Imagine, for a moment, that instead of taking the Pitt job, Kevin Stallings returned for an 18th year at Vanderbilt. With a team expected to contend for an NCAA Tournament bid, the team gets off to a 6-6 start with an ugly loss to MTSU and close losses to the likes of Bucknell, Minnesota, and Dayton.
Then the team gets into SEC play, and after winning its first two games against LSU and Auburn, the team goes into a funk, dropping four games in a row. An upset win at Florida suggests the team is showing signs of life, but then the team blows a 15-point lead with six minutes to go against Arkansas. And after getting back on track with a win over Iowa State, Vanderbilt goes to play a bad Missouri team and loses by 20. But then, the team rallies to win five of six and finds itself on the right side of the bubble entering the SEC Tournament. Except even in that stretch, the team’s leading scorer for much of the season suddenly is playing poorly and seems to be in the coach’s doghouse.
I’ve just described Bryce Drew’s first season at Vanderbilt, but you could totally believe that this was Kevin Stallings’ 18th year at Vanderbilt, right? In fact, this whole script sounds a whole lot like last season and we all remember how that ended.
Only the mood of the fan base is a lot different. Were this occurring under Stallings, we’d all be screaming about how Stallings just does the bare minimum to keep his job, and that somebody else might have been able to get better results out of this group. And we’d likely be dreading the possibility that the late run earned the coach yet another season in Nashville, when his recent results suggest that barely sneaking into the tournament is his ceiling these days.
Instead, we’re optimistic about what Bryce Drew can do if given a few years. In fact, the late turnaround boosts that optimism instead of making us wonder where this team was for the first two months of the season. Even a recruiting class consisting of a couple of guys at the back end of the top 150 and a third guy who’s a three-star recruit just feels more positive under a new coach. We’re talking ourselves into Saben Lee and Max Evans being underrated hidden gems in a way that we wouldn't if they were just the latest crop of Stallings’ recruits.
This isn't to say that we’re wrong to be optimistic about Bryce Drew. Not at all. But it’s fun to ponder how the same season under a first-year coach just feels so much better than under a longtime coach.