In hindsight, the only real surprise in the 2017-18 season is that it took this long for the Vanderbilt Commodores’ basketball team to have a season like this.
I fully admit to being late to the “Fire Stallings” wagon, mostly because Stallings did just enough to deserve to keep his job after 2012. 2013? Oh, that was an obvious rebuilding year, and you still finished 16-17, which is respectable. 2014? What were you supposed to do when you only had seven scholarship players available once SEC play hit? Plus they still managed to go 15-16, which seems fine under the circumstances, and the incoming recruiting class is supposed to be pretty good.
(The fun part, by the way, is that advanced stats plug those two teams as being actually worse than this year’s team, but a combination of an easier nonconference schedule and a weaker SEC made those two teams have more aesthetically-pleasing records despite not actually being that good.)
But this kind of season, what we’re experiencing right now, has been bubbling up for a while. Just look at Kevin Stallings’ recruiting classes post-2010.
- 2011: Kedren Johnson, Dai-Jon Parker (RIP), Shelby Moats. In terms of talent, this actually wasn’t too bad: Johnson and Parker were both top 100 recruits. (Moats... was not.) Here the inattention on the recruiting trail showed up more in the fact that Johnson and Parker weren’t particularly good fits for Vanderbilt; both ended up being dismissed from the team in one fashion or another. Moats, of course, was a good fit for Vanderbilt; he just wasn’t very good at basketball.
- 2012: Sheldon Jeter, A.J. Astroth, Kevin Bright. The less said about this class, none of whom lasted more than a year at Vanderbilt, the better.
- 2013: Damian Jones, Luke Kornet. This was a nice two-man recruiting class, but it comes with a massive freaking caveat. Kornet developed into an All-SEC player, but (a) that was something predicted by exactly no one in 2013 other than maybe Tracy Kornet, and (b) once Stallings offered Luke a scholarship, his recruiting work was basically done.
- 2014: Wade Baldwin IV, Matthew Fisher-Davis, Riley LaChance, Jeff Roberson, Sheldon Mitchell. This class produced a first-round NBA Draft pick and a trio of 1,000-point scorers, but it was also really Yanni Hufnagel’s recruiting class. What it did do was buy Kevin Stallings a couple more years to bring in...
- 2015: Samir Sehic, Djery Baptiste, Joe Toye, Camron Justice. Sehic and Justice are already gone, and we’ll get to the other two in a second.
2016: Clevon Brown, Payton Willis. Taking Payton Willis instead of Carsen Edwards seemed defensible at the time but was a hilariously awful recruiting mistake in hindsight. Vanderbilt also missed on local product Braxton
BlackwellKey, though that wasn’t necessarily Stallings’ fault.
What that’s left Vanderbilt with is a roster consisting of a couple of good supporting players (LaChance and Roberson) forced into playing lead roles, because... oh, hell, let’s take an honest look at the rest of the roster.
Saben Lee has a ton of potential, but at the moment he’s far from a finished product. His assist rate ranks sixth in the SEC, and he’s taken over a few games on the offensive end — but right now he’s maddeningly inconsistent. That’s the kind of player that really should spend a year coming off the bench before being thrown into the fire.
Joe Toye is the kind of player who seems like he should be good at basketball, only his 75.8 Offensive Rating ranks dead-last in the SEC among players who have played more than 40 percent of their team’s minutes.
Payton Willis at this moment is a combo guard in the worst sense of the word: he’s not quick enough off the dribble to be a pure point guard, and he’s not a good enough shooter to be a shooting guard.
Larry Austin Jr. is shooting 39.5 percent on two-pointers this season, which is extremely bad and I do not feel like I need to explain this to you.
Maxwell Evans has shown some upside as a freshman, but at this point in his career would not be in the rotation for basically any other SEC team.
And, well, the issues with Vanderbilt’s three big men — Clevon Brown, Djery Baptiste, and Ejike Obinna -- have been covered to death; you’re probably well aware that Vanderbilt has had trouble in that area this season. At most power conference programs, Obinna — who turned 18 in December -- would be redshirting.
The point is, if we take an honest assessment of Vanderbilt’s roster, we can start to see why this team is bad, and why it’s mostly not Bryce Drew’s fault that the team is bad. That doesn’t mean that Drew is completely absolved of blame or that he’s actually doing a great job with this team, but I don’t think Drew is single-handedly ruining this team. There might be some coaches who could have squeezed an extra win or three out of this roster, but there does not exist a basketball coach in the world who would make the NCAA Tournament with the roster as it is currently composed.
If next year’s team is struggling to make the tournament, you may officially grab your torch and pitchfork. But this year’s team is, by and large, the natural end result of Kevin Stallings’ inattention to recruiting in his last few years at Vanderbilt.