

Offensively, Jones is the literal centerpiece, and Stallings has surrounded him with excellent perimeter threats. Wade Baldwin IV, Matthew Fisher-Davis and Riley LaChance formed a freshman trio with strong names who also happened to be knockdown 3-point shooters. Sophomore 7-footer Luke Kornet shot 50-for-123 from 3, and freshman small forward Jeff Roberson showed a fair bit of promise coming off the bench. Again, everyone is back.

They'll be joined by Stallings' second top-100 prospect in as many seasons: Chicago Whitney Young product Joseph Toye. For years, scouts figured Toye as a limitless athlete with relatively limited technique -- a potentially great defender and little more. Recent signs of an expanded skill set landed him on the top 100 this spring. Even if Toye is just a super-athletic kid with chaotic defensive potential, he could be exactly what Vanderbilt needs. If his development continues, he could be far more.

His team could be capable of far more, too. If the Commodores merely play as well as they did after Jan. 31 last season, their baseline is an NCAA tournament-type team. But if they keep getting better? If they improve at the rate they did this past winter, even as the SEC losses piled up? Then Stallings' team will be much more than that. It'll be a worthy SEC title challenger, if not more.

Or, more succinctly: What's the opposite of "under the radar"?