On his good days, Joe Toye looks like the next Vanderbilt basketball representative in the NBA. The 6’7 swingman is one of the most athletic players on the roster, able to bend the rim with explosive dunks after cutting through the lane and putting his defender on roller skates. A smooth jumper from the corners and fast-twitch quickness give him the bonafides to be the kind of three-and-D guard/forward the league currently loves.
On his bad days, he’s a disjointed shot-chucker who runs with the grace of a puppy growing into its legs. He forces straight-line drives into traffic without an exit plan and hoists up bad shots with little chance of scoring, turning the ball over at an unacceptable rate. He defends wildly, allowing his momentum to carry him past defenders and allow his assignments a clear runway into the paint, forcing him to play catchup at the worst possible moments.
On Tuesday night, he was both players.
Toye’s performance against the No. 21 Kentucky Wildcats was his strongest in what’s been a lost junior campaign. The former four-star prospect had a season-high 16 points and five rebounds on an efficient 11-shot performance. With under five minutes to play and Kentucky mounting a comeback behind an always-fervent home crowd, he calmly drained a corner three to reset the Wildcat rally and push his team’s lead to seven points.
But he also committed two fouls that led to four UK points in the final 30 seconds — including the loose ball foul that handed the home team a chance to tie the game on a platter. If Toye doesn’t get whistled for crashing into Shai Gilgeous-Alexander with two seconds left, the best Kentucky could have managed was a Hail Mary heave at the buzzer. Instead, the Wildcats’ super-freshman made a pair of free throws to complete an unlikely comeback and force overtime.
Toye wouldn’t have the chance to redeem himself. He didn’t have the opportunity to put up a single shot in the extra frame.
The loss wasn’t the junior’s fault. Riley LaChance and Jeff Roberson, the seniors whose presence gave Vanderbilt the scoring punch needed to escape Rupp Arena with an upset win (36 points, eight assists between them) both missed key free throws late in the game. A gassed Commodore defense allowed Kentucky to shoot 57% from the field in overtime.
But Toye will be the goat for this one, just like Matthew Fisher-Davis was in the team’s NCAA Tournament loss to Northwestern. In that game, his foul — this one intentional thanks to a miscommunication — turned a Vandy lead into a deficit as the clock ran down. Toye’s foul wasn’t as brutal, but it’s still something he’ll have to come back from if he’s going to lead this team next winter.
Vanderbilt will need Toye more than ever in 2018-19
This season was always going to be a bridge year. While LaChance and Roberson give the Commodores a veteran 1-2 punch that would be welcome on any roster, a lack of experienced big men (VU ranks 230th in the NCAA in rebounding margin) and promising-but-inconsistent play from young contributors like Saben Lee, Peyton Willis, and D’Jery Baptiste set the stage for a rebuild.
And what a rebuild it will be. Vanderbilt already has the two highest-rated recruits in program history signed for the summer (Darius Garland and Simi Shittu). A third, even higher-rated player could be next (Romeo Langford). Behind them, a player who typically would have been the top guy in a Kevin Stallings recruiting haul rounds out a top 10 class (Aaron Nesmith).
But those explosive freshmen will need some veteran leadership to guide them, which is where senior-to-be Toye fits in. He’ll have every opportunity to earn his spot in the starting lineup at small forward, and he’ll be counted on to set a strong pace both when the cameras are rolling in SEC play and in quiet, unofficial practices over the summer.
He is absolutely capable of handling that role, and his presence could be the difference between just returning to the NCAA Tournament and making program history. He’s just got to figure out how to be the best version of himself the majority of the time — and not the guy who’s mistake-prone play has led him into an abyss as a junior.