How Did We Get Here?
This is where, as your not-particularly-neutral basketball writer, I preview the Vanderbilt Commodores as though they are any other SEC team. Don’t worry, there will be plenty of more in-depth content coming. This is your 20,000-foot view.
Two years ago, Vanderbilt suckered Pitt into hiring Kevin Stallings to replace Jamie Dixon, and then hired former Valparaiso head coach Bryce Drew to replace him. With a team entirely recruited by Stallings, Drew went 19-16 in his first year — which doesn’t sound terribly impressive, but the Commodores did stick it to Jerry Palm by becoming the first team to ever make the NCAA Tournament with 15 regular-season losses.
And then they went 12-20 last year, the most losses in a season in Vanderbilt history. That sounds bad, and it is bad, but it’s a lot worse than it sounds. For one thing, the Commodores played a bunch of top 100 teams in nonconference play and lost to basically all of them, and the SEC was stronger than usual in 2017-18. Vanderbilt didn’t lose to a single team outside the KenPom top 100 in 2017-18; the problem was that they only played six games against such teams.
The basic problem with the 2017-18 edition of Vanderbilt basketball was that Stallings’ inattention to recruiting for most of the latter half of his tenure eventually led to a season like, well, that. The three seniors on the team, all 1000-point scorers (Jeff Roberson, Riley LaChance, and Matthew Fisher-Davis), did their part, but there were few defensive stoppers on the roster. In SEC play, the Commodores finished second in offensive efficiency — and 14th in defensive efficiency.
The good news, now, is that Vanderbilt has a top-ranked recruiting class entering, and Drew has managed to turn over most of the roster from the end of the Kevin Stallings era. This is Bryce Drew’s team now, and we get to see what they can do.
Let’s talk about the returning players first. Just two guards return from last year’s team, both sophomores. Saben Lee started the season as the backup to Larry Austin Jr. (remember him?), but after a 19-point performance in the second game of the season at Belmont, Lee moved into the starting lineup and ended the season starting 29 games; Austin transferred to Central Michigan for his final year of eligibility. Lee was hardly a finished product as a freshman — he averaged 2.4 turnovers per game and shot 30.7 percent from three, though he was good enough at finishing at the rim to average 10.6 ppg — but he showed enough upside to think he’ll continue to play a major role even with the deluge of talent entering the program.
Maxwell Evans, on the other hand, looked like a typical freshman: struggling to adjust to the speed of the college game and shooting just 35.8 percent; though he started 15 games, he only averaged 13 minutes per game. Evans will play a more muted role with the arrival of a couple of talented freshmen in the backcourt, though with a rather thin roster at guard he should still see minutes.
Aaron Nesmith, a 6’5” swingman from Charleston, is the lowest-ranked of the three incoming freshmen. There was a time when a player the caliber of Nesmith would be the most talented player in Vanderbilt’s freshman class and it wouldn’t even be close; in this class, Nesmith is almost an afterthought. But he’s a talented player in his own right, being named the Gatorade High School Player of the Year in South Carolina — a neat trick, considering Duke freshman sensation Zion Williamson was also a high school player in South Carolina last year. Nesmith will be the third guard on this team.
Oh yeah, and there’s Darius Garland. Garland spent about a week as the highest-rated recruit in the history of Vanderbilt basketball, and he might be the most important recruit that Vanderbilt has ever landed. For once, the recruit from Nashville whom everybody wanted decided to stay in Nashville and attend Vanderbilt.
Joe Toye has spent three years as an enigma wrapped inside of a mystery, a 6’7” guy who can run and jump and who looks like he should be a good basketball player — but outside of a stretch late in his sophomore year, when he averaged 7.3 ppg in SEC play and shot 41.3 percent from beyond the arc, the overall product has been generally meh. As a junior, his outside shot completely disappeared — he shot 26.3 percent from three on the season, though that did tick up a bit in SEC play — and his production and minutes declined across the board. Still, it’s not unheard of for an athletic player who sticks around for four years to finally live up to his potential as a senior.
