The 2015-16 season is over, and one the most talented basketball rosters in Vanderbilt history failed to even make it to the NCAA Tournament's field of 64.
So what went wrong?
The Commodores started three probable NBA Draft picks but still couldn't lock down a top four spot during a down year in the Southeastern Conference. Kevin Stallings' team only beat four NCAA Tournament participants all season, and two of those were Stony Brook and Austin Peay. The team's best win away from Memorial Gym came against an NIT-bound Florida. Along the way, the Commodores lost games to Mississippi State, Tennessee, and Arkansas.
That formula dropped Vanderbilt from the No. 12 spot in the rankings to a spot on the very periphery of the big dance. A 70-50 blowout at the hands of Wichita State ended the team's season before it could even probably apply the phrase March Madness. Now, it's time to examine the corpse of this disappointing season and figure out how an extra year of development added zero postseason wins to the Commodores fact book.
Today, we'll start with the team's primary ballhandlers.
Wade Baldwin IV (sophomore)
Baldwin leapt into the national consciousness as a sophomore, showing off a dynamic two-way game and rocketing up pro scouts' wish lists in the process. The sophomore guard has been projected to go anywhere from the No. 6 pick to off the board at the 2016 NBA Draft. So what did Baldwin do in his second year of college ball that made him such a commodity -- and why didn't it lead to more wins for the Commodores?
At 6'3 and with a condor-like 6'10 wingspan, Baldwin looks the point of a professional point guard. His strong core and long arms helped turn him into a valuable defender on the nation's No. 7 defense this winter. While he was inconsistent covering smaller, quicker guards like Tyler Ulis, he showed off a versatile range and the ability to guard bigger guards at either backcourt position.
Offensively, Baldwin was Vanderbilt's most effective weapon when it came to driving into the paint and finishing at the rim. That doesn't mean that his drives were foolproof -- the sophomore left far too many layups bouncing off the iron -- but he showed a quick and confident first step that drew opposing defenses into disarray. When Baldwin didn't decide to shoot, he excelled at finding open shooters on the perimeter.
When he did decide to finish and was fired up, well...
That's the length and athleticism that has scouts so enamored with the Commodore guard. So why was his 2015-16 a letdown?
Baldwin's, and this team's, fatal flaw boiled down to ball protection. The sophomore never backed down from a challenge, often resetting after a mistake and then plowing head first back into the situation. That "check this out" instinct led to some eye-opening highlights like the one above, but also led to its share of go-nowhere drives that allowed opportunistic defensive teams like Purdue, Arkansas, and Kentucky to bait him into possession-erasing turnovers.
Baldwin had nine games this season where he committed four or more turnovers. All but three came against NCAA Tournament participants or during the postseason. Vanderbilt went 3-6 in those games.
The sophomore's turnovers rose from 1.9 per game to 2.8 in similar minutes, but that's a misleading stat. With Riley LaChance struggling, Baldwin was asked to handle the ball much more often this winter. As a result, his usage rate went up considerably (from 18.7 to 25.3) while his turnover rate actually decreased (19.5% to 18.2). So while it wasn't necessarily the number of turnovers that hurt this team, the timing of those lost possessions certainly did.
Wade Baldwin may have had some warts in 2015-16, but his potential is clear. If he stays in Nashville for another season, he'll be one of the SEC's must-watch players. He brings a special energy to the court, and when he's fired up he puts his team on his back. As an underclassman, that often ended in a "for better or worse" toss-up. With more experience, he'll be able to better identify his opportunities and recognize opposing threats.
That last piece of the puzzle will be the key in turning Baldwin from an all-conference performer to an All-American.
Riley LaChance (sophomore)
LaChance is more combo guard than true point guard, but his ballhandling and solid passing made him Kevin Stallings' most common pick to spell Baldwin at the 1. However, a big part of why LaChance was available for backup minutes was thanks to an astronomical slump that dropped him out of the starting lineup.
The sophomore suffered through eight different games this winter where he failed to make a single field goal. Over his final 16 games, he made fewer than 21 percent of his shots from the floor. His true shooting percentage dropped a full 100 points, from .573 as a freshman to .473 as a sophomore. The only Commodore with a lower mark was freshman forward Samir Sehic.
The question now isn't whether or not LaChance slumped in 2015-16; it's if his eye-opening freshman campaign was sustainable. The diminutive guard was a four-time conference freshman of the week thanks in part to some streaky shooting and a Division I landscape that failed to properly prepare for his presence. With more game film available this winter, opponents made sure to prevent him from getting his feet set and shooting Vandy to victory.
LaChance's game doesn't work if he can't stretch defenses with his three-point shooting. When guards over-commit to presence on the perimeter, he pushes the Vandy offense by rushing into the paint and either passing off to an open teammate or putting up a floating jumper as help defenders collapse on him. This season, however, the sophomore lost his range early on, and a lack of confidence came with it.
Without his three-pointer falling, LaChance's drives met resistance early and often. The soft spot inside the arc was gone, and the sophomore guard forced up shots rather than allowing them to come naturally. As defenders sat back on his drives, he faced a different brand of on-the-ball pressure from opponents, driving his turnover rate from 11.1% as a freshman to 15.4% this winter.
LaChance needs to regain his shooting stroke and the confidence that came with it. He'll be this team's backcourt general if Baldwin jumps to the NBA Draft, and he'd be the only thing keeping this team from relying on a true freshman at the point in 2016-17. The Wisconsinite juxtaposed his freshman and sophomore seasons, but the talent that made him a regular SEC award winner a season ago is still there. Kevin Stallings, or whoever is leading the 'Dores next winter, needs to coax it back up to the surface.
Carter Josephs (senior)
Josephs' role decreased as Vanderbilt loaded up for 2016, but he still played some meaningful minutes this winter. He probably could have been a rotation player, or even a starter, at a mid-major program, but instead added some valuable depth to the Commodore roster after walking on to the team four years ago.
And he made a basket this year, which is pretty good.