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The Dagger: College Basketball Blog

Return of core trio raises expectations significantly for Vandy

Ryan Greene
The Dagger

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Quietly, Vanderbilt has been the home to one of college basketball's most stable basketball programs in recent years.

Why so quiet, though?

Well, what's kept the Commodores from moving into the elite upper crust is a lack of recent NCAA tournament success. While Vandy has made the NCAAs in four of the last five seasons, they've suffered three consecutive first-round losses — all to double-digit seeds — including last month's 69-66 setback against No. 12 Richmond.

Next season, Kevin Stallings' club will find excuses all but impossible to come by if they make another early exit in March.

On Thursday, while SEC neighbor Kentucky lost three of its top pieces as potential early entrants into June's NBA draft, Vandy retained its core trio.

Juniors Festus Ezeli and Jeffery Taylor, along with star sophomore guard John Jenkins, all announced that they'll be back for the 2011-12 campaign. Immediately, Vanderbilt becomes arguably the team to beat in the top-heavy SEC and a likely preseason Top-10 club. {YSP:MORE}

Jenkins led the league in scoring (19.5 ppg) this season, establishing himself as one of the nation's more prolific outside shooters, hitting roughly three 3-pointers per game. Taylor and Ezeli combined to average 27.7 points and 11.8 boards on the front line. The Commodores' other two starters from a team that won 23 games — seniors-to-be Brad Tinsley and Lance Gouldbourne — are also back.

The kicker is the addition of two impressive incoming freshman guards in Dai-Jon Parker and Kedren Johnson.

"I commend and applaud them for the intelligent and diligent way they approached this process in making their decision," Stallings said. "Their return certainly positions our team for an exciting season next year."

Added Ezeli: "We're going to be a better team next year, and we still have a lot of unfinished business. After the loss in the tournament, I can't leave on that note. There's no rush for me to want to leave."

In all honesty, each of the three probably made the wise choice in opting to come back. They all have professional careers in their futures, and recent history has proven that some NCAA tournament success will only boost their individual profiles.

It would also help take Vanderbilt's program to the next level. All of the pieces are officially in place for that to happen.

Ryan Greene also covers UNLV and the Mountain West Conference for the Las Vegas Sun. Read his Rebels coverage and follow him on Twitter.

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