Last season went about as far south as possible for Vanderbilt Commodores. After signing one of the best recruiting classes in school history, including five-star prospects Darius Garland and Simisola Shittu, the Commodores tanked, going winless in the SEC in their worst campaign since 1948.
While the on-court product slid into an abyss, the school also hired a new athletic director, who subsequently cleaned house by canning coach Bryce Drew in March. As little as three years ago, though, Drew was a golden boy— one who reached the NCAA tournament coach in his first season. But he followed that up with two mediocre seasons, capped by a 20-game losing streak in the SEC.
Last Season: 9 - 23 (0 - 18 in conference) No. 155 in KenPom
My Prediction: 11 - 19 (2-16, 14th in conference)
The Masses Prediction: 2.5 - 15.6 (14th in conference)
SEC Media Prediction: 14th in conference
KenPom Projection: 11 - 20 (3-15 in conference) no. 148
HEAD COACH: Jerry Stackhouse | First Season, 0-0
Enter an out-of-the-box hire in the form of the 2017 NBA G-League Coach of the Year, former NBA All-Star, and All-American at North Carolina: Jerry Stackhouse. After calling it a career in 2013, Stackhouse, a 17-year NBA vet, pivoted to the sidelines. He joined the Toronto Raptors as an assistant in 2015 and spent two years stalking the sidelines for its affiliate, in what is now known as the G-League.
This hire continues an emerging trend of schools focusing on coaches with some NBA playing and coaching experience, but the connection with Vanderbilt is an interesting one. The school is one of the top academic institutions in the south, so it can recruit to their academics in a way no other SEC school can. However, those academic standards make it difficult to enroll top players, though. Stackhouse has walked a lot of lines in his career— from NBA All-Star to G-League Coach of the Year, and now he’s got to a new one in the SEC.
Seat Temp: COLD
Last years’ results notwithstanding, the Commodores were thought of as an NCAA tournament team — until Garland was lost of the season. The lack of a true floor leader and elite distributor started the spiral, while Drew was never able to pull them out of the spin.
SO, WHO’S GONE?
Hard as it might be to remember, Vandy early on showed signs of a breakout season, starting 4-0 and picking up wins over USC and Liberty. Then two minutes into their game against Kent State, Garland went down with a knee injury. The knee injury was severe enough by itself, but Garland opted to rehab on his own and withdrew from school to pursue the NBA, where he ultimately was drafted in the lottery.
The case for Shittu, however, is a little different. The forward was a top-10 prospect, and the kind of versatile post Drew envisioned as a pick-and-roll partner with Garland. Unfortunately, during his senior season of high school, Shittu tore his ACL. While he was cleared for play at the start of the season, he never looked comfortable. And once Garland was lost, the offense needed to shift, and Shittu struggled.
The rest of the roster’s departures are due to attrition that comes with a new coach. Matt Ryan was a capable shooter, but struggled defensively in the highly athletic SEC. Yanni Wetzel, a transfer from Division II, was a decent addition, but he probably found a better fit transferring to San Diego State.
AND, WHO’S BACK?
Saben Lee | JUNIOR | COMBO GUARD
Garland’s absence was a boon to Lee’s usage, but certainly not his efficiency. I thought that playing more off the ball, attacking closeouts and a hitting a respectable number of 3-pointers would produce a breakout sophomore season. Instead, operating as the primary ball-handler led to a dip in productivity. Granted, Lee was one of the few bright spots from a year ago, and he should give Stackhouse something to build upon.
Other than Lee, the Commodores don’t really return noteworthy pieces. Clevon Brown is a big body inside and capable of throwing his weight around. He’ll likely share and contend for minutes with redshirt sophomore Ejike Obinna, a former four-star prospect who struggled to find consistent minutes as a freshman. I’m still slightly intrigued by Matthew Moyer, a former top-75 recruit who struggled to find his footing last year after being declared eligible. Maxwell Evans had a few moments a year ago, but he’s going to be a junior and failed to score more than 10 points in any game last year. If he’s going to find minutes this year, he’ll need to shoot the ball much better than his 30.8 percent clip from last season.
Aaron Nesmith | SOPHOMORE | WING
If you’re looking for a ray of hope as a Vanderbilt fan, it likely rests on the shoulders of sophomore Aaron Nesmith. In another recruiting class, Nesmith would be considered a headliner, but when you enter with two five-star talents, you fly under the radar. However, he might be the only one who really ends up impacting the program.
Most of Nesmith’s impact last year came offensively in spot-ups and running off screens as a shooter or floor spacer. He already complements Lee’s slashing game quite well, but his ceiling might be higher. As Nesmith tightens his handle and improves his ability to make reads in the pick-and-roll, you can see how he might supplant his point guard. Nesmith already plays with good pace and sees the floor well, but too often he uses his dribble to get to preferred spots for a jumper instead of creating for others. Finding a way to be a secondary creator could help the Vandy offense.
THEN, WHO’S NEW?
|Fr||Scotty Pippen, Jr.||6'1||170||★★★||203||PG|
A new coach usually needs to welcome a host of new players to get a kickstart on remaking the culture around the program, and Stackhouse is no exception. To do it, he used the transfer portal. D.J. Harvey is a former top-50 recruit at combo guard who left Notre Dame. Meanwhile, Quentin Millora-Brown, a late-blooming post prospect, transferred from Rice. Both figure to be critical pieces in Nashville beyond this season.
