On Wednesday night, the Vanderbilt Commodores will host the Mississippi State Bulldogs in what will be the final home game for Commodore seniors Alex Gordon, Shan Foster, Alan Metcalfe and Ross Neltner. The game will also be the final home game for former player Davis Nwankwo, who has spent the last three years alongside his classmates on the Commodore sidelines following a heart condition that prematurely shortened his playing career.
Like with any other senior class on any Vanderbilt varsity sport, these soon-to-be graduates of the university have had a special breed of both athletic achievement and academic excellence.
Gordon, Foster and Metcalfe, the three four-year seniors on the roster, will go down in history as the winningest group of seniors in the over 105 years of Vanderbilt basketball as together, they have been a part of 83 wins for the program since the 2004-2005 season.
Also, together with former LSU transfer Ross Neltner, the senior class will be a part of the first group of Commodores to make back-to-back NCAA tournament appearences since the 1988 and 1989 tournaments when the Commodores were led by now legendary players Barry Booker and Barry Goheen.
This season, the Commodores currently sit at 24-5 and have posted the second-most wins in the regular season in Vanderbilt history, with only one victory away from tying Vanderbilt's 1992-93 SEC Championship squad. Vanderbilt has also set a new standard for performance in Memorial Gym this season, as the Commodores are 18-0 on the year, the best mark in school history. Should the Commodores defeat the visiting Bulldogs on Wednesday, it would mark the sixth undefeated mark for a season inside Memorial Gym and first since the 92-93 Commodores.
Commodore fans from all over, will not only be honoring this team in their final home game of the season on Wednesday but many will celebrate the careers of the five special seniors playing their final game inside one of the most storied buildings in the Southeastern Conference.
VandySports.com would also like to celebrate the seniors careers and has asked various members of its online community to give their thoughts on five young men who will forever be etched in their memories.
Jake Lowery, VandySports.com staff contributor and Vanderbilt University graduate, Class of 2006
"Davis Nwankwo has one of the most positive presences of any player, or even any student on campus. Fighting through knee injuries early in his career before being sidelined by his heart condition, Davis played and practiced with heart and a true appreciation of his giftedness. Even though he hasn't been on the court, his dedication to the program has made a positive impact behind the scenes.
"If a few things had gone differently, Alan would have been an everyday starter his junior and senior seasons. He is the kind of untouted player who could surprise pundits with his contributions in the postseason, especially if he finds a groove with that baby hook. He forces opponents to respect his presence on the offensive end, and he has always played hardnosed, physical defense while buying minutes for VU's starters in the post. I wish that a redshirt season had fit into his and the program's plans earlier in his career, because the Commodores will greatly miss his strength coming off the bench.
"Flash back to last year's SEC tournament matchup against Arkansas. Vanderbilt is down by a point with only seconds to play. Derrick Byars draws the defense to him as he drives the lane, and passes to a wide open Shan Foster in the corner. That was the last open three in a clutch situation that Shan Foster will ever miss. Any SEC coach that saw his reaction to missing that shot probably felt some sympathy, but they should have been feeling a paralyzing fear. Everybody who knew Shan, knew he would never let himself miss a shot like that again. I was on campus for Shan's freshman and sophomore years, and the rising star was always humble and easy to talk to. When I got to Memorial early to secure a front-row student section seat, Shan was more often than not the first player to show up on the court to take shots, and from what I understand, this was representative of his attitude towards practice and preparation in general. Shan represents Vanderbilt with style and sincerity. Anyone who has ever spoken with him, from students and fans to coaches, student managers, or the media, only has positive things to say about his attitude and personality.
"Alex Gordon has changed his game to fit what this program has needed from him - from a shooter and scoring threat to a pass-first floor general point guard and back again. His team-first attitude was reflected not only by his changing roles, but also by his response when his starting role was challenged by then true freshman Jermaine Beal. An underrated shooter often overshadowed by the likes of Mario Moore, Derrick Byars, and Shan Foster, Red has been a lethal scoring threat from the moment he dropped 30 on Tennessee in his freshman year. Alex has been a huge part of this program's growth over the past four years, and will be remembered as a player who made his teammates better.
