Mike Krzyzewski went 38-47 in his first three years at Duke.
The above is what I keep telling myself every time I watch a halfcourt set that sees several passes that were this close to being a turnover, followed by a rushed three-pointer with the shot clock running out, which of course bounces off the rim. Only a relative handful of coaches are relieved of their duties after three years or less, and there’s a good reason for that. In fact, within my memory, only six SEC coaches have ever been relieved of their duties prior to their fourth season. Two of those were Donnie Tyndall and Billy Gillispie; the other four (Steve Newton, Ron Jirsa, Rick Ray, Kim Anderson) were eminently forgettable. You probably didn’t even know that Steve Newton was the person Eddie Fogler replaced when he jumped from Vanderbilt to South Carolina, did you? Hell, even Tony Barbee got a fourth year after going 9-23 in his third year.
And yet if you’ve read John Feinstein, he’s recounted in numerous books that Mike Krzyzewski came very close to being fired after going 11-17 in his third year at Duke, following a 10-17 record in his second year. This isn’t to say that Bryce Drew is Mike Krzyzewski, but there was definitely a point in his career that Mike Krzyzewski was Bryce Drew. The four-man freshman class on Krzyzewski’s 1982-83 team would later be a four-man senior class on a Final Four team, and three of the four would go on to play in the NBA (and the fourth, Jay Bilas, has made a nice career of bashing the NCAA on television.)
In the wake of Darius Garland being lost for the season, a common refrain I hear is something to the effect of “the coaching staff needs to adjust” or “the team has to just move past this,” and while that might be true mentally... really, there isn’t any moving past this. Not mentally, mind you. But over Vanderbilt’s last five games, its most common lineup — playing 18.4 percent of possessions — has Saben Lee, Joe Toye, Matt Ryan, Yanni Wetzell, and Simi Shittu on the floor together. The two-guard in that look is... Joe Toye, I guess? I like Joe Toye, but he’s not exactly a guy I want to see chasing guards around the perimeter.
The second-most common lineup replaces Toye with Aaron Nesmith, who is actually a guy I don’t mind seeing defending the other team’s two-guard. The third-most common lineup is Lee, Toye, Nesmith, Ryan, and Shittu. Vanderbilt has used those three lineups around 38 percent of the time. The point of all this is that right now, Vanderbilt has three guys on its roster who you could call “guards” with a straight face; one of them is a freshman who was probably expected to be a backup, and another played 13 minutes total in the four games before Garland went down. Mentally, the team can move past Garland; realistically, they haven’t found a way to replace his production, and they probably won’t. Not when Joe Toye is playing minutes at the two.
Which brings us back to Bryce Drew. One thing that’s become painfully obvious over the last three years is that a ton of rot had developed in the basketball program in Kevin Stallings’ past few seasons. At the time, we blamed that on Stallings and the team’s two first-round NBA Draft picks, for some reason; but the real problems showed early in the 2016-17 season, when a team without Damian Jones and Wade Baldwin IV and a hobbled Luke Kornet was getting repeatedly torched on the defensive end — a problem that sort of corrected itself when Kornet returned to full strength and went back to erasing anything and everything at the rim. And that really became obvious in 2017-18, when Kornet joined the New York Knicks and Vanderbilt couldn’t stop anybody.
Vanderbilt ranked 56th in KenPom — and rising, still held back by a rather low preseason ranking — on the eve of Garland’s injury. It currently ranks 83rd as of this writing.
This all came full circle on Monday night, when Duke’s Tre Jones — ironically, the player whose commitment caused Darius Garland to cool on being a Blue Devil — went down with an injury early in Duke’s game against Syracuse. In spite of R.J. Barrett and Zion Williamson still being available, without its starting point guard, the top-ranked Blue Devils lost to a rather average Syracuse team at home. We’ll see how Duke adjusts to what could be an extended absence for Jones, but like Vanderbilt and Garland, Duke appeared to lose the one player it absolutely couldn’t afford to lose.
So let’s bring this back to Bryce Drew. Drew has already shown, in two-plus years at Vanderbilt, that he’s capable of recruiting at a high level, and his decision to lock up Nesmith early suggests he’s a good evaluator of talent as well. As far as things go, his ability to coach — which, I’m still not convinced that he is a bad coach — doesn’t really matter at this point. There are few coaches who can X-and-O their way out of an inability to recruit or identify talent; even those who appear to do this, like John Beilein and Tony Bennett, are recruiting at a higher level than most give them credit for. But there are many coaches who have managed to recruit their way past an inability to coach, to some degree. Remember: Mark Gottfried, Rick Stansbury, and John Brady have each managed to win an SEC regular-season title.
I mean, we really have no choice to be patient here, because we know Vanderbilt’s going to give him five years, minimum. But we really should be patient anyway. Right now, we’re freaking out about a top prospect hitting .200 in his first taste of the big leagues. Maybe we’ve seen a fatal flaw, or maybe this will all correct itself with time.