Last Season: 12 - 20 (6-12 SEC) No. 91 KenPom
My Prediction: 18 - 13 (9-9, 9th in SEC)
The Masses Prediction: 7.4 - 10.6 (9th in SEC) No. 69 KenPom
HEAD COACH: Bryce Drew | Third Season, 31-36
Is there a bigger question mark than Vanderbilt when it comes to buy or hold stock? I’m not sure there is, and your answer depends on whether you believe Bryce Drew grows into an elite coach. Hired after Kevin Stallings began regressing, Drew’s first two seasons in Nashville have been a collection of hits and misses. His first season, Drew steered Vanderbilt to three wins over Florida, an eventual No. 4 seed in the NCAA tournament. Those wins alone boosted the Commodores into the NCAA tournament.
Then Drew followed a solid opening act with a complete dud. The Commodores slid to a 6-12 finish last season in the SEC — despite a senior-laden roster at guard. That team never felt in sync, all while Drew struggled to find the answer to the hole in the middle of the lineup left by Luke Kornet.
As he enters his third season, the table is again reset for Drew, who reeled in a couple elite recruits and transfers who should bolster depth. If he can steer the Commodores back into the NCAA tournament, it should silence the doubters.
Seat Temp: COOL
Interestingly, big lulls for Vandy coincided with slippage offensively. Last season, though, defense did in the ‘Dores. In 2016-17, Vandy had a top-40 defense with Kornet anchoring the middle to clean up mistakes. Without a sturdy interior presence, VU slid to 219th in adjusted defensive efficiency. It’s pretty simple: When the Commodores have balance, they make the tournament.
SO, WHO’S GONE?
|Larry Austin, Jr.||transfer||23||19.69%||2.50%||4.16%||3.16%|
The core for two consecutive NCAA tournament appearances is finally out the door. There’s no more Riley LaChance, Matthew Fisher-Davis, and Jeff Roberson after a turbulent senior season marred an otherwise impressive four-year ride. Roberson went from a role player to one of the most underrated players in the SEC. Fisher-Davis finished his senior season on the bench due to a shoulder injury. And LaChance remained a steady sharpshooter, marksmanship that may be the toughest thing for the Commodores to replace this season.
Three transfers — Djery Baptiste, Larry Austin, and Peyton Willis — is also more than I recall seeing from Vanderbilt in a while. Those departures only furthered Drew’s overhaul. Willis played a significant role as a freshman but took a backseat last year to Saben Lee. Finding minutes this season certainly looked like a struggle. I still liked Baptiste as a depth piece, but his minutes were likely to be few and far between. Given that he was close enough academically to graduate, the transfer route made sense. Larry Austin struggled last year to find backcourt minutes and joined Baptiste in taking the grad-transfer route, winding up at Central Michigan.
AND, WHO’S BACK?
Saben Lee | SOPHOMORE | COMBO GUARD
It wasn’t all doom and gloom last year for the Commodores. Saben Lee was the highest rated recruit to see the floor for Bryce Drew last year, and the guard outperformed the most modest of expectations. By season’s end, Lee occupied nearly 80 percent of available minutes at point guard, according to KenPom data. His athleticism and ability to attack the rim off the bounce was something missing for Drew in his preferred ball-screen style offense. This season, it’s likely Lee plays more off the ball, requiring him to improve on his 30-percent clip from 3-point range. Nudging that percentage up creates opportunities to exploit closeouts.
Joe Toye was a valuable role player who struggled offensively last year, but he has the tools to be a nice option at the combo forward for a team missing wing options. Maxwell Evans is more of a natural combo guard than Lee and should see plenty of opportunities for minutes behind both Lee and incoming freshman Darius Garland. Clevon Brown and Ejike Obinna offer depth and talent on the interior.
The Wildcards are the talented shooting big Yanni Wetzell, a transfer from Division II St. Mary’s in Texas, and Matt Ryan, a transfer from Notre Dame. Ryan is an elite shooter for a combo forward but struggled to find a role as a sophomore in South Bend. Meanwhile, Wetzell could make a serious impact as a big capable with range out to the 3-point line. Even if he isn’t all that athletic, he could serve as an important floor spacer and replicate some of the roles Kornet once played.
THEN, WHO’S NEW?
Darius Garland | FRESHMAN | POINT GUARD
In an incredible recruiting coup, Vanderbilt landed the best point guard in the 2018 class. Garland, who is a Nashville native, is an unmatched ball handler and one of the best pick-and-roll point guards I’ve watched in the last few years. In landing Garland, Drew finally has a lead guard to match his ball-screen heavy offense. The phrase “can score at all three levels” gets tossed around a lot, but in Garland’s case, it’s true. The difference maker: his ability to score in the mid-range using an array of floaters and pull-ups, shots he can hit with either hand going to his left or right.
Garland might be my favorite player coming into the league due to his combination of basketball IQ, in-game savvy, and ability to change speeds. He’s genuinely a fun player to watch.