"Ross, along with Dan Cage, stepped up in a big way last season, defending players with more size and strength to make Vanderbilt's potent 4-guard lineup a reality. Ross is a classic example of a player who knows how he can contribute and where he can fit into a system, and doesn't try to be something that he's not. Ross has shown the ability to step up and score points when needed, and is consistently solid on the defensive end of the court.
"Ross and Alex in particular have played second fiddle to Shan and AJ this year, and have done a good job of it. Without their contributions as serious offensive threats and solid defensive players, and without their willingness to accept constantly changing roles and challenges from talented younger players, this team wouldn't have the mix of talent, the leadership, or the team chemistry to make a postseason run."
Danny Sawyer, VandySports.com message board moderator and basketball contributor
"To me, Alex "Red" Gordon, just defines what Kevin Stallings is looking for in his players. Guys who are fearless and aren't afraid to fail. Hard nosed guys who love to play and aren't afraid to leave some skin on the floor while doing so. Does he always take the right shot or make the right defensive read? No. But name another guy you'd rather have at the free throw line in crunchtime. Name another guy who sticks his nose in traffic at 5-foot, 10 inches tall and pulls those tough rebounds.
He is so tough-minded and such a winner. I really feel like the old mold of Vanderbilt players at the point or off-guard position was broken when Red arrived on campus and we're all the better for it as a program.
"On Alan, I'm really appreciative of what he has brought to this team in terms of chemistry. I think you see everything you need to see in the guy when you watch his bench demeanor. He has been replaced by a true freshman who has been getting an incredible amount of attention, and justifiably so. But yet he's still the first guy off the bench to congratulate his teammates. And he still enjoys the highs of winning as much as Shan or AJ or anyone else who played a majority of the minutes.
"I think it really shows his character when you see him interact with his teammates. He's also had what I would consider a productive year off the bench. He knows his role and he plays hard to fill it each night."
Will Pridemore, VandySports.com message board moderator and Vanderbilt University graduate, Class of 2005
"It's hard to describe how important Shan has been to the program. He came in as the highest profile recruit in the class and has lived up to the hype. He's become the best shooter in the league and is invaluable because he can get his shot off against anyone. He's also a great leader that everyone can rally around. He's been the best player on the best team we've had in many years. He deserves everything he gets and I hope to see a lot more of him in a Commodore uniform.
"Red is THE heart and soul of this team. He's a consummate leader and has worked really hard to get to where he is. I'll never forget his 30 point game against Tennessee his freshman year or how great he was at running the point for last year's Sweet 16 team.
"We haven't seen a whole lot of Alan until this year and he's done a great job of backing up AJ and as playing enforcer in the lane. It's clear he's improved since his freshman year where he just looked lost out on the court. I got to witness what was probably Alan's greatest game at DePaul this season where he led the comeback from 18 down in the second half. Now if someone could invent a hybrid rugby-basketball game, he might be my first overall pick.
"We saw just two years of Ross Neltner in a Commodore uniform, but his contributions to the team's success were huge. He played out of position for a whole season, but he was more than adequate against the likes of Randolph Morris, Glen Davis, Roy Hibbert, etc. This year he's seen his ups and downs, but he has provided good leadership and was instrumental in winning several games (at Georgia comes to mind).
"Well with Davis Nwankwo, we hardly knew ye. It's a shame we only got to see one year from you on the court, but it would have been a bigger shame had the medical staff been unable to resuscitate you. It's a tribute to your character and the parents that raised you that you've been able to take a manger role while the players you entered Vanderbilt with have found immense success on the court.
The most memorable moments from each of these guys would be when Shan outdueled Chris Lofton in the win against Tennessee this year and the breakaway layup to seal the win over Washington State last year.
"With Red, his 30 point performance against Tennessee. With Alan, the DePaul game and most specifically his three-point barrage.