You can probably write a lot of that, too, about 6’8” junior Clevon Brown. (It’s probably not a huge coincidence that Toye and Brown are the two remaining Stallings recruits on the roster.) As a sophomore, Brown actually showed some upside as a defensive stopper — he averaged 3.2 blocks per 40 minutes and also functioned as one of the team’s better rebounders. The problem was that his offensive game was so raw that he couldn’t stay on the floor. While Brown did shoot 60.6 percent on two-pointers, he shot 23.9 percent beyond the arc — and insisted on taking 46 of his 112 shots on the season from back there. (He also shot 12-of-26 at the foul line.) And if Clevon Brown was kind of raw, Ejike Obinna looked like a guy who was still very new to the game of basketball — which, well, he is. The 6’10” sophomore averaged 8.5 fouls per 40 minutes and also provided a minimal defensive presence, blocking two shots all season. But he did have 14 points at Mississippi State, in a game where no one else showed up for Vanderbilt.
Interestingly, this is a situation where Vanderbilt’s two returning big men are still unproven while the freshman is pretty polished. Simisola Shittu, a 6’10”, 240-pound five-star recruit from Canada, will start from day one at Vanderbilt, and it’s not entirely because the incumbents are iffy. Shittu is the highest-ranked recruit in Vanderbilt history, and if you want a physical description, it’s “Djery Baptiste, but if he were good at basketball.” (He might even speak as many languages as Baptiste; I’m sure SEC Network commentators will let us know.)
Vanderbilt will also have two transfers, both juniors, eligible for the first time. Yanni Wetzell, originally from New Zealand, comes by way of St. Mary’s University in Texas — a Division II school where he averaged 15.5 ppg and 6.8 rpg as a sophomore and showed good polish. (Before you say “but it’s Division II,” think of it like a JUCO player with those numbers.) Matt Ryan (no, not that Matt Ryan) transferred from Notre Dame, where he spent two years as a three-point specialist — 206 of his 243 field goal attempts came from beyond the arc. And the 6’8” junior is pretty good at that, connecting on 39.8 percent of his career attempts.
|11/11||at Southern Cal|
|12/1||vs. NC State (Miami, FL)|
|3/2||at Texas A&M|
This is... not the nonconference schedule from the last two years. Vanderbilt does have a handful of marquee nonconference opponents on the schedule, including a road trip to Kansas State (which finished last year in the Elite Eight), a road trip to USC, a home game against Arizona State, and a neutral-site game against NC State in Miami. There’s also a road game at Oklahoma in the Big 12/SEC Challenge in January.
There are also nine home games, and aside from Arizona State, they range from a .500 team in the MAC (Kent State), three Big South teams (Winthrop, UNC Asheville, and Liberty), a couple of local schools with first-year coaches (Middle Tennessee and Tennessee State), and two teams that finished last season outside the KenPom top 300 (Alcorn State and Savannah State.) If Vanderbilt’s record entering January is any worse than 9-3, there are real problems.
Things step up in SEC play, though: the Commodores will draw their annual two-game series with Tennessee, Florida, and Kentucky. Vanderbilt could get off to a good start in conference play, though, with four of the first six games being at Memorial Gym (and one of the two road games being at what could be a bad Georgia team.)
The questions about Bryce Drew following 2017-18 were probably a bit unfair, considering that he essentially got saddled with a lot of the recruiting misses from Kevin Stallings’ final years. Most of those are now gone, though, and Bryce Drew has his team in place.
That doesn’t necessarily mean that this is going to be a Top 25 team, though the upside is certainly that high. You don’t add two five-star freshmen and expect to be waiting a year or two for them to deliver, after all. A realistic expectation for this team is a NCAA Tournament bid and maybe winning a game.
This, again, is your 20,000-foot view. I promise individual player writeups between now and November 6. Get excited.