The rest of the freshman class will be interesting to monitor. Dylan Disu signed when Drew was still on the job and stuck with his commitment. He’s a good looking long-term prospect whose best fit may be at combo forward. Disu’s flashed the ability to step out and knock down shots, but he’s still a bit too slow-footed to play steady minutes on the wing. Jordan Wright has the kind of college-ready body needed to make an early impact, but he lacks in athleticism, so the long term impact may be minimal. And finally, you may recognize the name Scotty Pippen Jr. He is the son of the former Chicago Bulls star, however, this new version isn’t a 6-foot-7 defensive stopper with a developing offensive arsenal. Instead, he’s a solid 6-1 point guard.
|(1) Point Guard||Saben Lee||Scotty Pippen|
|(2) Combo Guard||Aaron Nesmith||Maxwell Evans|
|(3) Wing||Matthew Moyer||Jordan Wright||DJ Harvey|
|(4) Combo Forward||Clevon Brown||Dylan Disu|
|(5) Post||Ejike Obinna||Oton Jankovic||Quentin Millora-Brown|
While the position battle in the frontcourt might get interesting, the Commodores have some issues with depth in the backcourt. Start with Lee and Nesmith and figure it out from there. Squint and you can see how this might be a dangerous offensive lineup. Ideally, Evans becomes a more consistent shooter and takes over the other guard spot, pushing Moyer to combo forward. Moyer has some versatility offensively, but if you’re going with best five, I think the above is the likely starting point.
My Projected Record: 11 - 19 | KenPom Projected Record: 11 - 20
|Nov 11||Home||Texas A&M CC||284||W|
|Nov 20||Home||Austin Peay||202||W|
|Nov 22||Home||South Carolina State||328||W|
The benefit of concocting the bulk of your schedule during the offseason before — unlike college football, which is done years in advance — is you can actually cater to the team you think you’ll have. Stackhouse and his bosses worked to give this developmental group team early chances to build its confidence before conference play. There aren’t many matchups that jump out as a guaranteed loss, but Vanderbilt also isn’t very good. You could even make a case that 10-3 or even 11-2 might be on the table, which would be a terrific start for a new era at Vandy. However, it’s much more likely to be 8-5 or 9-4.
|Jan 11||Home||Texas A&M||58||L|
|Jan 25||Away||South Carolina||69||L|
|Feb 8||Away||Mississippi State||53||L|
|Feb 29||Away||Ole Miss||60||L|
|Mar 7||Home||South Carolina||69||W|
If Vanderbilt was hoping for a soft landing in SEC play, they didn’t get one. Instead, the league office gave them home-and-homes against Kentucky, Tennessee, Florida, and Alabama — or six games against teams that projected to finish among the top four in the standings. Meanwhile, Alabama could be really good if they put a few things together offensively. Even their small respite is South Carolina, who could be a dark horse again this year. The ‘Dores other home games come against LSU, Missouri, Georgia, and Texas A&M, and might present chances to pick off an extra win or two. That being said, it’s still hard to envision a scenario where Vanderbilt climbs out of the basement this season.
Attempting to put a truly putrid season like 0-18 behind you isn’t easy. Vanderbilt set records in the worst way imaginable, and it was too much for athletic director Malcolm Turner to ignore.
Bryce Drew became sacrificial lamb. And while the blame doesn’t entirely rest on his shoulders, Drew never found a way to stop the bleeding. Without answers, his fate was predetermined when the school formally hired Turner. Without the support of an athletic director who hired him, Drew was toast, and the rebuild was going to begin.
The coaching search was an interesting one, and settling on Stackhouse raised some eyebrows. Yet Stackhouse was emerging as a potential candidate for NBA franchises — a job that boils down to scouting, game planning and player development. Instead, Stackhouse opted for a heavy lift in Nashville, placing his fate in the hands of kids between the ages of 18 and 22.
As odd of a move as it might’ve been for Stackhouse, it was a terrific move for Vanderbilt. Vandy hired a young, charismatic coach with proven professional chops, and one who could lure high-end talent to the program. The success rate so far of say, Penny Hardaway, maybe isn’t sustainable at a school like Vanderbilt, but they can get close.
That’s the hope: Stackhouse’s professional bonafides entice top-end talent do a layover in Nashville, while the school’s academic reputation draws a supporting cast of four-year players. Pull that off, and the Commodores could quickly ascend the SEC hierarchy.
For now, though, the goals are more modest. The roster constructeda round Shittu and Garland was rickety, and subsequent turnover from a coaching change hasn’t helped. It’s practically impossible to go winless in conference play, an outcome that’s on the tail end of any distribution. There’s enough talent to win a couple of games, but the Commodores’ ambitions should probably begin and end there.
There are a couple good pieces with Lee and Nesmith in the backcourt, and Matthew Moyer can be more than a replacement level player if he’s fit into the right role. I’m not sure you can fall in love with the interior returning players, but they’re not awful either. Brown is a good rebounder and is solid around the basket. In the best case scenario, the 12th ranked recruiting class in the SEC exceeds its placement and is capable of beating out a few of the returning players for minutes.
Expectations this season should be kept low, and I’ve only picked them to win a couple games. This team just has a very similar feel to some of the Missouri teams from a few years ago— a poorly-rated recruiting class with maybe one player worth counting on for positive impact, a returning cast decent enough to give you a little hope. But like those teams, it’s hard to see them winning more than two or three games in league play. If they win more, I think Stackhouse might warrant some coach of the year votes, but there are a lot of good teams with talent led by really good coaches. It’s a tough hill to climb.
So while I’m not high on Vanderbilt this season, I like the Stackhouse hire a lot. He’s shown he can coach up a cobbled-together roster and win games. The odds might be long this season, but with Stackhouse, they’re at least on the right path.
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.