"With Ross, his assist to Dan Cage on the run out to get the win at Rupp last season. And with Davis, seeing him on the sideline for the first time after he collapsed."
Daniel Rosenburg, VandySports.com member and soon to be Vanderbilt University Class of 2008 graduate
"As you know, this class has a very special place in my heart, as they are my class. I remember seeing these guys as freshmen when I lived in Branscomb, and just being so impressed with their development over the years. I also distinctly remember seeing Shan in my first ever VU class, and now he is in one of my classes in my very last semester here.
"As much as a love all of these guys, one stands out in particular to me is Davis Nwankwo. He lived across the hall from me in Lupton, and was always down-to-earth, genuine and talkative. I was so sad when I heard what happened to him in our sophomore year, not because of his potential on the court, but because of the kind of guy he was. To me, he exemplifies what VU is all about. He did not give up after that, and instead, he rededicated himself to be a superior student and teammate. I hate that he gets left out of a lot of senior leadership conversations, as I know he has been a consummate teammate and a true inspiration to many of the players.
"This senior class exemplifies the turnaround that VU is seeing, institutionally and athletically. In their and my four years here, VU has climbed the Princeton Review and US News rankings as well as the Associated Press rankings in a multitude of sports. Truly, we are seeing a renewed commitment to excellence across the board, and while this class is only partly responsible for it, they demonstrate how it has been done. With class, determination, patience and hard work. That the senior class has stayed largely intact, and that all of them actually stayed for their senior years, speaks of their character and reinforces the notion that VU really does do things the right way.
"This class of guys, Ross, Alan, Red, Shan, Davis and yes, even DeMarre Carroll, will always be my guys, and their faces are those which I will always associate with VU Basketball, and sports more generally.
"From Red dropping 30 on Tennessee as a freshman, to Shan breaking the scoring record, to talking Metcalfe at Wendy's after the Kentucky beatdown or Ross's pass to Cage in the corner against Kentucky, and riding up and down the Lupton elevator with Davis as a freshman, this team has meant so much to me in calcifying my love and support for all things VU.
"And one last thing. After the win over UT this year, Shan was in my class at nine AM the next day. Indeed, he walked in and right after, the professor said "I would not begrudge him for missing today". After a slight ovation, the Professor told him that there were times that he wanted to just turn the television off and walk away. To this, Shan responded "There were times that I wanted to walk away too, but then I just realized I had to go down the court and make a shot". That's what these guys are about. Being in a nine AM class the day after making their shots and playing a game like that, and showing the whole country how you can do things the right way."
John Hamilton, VandySports.com member and contributor
"I've always rooted for Alex Gordon because he's from Pensacola, which I consider to be my hometown. I'll always remember the night he dropped 30 on UT as a Freshman. Amazing, he couldn't be stopped that night. The thing that impresses me most about him though, is that I think he's always changed his game to do what was best for the team. I think his sophomore and junior seasons he would have preferred to have been more of a scorer, but he knew that Coach Kevin Stallings wanted him to be primarily a floor leader and assist guy on offense, and that is what he did. That unselfish attitude makes him a great leader and role model for the younger guys on the team.
"The thing that I'll always associate with Shan Foster is that beautiful, high arching shot. Every time he shoots a ball from the 3 point line, I expect it to go in. I am always surprised when he misses a long shot; his accuracy is just amazing. For all those threes though, the shot I'll remember most of his is the put back he had to beat Tennessee during his junior year. Which is interesting, because I was not able to attend that game in person - one of the few home games that I've missed while he was here. But Joe Fisher's call made me think I was watching it.
"One senior I don't want people to forget is Davis Nwankwo. While he may not have had a huge impact on the playing court, I think he's had a huge impact on this team. I think that what happened with Davis really brought this senior group more closely together, impacting how they played. And I think that Davis' near tragedy has helped Kevin Stallings to become a better person and coach. I get the sense that it may have helped him learn how to lead these young men better and on a more personal level.
