Rewind to about a year and a month ago. Let’s imagine a world in which Darius Garland decides that instead of playing for his hometown team, he wants to go to Indiana and play with Romeo Langford instead. Let’s also imagine that everything else that’s happened within the last year — Simi Shittu signing, Matthew Moyer coming in as a transfer, Larry Austin, Payton Willis, and Djery Baptiste leaving the program, and no other players signing with the program — remains true. Vanderbilt enters the 2018-19 season with a starting five of Saben Lee, Aaron Nesmith, Joe Toye, Matt Ryan, and Simi Shittu; with Max Evans, Clevon Brown, Yanni Wetzell, and Matthew Moyer coming off the bench.
Here’s a question I have: if this was the roster that Vanderbilt had coming into the season, would you see this as a potential NCAA Tournament team?
You probably would, or at least you would talk yourself into it. Simi Shittu, after all, is a five-star recruit and future NBA lottery pick in his own right; Saben Lee is a capable point guard himself; and the supporting cast looks pretty solid on paper. Which is why it is a bit odd that many are now writing off that team after Darius Garland came in, played four games and two minutes of a fifth, and then was lost for the season with a knee injury.
We’ll grant that two of Vanderbilt’s three performances since losing Garland for the season have been very bad. We can chalk up the Kent State loss to having to adjust on the fly to not having Garland on the floor. The NC State loss was a bit more concerning, though the Commodores happened to have an awful shooting night — 3-for-22 from three, and 18-for-30 at the foul line. Still, it was a two-point game with eight and a half minutes left against a pretty good opponent.
Here is where I remind you of the fact that five of the nine players for Vanderbilt are in their first season playing for the Commodores (though two of those were with the team last season.) Both the offense and the defense look disjointed right now, but the problems don’t appear to be a lack of talent. They’re mostly the problems that you would expect to see with a bunch of guys who haven’t really played together before — and to a larger degree, they look like the sort of problems you’d expect to see with a team that spent the preseason and the first four games of the regular season operating under the assumption that Darius Garland would be playing for them.
There’s a difference between “this team doesn’t have the talent to compete” and “this team has a lot of glitches that need to be worked out,” and Vanderbilt’s 2018-19 team falls very much into the latter category. Guess what? Following tonight’s game against MTSU, Vanderbilt will have twelve full days before its next game. In Bryce Drew’s first season, the team looked very disjointed early in the season, then had a chance during finals break to work on some things and put things together enough to sneak into the NCAA Tournament.
That could be the path we’re now on this year. If Vanderbilt comes out and lays an egg against Arizona State and Kansas State after finals break, we can reevaluate this position. For now, though, it’s reasonable to think this team can still make a run at the tournament.