The crazy part is Garland wasn’t even the highest rated player in his class to sign with Vanderbilt. That honor goes to Simisola Shittu. Shittu is an athletic forward who will likely start from the first game on and command a healthy amount of attention. He’s still a work in progress offensively but handles the ball well, passes it well out of the low and high post, and is an outstanding shot blocker. Aaron Nesmith is the third member of the recruiting class and would be the prize for many schools. He’s a smooth-shooting wing with an easy athleticism to his game and someone who should carve out a role from day one but his best minutes should be in Year 2 and 3.
|(1) Point Guard||Darius Garland||Maxwell Evans|
|(2) Combo Guard||Saben Lee||Aaron Nesmith|
|(3) Wing||Joe Toye||Matt Ryan||Matthew Moyer|
|(4) Combo Forward||Clevon Brown||Ejike Obinna|
|(5) Post||Simisola Shittu||Yanni Wetzell|
Deciphering the Vandy roster is tough. It’s easy to love Garland and Lee on the perimeter and Shittu on the interior. The looming question is how Drew compliments Shittu inside. Wetzel could be a nice compliment, one whose face-up shooting might draw a post defender away from the rim. Brown and Obinna are closer in ability to Shittu, so no matter what direction Drew decides on, he has options. On the wing, matters might be dicier. Toye isn’t the best offensive option, and Drew will have to determine how much he plays Ryan on the wing when he could give minutes to Nesmith at that position.
My Projected Record: 18 - 13 | KenPom Projected Record: 16 - 15
|Nov 16||Home||Alcorn State||336||W|
|Nov 23||Home||Kent State||211||W|
|Nov 27||Home||Savannah State||317||W|
|Dec 1||Neutral||NC State||46||L|
|Dec 5||Home||Middle Tennessee||45||W|
|Dec 17||Home||Arizona State||49||W|
|Dec 22||Away||Kansas State||42||L|
|Dec 29||Home||Tennessee State||198||W|
|Dec 31||Home||UNC Asheville||187||W|
One compliment you can pay to Drew is he shows no fear in putting together a schedule. The Commodores make an early return trip to face the USC Trojans, who are every bit as deep and talented as they were a year ago. Vandy also backloaded its schedule with North Carolina State, Middle Tennessee, Arizona State, and Kansas State. No, it’s not quite a brutal as last years schedule, but it’s still imposing. There’s no room for a misstep in the middle of the schedule, and given that I have Vandy dropping four games against top SEC teams, stealing quality wins in non-con could bump their ceiling a couple inches.
|Jan 5||Home||Ole Miss||108||W|
|Jan 16||Home||South Carolina||80||W|
|Jan 19||Home||Mississippi St||54||W|
|Mar 2||Away||Texas A&M||29||L|
Facing Kentucky and Tennessee a combined four times could mean the difference between sinking or swimming. Stealing even one win would do wonders to pointing a young roster toward an NCAA tournament bid, while splitting tilts against could put Vandy ahead of the curve. In truth, Vandy is projected to be part of a three-way tie for seventh in the standings and snagging a couple marquee wins would push them up the pecking order.
Last season Bryce Drew’s ambitious non-conference docket wound up tripping the ‘Dores early. After a loss to nearby Belmont, Vandy faced a run of six top-50 KenPom teams in its next seven games and tumbled to a 2-8 start in the SEC.
Now, the last of Kevin Stallings’ recruits have left the building and Drew totally owns the roster. Even with holdovers in Brown and Toye, the imprint has been made by Drew, but what does that mean for what we see on the floor?
Drew has often said he wants to play. Yet his teams have never finished better than 245th nationally in adjusted tempo. When he took the job at Vandy, he used a pro-style system — namely Horns sets and scores of pick-and-rolls — as the template for his offense. Then he ditched it after early hiccups and reverted to the Shuffle-based system that was a Stallings staple. After all, he had a bunch of Stallings players.
Now that Drew has tailored the roster, it should fit and embrace the pro-style offense he’s wanted to run. You have to put the ball in the hands of Garland early and often, letting him play off ball screens and dribble handoffs with Lee to attack the middle of the floor. I imagine Lee and Garland tossing soft lobs for Toye and Shittu or kick outs for Ryan. The offense can be really really exciting — if Drew is able to get his roster on the same page flowing and attacking.
Scoring has never been the Commodores problem. Believe it or not, they were better offensively in Year 2. But as I pointed out earlier, the defense was a house of horrors. Playing man-to-man, Vandy barely put up a fight. So Drew tried to mix it up and play zone. Instead, things got worse. That the Commodores won six SEC games with the defense as porous as it only underscored how good the offense really was.
If Drew is able to resolve the defensive issues with his all-new, more athletic and talented (but younger), lineup Vandy can make even more noise.
There are a lot of things to like about this team and the makeup of the roster. I still think a team like this, with so much youth and no real elite experience, gives me pause. Until Drew shows he can succeed, it’s hard to extend him any trust — regardless of the talent he’s assembled. This is a great opportunity, and it will tell us whether Drew is ready for that next step as a coach. He has a roster capable of earning No. 5 seed in the NCAA tournament, while it’s floor is likely as a seven- or eight-seed.
Anything lower than that would be predictable for a team saddled with higher expectations based solely on a few new recruits. We’ll see what magic Bryce Drew has up his sleeve.
About the preview: a number of respected basketball bloggers were asked to submit one pick the entire league schedule game by game. Because these are game by game picks, they often tend to be a bit of a rosier picture of each teams potential. Each rep’s picks are reflected in the record prediction for the site listed at the top of the page, and within “the Masses” picks as well. Included in “the Masses” are various SEC media members who made picks at my request also.
If you’d like to submit your picks, click here for the Google Form we used.
* - an asterisk denotes a walk-on player
GP - Games Played
%min - percentage of total available minutes played, does not account for time missed due to injury
%ov - offensive team value, simple formula of (%points + %rebounds) - %turnovers/*100, similar to Offensive Rating but places more value on performance to the team
%poss - percentage of team possessions the player is responsible for ending a possession, whether by making a shot, missing a shot not rebounded by the offense or committing a turnover.
%pts - percentage of teams points scored
ts% - true shooting percentage, basically points scored divided by 2x fga +0.44*fta.