"As a group, what I'll remember is that this group of seniors started about a year after I moved back to Nashville. So I've been able to experience them personally - watch their games, meeting many of them, etc. They are all fine young men that I'm proud to have representing my university. They are also the group that really opened up my 8-year old son's eyes to VU Basketball. He is a true black-and-gold fan now, and he can not wait to watch their last home game on Wednesday night and say goodbye. It is quite an experience to see him in the backyard shooting baskets, and pretending to be Shan Foster or Alex Gordon making a big shot."
Robert Smoot, VandySports.com member and basketball contributor
"Alan Metcalfe, team spirit personified is what I think of Alan. He was one of my wife's favorites, all because, especially during his freshman and sophomore years, he was almost always the first off the bench to congratulate or give high fives to teammates coming off the floor. I also remember all the 3's he hit versus Depaul this year, without Alan, Vanderbilt never wins that game.
"Alex "Red" Gordon, supreme confidence and a spit fire demeanor is what I think of him. Not sure if I've seen a player that would take Coach Kevin Stalling's worst tirades, not even give a shrug, then go back out and nail a three-pointer. Also, I think his range was unreal, and actually, he has a better shot from 25, 26 feet versus 20 feet. I remember many "bombs" he hit, including the long range shot versus South Carolina this year. I actually remember the first scrimmage he played as a freshman, I think he nailed two or three three's that game, and I remember thinking at the time, Mario would have trouble keeping the point guard position from him. I remember his 30 point game vs UT his freshman year. But really, just his attitude on the court is what I will remember most about "Red".
"Shan Foster, Geez, I don't know, Shan may now be my all time favorite player at Vanderbilt, for many, many reasons. The way he held himself on and off the court with supreme class. The way he grew as a basketball ball player during each year he was here, from the jumping jack he was early in his freshman year, I still remember his first slam, coming down the baseline and almost going parallel to the floor as he slammed it home, hearing people in the crowd exclaim "that is what we were waiting for", to the the ultimate team leader he is now. he leads by example, his play, his effort, vocally, in every way, shape, and form.
"The way Shan had his true breakout game when he hit contested shot after contested shot at Memphis in the NIT, to what most thought was the game winning three-pointer at Alabama his sophomore year with two seconds left, I choose to forget what happened after that, to then his confidence to fire a second three-pointer late in regulation of the WSU game, giving VU a one-point lead after just missing one seconds earlier, to ALL The big shots he has already hit this year including Depaul, Kentucky, South Carolina, Arkansas, and so on. Oh, and his step back two-pointer late vs KY last year, really got VU on that great run it had.
"Also, how Shan seems to hit every three-pointer with someone dead in his face, I don't think I have ever seen anyone that can hit those shots at Vanderbilt in 30 years, and not sure I will see another in my lifetime. Shan Foster, he's the SEC Player of the Year, its not going to be quite the same at Memorial without #32 shooting those behind the head jump shots next year, its just not.
"To Davis Nwankwo, Thanks for coaching this team, thanks for being a advocate for VU, I believe he had to help in recruiting players like Steve Tchiengang to Vanderbilt. And, we as fans are just glad you are still on this earth, just seeing him puts great perspective on what college really is all about.
"Ross Neltner, it's attitude, team leadership, good team guy, that is what I think. Oh, and his two three-pointers versus Florida at Memorial last year, from his favorite spot, the top of the key, one three in each half. I've always thought the Florida game last year was Ross's shining moment at VU."
Additional thoughts from VandySports.com publisher, Jesse Johnson
I know that I speak for my fellow publishers Chris Lee and Mike Rapp, when I say it has been a pleasure to cover and watch the careers of these five student-athletes. What most fans see on the court every winter is what you see behind the scenes as well. These men always exhibit class as well as a camaraderie that every Commodore fan, Vanderbilt classmate and alumni, should be very proud of.
Four of the five came to Vanderbilt as one of its best recognized recruiting classes in recent history and based on the amount of wins they have experienced as well as the accomplishments each of them have made, it is safe to say that the class lived up to its advance status. Another senior, Ross Neltner, transferred into the program three years ago and has proved to be a solid starter for the past two seasons while serving the role of the tough, do-everything type player that is often vital for a team to make it to the NCAA tournament out of the competitive Southeastern Conference.
