The 2015-16 Vanderbilt basketball campaign is upon us. After a promising close to 2014-15 season with a run to the NIT quarterfinals the expectations for this team are sky high. The Dores are checked in at #18 in the AP and #20 in the Coaches preseason polls. Add potential All-American center Damian Jones and a great supporting cast to the plot to give Vandy fans all the preseason excitement they need. You wouldn’t be a Vandy fan if you didn’t proceed with caution though. Expectations have been significant in the early part of this decade, only to see the 2010, 2011 and 2012 teams fall short of postseason greatness. So the question has to be asked, will this team live up to the hype?
The aforementioned teams all had great star power, including three of the top 31 picks in the 2012 draft. Despite those talented rosters the Commodores were only able to come away with one postseason win. Compare that success to the teams of 2004 and 2007, featuring squads that made it to the Sweet 16, and you are left to wonder what separated these teams. The answer to me is very simple, leadership. The 2004 team hung their hat on the emotion and superb play of Matt Freije. The 2007 team was led by Derrick Byars. What made these two players so significant? Their ability to be coached by Kevin Stallings.
It is no secret that Stallings demands a great deal out of his players. There is certainly nothing wrong with that. Freije and Byars were able to handle the demands and lead their teams to postseason greatness. The grind of college basketball takes a great deal out of 18-22 year old kids. Add a demanding coach and late season fades can be a common occurrence. Freije and Byars could not only handle that stress but were able to elevate their teams in the process. They certainly weren’t the only factors or players that added to those squads success, but their toughness and demeanor in the spotlight certainly played into those teams shining in the postseason. The 2010-12 squads featured some great players and some good leaders, but none with the swagger that these player portrayed.
So this begs the question, does this 2015-16 team have that kind of leader? I certainly think so. Enter Wade Baldwin. Baldwin isn’t the most heralded player on this team but he is certainly the toughest. Baldwin sets the offense, plays with emotion and has shown that he can handle the demands of playing for Stallings. Last year his will was tested during a very public tirade from Stallings following the Tennessee game. Baldwin took the high road, handled it with class and backed his coach. This kind of character is exactly what this team needs. It is a cohesive group that gets along and has all the talent it needs to be a breakthrough team. If Baldwin can be the X factor leader that the 2004 and 2007 teams had this team will most certainly make this a season to remember for Vandy fans.