We have now had a week to reflect on the season that was. Emotions have cooled since the final minute of the Northwestern game, when Matthew Fisher-Davis committed a foul that might have cost Vanderbilt its first NCAA Tournament win since 2012 — though we’ll never know how the game might have played out without the foul. (Obviously, Northwestern could have scored anyway. Also, obviously, Vanderbilt could have scored on the ensuing possession to make the foul not matter.)
As we go into the offseason, Vanderbilt fans have a lot of reasons to feel good about the season that just transpired and about the program’s future under Bryce Drew. Vanderbilt was picked to finish sixth in the SEC in the preseason and finished in a tie for fifth, and that was while playing (according to Ken Pomeroy) the second-toughest conference schedule. Pomeroy had the Commodores 64th nationally in his preseason ratings, and Vanderbilt finished the season ranked 32nd. Following the departures of Wade Baldwin IV and Damian Jones, both of whom were selected in the first round of the 2016 NBA Draft, Vanderbilt dropped from 25th to 32nd in KenPom and actually ended up with the same number of wins (19) as the 2015-16 team, and also not only made the NCAA Tournament, but was seeded into the round of 64 rather than playing in the First Four as it had in 2016.
You have a credible case that Vanderbilt was a better team in 2016-17 than it had been the previous year and yet, for much of December and January, this team felt disappointing. A tough early schedule might have been a blessing in disguise for Vanderbilt: while it made the overall record a bit ugly, it also wound up getting Vanderbilt in the tournament and also arguably forced Bryce Drew to make adjustments. With a weaker early schedule, some of the team’s flaws (like the lack of a real point guard, or the lack of anybody who could reliably score at the basket) might have gone unnoticed until SEC play. Instead, the tough early schedule exposed the lack of a creator and also forced the Luke Kornet: Low-Post Scorer experiment to end. (In November and December, Kornet attempted 85 two-pointers and 39 three-pointers. In SEC play, he attempted 85 twos and 98 threes.)
If there’s a negative in there, it’s that Drew seemed to be trying to implement “his” system early on with players recruited by Kevin Stallings to run something completely different. That’s an error, but it’s a defensible one and it was hardly fatal considering that Vanderbilt still made the tournament in the end. Next year, as Drew’s recruits start coming into the program, Vanderbilt will start to look more like a Bryce Drew team, but it wasn’t pretty early on when it looked like he was trying to fit square pegs into round holes.
Still, Bryce Drew is the first coach in Vanderbilt history to make the NCAA Tournament in his first year. Granted, Kevin Stallings probably should have made the tournament in his first year (thank you, Selection Committee), and Jan van Breda Kolff... well, he took a preseason top 25 team and made it to the finals of the NIT, so there’s that. Eddie Fogler’s first team was coming off a NCAA Tournament appearance the previous year but was gutted by graduation losses (specifically, Frank Kornet, Barry Goheen, and Barry Booker) and he still managed to win the NIT.
As far as recruiting goes, Bryce Drew’s first recruiting class — currently consisting of Saben Lee, Ejike Obinna, and Max Evans — is currently ranked 45th nationally and 8th in the SEC by 247 Sports. That’s decent, but not great. It’s not sketchy enough that you should start having questions about Drew’s ability to recruit at a high level, though — all three players he’s bringing in are recognizably SEC-level players (or at least have the potential to be, in Obinna’s case), and this comes with the caveat that Drew more or less started putting together the 2017 class in April 2016. Since Drew wouldn’t have been recruiting too many players of that caliber at Valparaiso, it basically means that he started recruiting these guys after their junior year of high school. You can get away with that if you’re Duke or Kentucky, but not so much when you’re Vanderbilt. So we’ll take a wait and see approach to Bryce Drew as a recruiter, but being able to put together a top 50 recruiting class under those circumstances is a positive.
In short, we all felt positive about Bryce Drew when he was hired last April and his first year hasn’t really done anything to blunt that optimism. That said, if you wrote a lot of these same things (minus the “making the NCAA Tournament” part) about Kevin Stallings back in March 2000, I’d probably agree with them and yet we all remember how that turned out. So we don’t have a clunker here, but we also don’t yet know what Bryce Drew’s upside is, and we might not know the answer to that for three or four more years.