Perhaps what I will personally remember about all of these guys, aside from their obvious talents and accomplishments, are their personalities.
What you see is what you get with Shan Foster. Not just a sensational scorer who is often too unselfish for his own good, Foster is always gracious after a win and complimentary of his teammates and does not seem to have a rude bone in his body. What I will also remember about Shan is how loved he is by his family and how devoted he is to his faith. After every Commodore home game, while the journalists are pounding away on their keyboards, you will always here a couple of ladies scream and woo for Shan once he comes out of the locker room. Those ladies are of course, members of Foster's family. It this day and time, there is just something special about families, especially when it comes to something like colliegate sports. Foster's faith is also something I will remember. No matter what you believe in or how you treat things, when you see someone who believes and is devoted to a cause, it is inspiring. He's not preachy and he doesn't just put his faith out there when he does something great. No, Foster seems to always be thankful of what he has regardless if he scores 30 points or no points, whether he wins or he loses. Someone who is like that, has my complete respect.
Just as with Shan, what you see is what you get with Alex "Red" Gordon. The guy is all heart, all courage and fire and passion. As some have said before, Gordon does seem to be an extension of Coach Stallings himself. One thing I will remember about Red is well, just him. It seems as though every single time he is around his teammates, he's either cutting up or just says something that often brings laughter from his teammates. He has been a good player for Vanderbilt but I think more importantly, he's been a good, emotional leader.
What I'll remember about Ross Neltner is his toughness and the fact that he knows his role and he often does it well. When he speaks, you can tell he really knows the game of basketball and I think that's why people refer to him as a "glue-guy". He knows what you are supposed to do. He knows what Coach Stallings wants of him. To me, Neltner is your prototypical Kentucky type player. He brings with him a lot of the same things another former Kentucky player, Scott Hundley, possessed and because of that, I would not be surprised if Neltner makes a huge play in the postseason this year. I will also remember getting to know Neltner's father, who is such a supportive parent but not just to Ross but to all of his teammates and you can see why "Nelly" is such the strong teammate he is.
Like someone said earlier, I do wish that Alan Metcalfe would've gotten a redshirt year. Probably less experienced than any other player on the Commodore roster for much of his career, I think Metcalfe spent the past couple of years still getting used to the game. Still, Metcalfe was a tough guy in the middle who has developed a nice hook shot and can shoot it from long range. He has been a key reserve the past two years and this year has been perhaps his best year of his career and I am personally happy for him. Everyone that knows Alan, speaks very highly of the big man and he's considered a essential teammate on the squad. He's also known for his funny sense of humor as well.
I will never forget the night we all learned about Davis Nwankwo's heart condition. I will remember it because Chris, Mike and I were at the SEC Tournament, getting ready to cover Vanderbilt's game against Auburn. I remember that we had received an email about his collapse and I immediately thought of former basketball greats such as Hank Gathers and Reggie Lewis, so when it was announced that he would not be able to play basketball again, it was not surprising. Some may say "Basketball is Life" but in the end, it's not. Life is a lot more special than a game, because life is the most important game we'll ever play. There is no doubt in my mind, that Davis, who was heavily recruited coming out of high school, would've developed into a solid inside player for the Commodores had he been able to continue his career. Still, his value to the Vanderbilt program has meant even more since the last time he wore that uniform and a part of me hopes that on Senior Night, we will get to see Nwankwo wear that Vanderbilt jersey one last time when the seniors are honored.
Again, I think I speak for both of my counterparts when I say that it has been an absolute pleasure to cover and watch these five men for the past four years. They will not only go down in history as one of the most successful groups we have ever seen, but they will also be one of the most loved groups.
VandySports.com would like to thank you Alex, Shan, Alan, Ross and Davis for what you've brought to us all and congrats to your successes as well as future successes upon graduation.