It’s been a busy month for me since returning on vacation, such that I haven’t really had time to put my final thoughts about the 2017-18 basketball season in writing.
The most obvious question is: what went wrong? We had reasonably high hopes entering the season, and those hopes pretty quickly proved to be unfounded. After an unconvincing win over Austin Peay in the season opener, Vanderbilt went a few streets over and lost to Belmont at the Curb Event Center — the first sign of trouble. They followed that up by squeaking by UNC Asheville at home, then took what turned out to be a vastly overrated USC team to overtime but still lost. An ugly neutral-court loss to Virginia in Brooklyn was explained mostly by Virginia being good (the Cavs weren’t ranked at that point but finished the season #1 in the country.) Home losses to Kansas State and Middle Tennessee and a road loss at Arizona State — then ranked #5 in the country — left Vanderbilt at 3-7 in the middle of December.
One thing that needs to be said is that at least on the offensive end, this team was more or less what we expected it to be. On that end of the floor, Riley LaChance and Jeff Roberson (along with Matthew Fisher-Davis when healthy) were able to carry the team to 29th nationally in offensive efficiency -- and 2nd in the SEC in conference play. Yes, you’re reading that correctly: the 13th-best team in the SEC standings was fielding its second-best offense.
That should tell you quite a bit about the defense. It was a disaster.
Let’s start with the why. Vanderbilt’s opponents shot 50.7 percent inside the three-point arc. That’s worse than any of Bryce Drew’s Valpo teams ever did at defending the paint; his last three Valpo teams ranked 27th, 14th, and 3rd (!) nationally in that statistic. The defense didn’t force turnovers (ranked last in the conference) and was particularly bad at sending opponents to the foul line. (Allowing opponents to shoot 37.4 percent on threes didn’t help, either, but Ken Pomeroy’s work suggests that defenses don’t really have much control over that -- and in any case, opponents didn’t take all that many threes against Vanderbilt’s defense. It’s hard to decide if that was a result of the defense denying shooters or if it was just a result of opponents preferring to take advantage of the weak interior defense.)
Where I was wrong is that I dismissed the question marks in the paint that were present going into the season. In the modern game, traditional centers are a dying breed, but having a big guy to protect the rim is a very big deal on the defensive end. It’s possible to have a good defense without a good rim protector, but like a goalkeeper in soccer or hockey, it’s a lot easier to just have a great last line of defense to cover up mistakes elsewhere. That was lacking, and Vanderbilt’s on-ball defenders weren’t good enough to cover it. Basically, this team really, really missed Luke Kornet -- but less for his offense than his defense.
That said, freaking out over a second-year head coach having a bad year just isn’t worth it. There are too many examples of coaches having a transition year in Year 2 before getting it together in the third year. For a good example, go back to Tony Bennett’s first couple of years at Virginia; his second Cavalier team dropped from 76 to 103 in KenPom before jumping to 33 (and making the NCAA Tournament) in his third year.
Here’s my best explanation for why. In a new coach’s first year, with rare exceptions (usually because the roster completely cratered due to players leaving the program, or because your name is John Calipari and you can bring the top two recruits in the country to your new job), the team is still essentially the last coach’s team. That definitely describes Vanderbilt in 2016-17: literally every player on the active roster was signed by Kevin Stallings, and Bryce Drew actually had to adjust his approach at midseason to accommodate the roster. It was a Kevin Stallings team that happened to be coached by Bryce Drew.
In Year 2, the transition happens. The old coach’s players are starting to filter out of the program — either because of graduation or transfers -- and what’s more, the last coach’s recruiting failures are starting to show up on the roster. Meanwhile, the new coach’s first recruits are freshmen. If the new coach has different stylistic preferences from the last guy, there might be a lot of parts on the roster that don’t really fit together. The result is usually a step backward to take a step forward (in theory, anyway; sometimes the step forward doesn’t happen!) Does this sound like any team you know?
Year 3, really, is the first time that the new coach really has his team in place. The old coach’s players are mostly gone or relegated to smaller roles, so the recruiting misses and mismatched parts don’t really come up. Some of the new coach’s players have a year of experience at the college level. Oh yeah — the new coach has also had a recruiting class that he’s had a couple of years to assemble, instead of having to build relationships with rising seniors on the fly.
(In some cases, mostly major rebuilds and/or programs under NCAA sanctions, Year 3 doesn’t happen until Year 4. That doesn’t apply here.)
Next year’s Vanderbilt team will have, at most, three players — Clevon Brown, Djery Baptiste, and Joe Toye — who were recruited to the program by Kevin Stallings. None of the three project to play major roles on the team. 2018-19 will be Bryce Drew’s team.
Oh, yeah, and something about McDonald’s All-Americans. It’s not a coincidence that I’m writing this post on the day of the McDonald’s All-American Game.
We’ll be doing our usual player reviews over the next few weeks, but for the most part it’s time to put the 2017-18 season in the rear view mirror. Yes, I will miss the three seniors, who were all guys who I enjoyed watching play for Vanderbilt over the last four years. But I’m also very much looking forward to next season.
Oh yeah, and can we please get Romeo Langford?