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Building for the Future vs. Winning in the Present

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Vanderbilt's basketball program is at a crossroads. The 2016 and 2017 teams could be very good... but is it worth sacrificing the future for the present?

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In college basketball, roster turnover is virtually a given.  I'm really not even talking about transfers, even though those have become a large part of the sport in recent years -- by Jeff Goodman's count, the number has gotten to over 700 players in the past couple of years, or roughly two players per Division 1 program.

With all those transfers come an opportunity.  The old model of building a program with freshmen who stay around for four years, while not being archaic, is no longer the only option.  Now, a coach with a scholarship available can bring in a transfer from another school who will come in with more experience even if he'll only be in the program for a couple of years.  And the graduate transfer rule, which allows players who have completed their degree to enroll at another institution for grad school and not have to sit out a year, means that some transfers can even provide immediate help.  Junior college transfers have long been an option as well.

Now, for a program like Vanderbilt, junior college transfers are frequently off limits because of academics; though there have been exceptions (notably Jordan Rodgers, though in his case he went to a juco for exposure reasons rather than academic ones).  But transfers from four-year colleges are an option that the basketball program may want to explore with an eye on the 2016-17 season.  I covered this in my article earlier this week on Austin Nichols; with Vanderbilt having two scholarships to give on the recruiting trail in 2015-16, would it potentially make sense to use one of those scholarships on a transfer?

When to Leverage the Future for the Present

The ideal college program -- and, really, this applies to any college sport, though this article is primarily about basketball -- balances the program's short-term and long-term needs.  You don't want to sacrifice the present too much at the expense of the future; nor do you want to go too far in the opposite direction and sacrifice the future for the present.

But there are times when concentrating on one at the expense of the other makes sense.  If you have the core of a team that is going to win 10 games and finish last in the conference, concentrating on adding to that core makes little sense.  It is actually far more sensible to blow up the roster and build for the future, rather than adding pieces for the present that get you to 15 wins.  (Other concerns come into play as well, like the coach's job security, which may blind the coach to this calculus. A 10-win season might get you fired, so at least posting a respectable record takes precedence for some coaches).

And there are situations in which it makes sense to build for the present, even if it's at the expense of the future. Vanderbilt's basketball program may be entering just that situation.

Vanderbilt already projects to have a very strong core for the 2016-17 season.  Wade Baldwin and Riley LaChance will be juniors, and further growth from what were already strong freshman seasons should mean Vanderbilt will have an excellent backcourt in 2017. Luke Kornet has enormous potential and started to deliver on that potential as a sophomore; Kyle Wiltjer's sophomore season pops up on his list of similar seasons on kenpom.com, if you need a possible prototype for what Kornet could become.  And that doesn't even get into the potential return of Damian Jones for his senior year or the development of some of the youngsters currently in the program.  You don't have to squint very hard to see that Vanderbilt's 2016-17 team could be a potential Sweet 16 team, if not even better than that.

That provides the context for when it can make sense to add pieces for the present even if that comes at the expense of the future.  Obviously, there are some players (like Braxton Blackwell) who would help on both counts.  But others help one but not the other.  Austin Nichols or another transfer helps in 2016-17, even if he won't be around much longer than that.  A player like Carsen Edwards (a three-star PG recruit whom Stallings is targeting) helps the future more than the present -- he sustains the program by providing a replacement for Wade Baldwin in 2019 and 2020, but probably won't move the bar much in 2017 and 2018.  That essentially sums up the debate: do you trade a potential Final Four run in 2017 or 2018 for possibly having a worse record in the year or two after that?

The Long-Term Benefits

But in a different sense, Vanderbilt would not be sacrificing anything in the future.

In 1995, Mississippi State was coming off what might have been its best season ever -- a 22-8 season that ended with a run to the Sweet 16.  And their two best players, Erick Dampier and Darryl Wilson, were both returning the next season.  Instead of using a scholarship on a freshman who might help the program down the road, but would provide little benefit to the 1996 team, State coach Richard Williams used a scholarship on junior college transfer Dontae' Jones.  Jones was a big reason why Mississippi State went to the Final Four that following season.  Mississippi State crashed and burned in 1997, but in the long term, the legitimacy provided to the program by making the Final Four helped on the recruiting trail.  Mississippi State never delivered after that (for a lot of reasons, mostly getting repeatedly burned by signees going straight to the NBA and Rick Stansbury not being very good at much other than recruiting) but taking a swing for the fences in 1996 ultimately did not harm the program in the long term.

Sustaining the program for the long term only means so much.  When Kevin Stallings had a young core consisting of John Jenkins, Jeffrey Taylor, and Festus Ezeli in 2010, his tack was to bring in players for 2013 and 2014.  Instead of delivering a Final Four -- which, who knows, might have happened had Stallings added pieces that would help the 2011 and 2012 teams -- that group never got out of the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament.  We can obviously only speculate about these things, but perhaps Alex Poythress would have viewed Vanderbilt a bit differently had the Commodores been coming off a deep tournament run in 2011.

When you really get down to it, Vanderbilt would not be sacrificing anything in the long term if Stallings takes a swing for the fences in 2017.  You might think that bringing in a transfer to meet the short-term needs of the team rather than a freshman to fit the long-term needs of the program could end up hurting, but if Vanderbilt can deliver then the long-term benefits will cancel that out.  A Vanderbilt program that has made the Final Four is a program where recruits can think they can win a national championship.  Equally important, coaches may start viewing Vanderbilt as a place where you can win a championship rather than a stepping stone to bigger and better things.  That latter point is extremely important: Stallings isn't going to be around forever, and making the program look more attractive to a potential successor will pay dividends down the road.

So basically -- do it, Stallings.  Go for the fences.  Show everybody that Vanderbilt can be an elite basketball program.