The Vanderbilt Commodores are currently 9-8 on the season, on a five-game losing streak, and 0-5 in the SEC. The team’s most recent performance — a 71-55 loss to Mississippi State, at home, two days after a reported players-only meeting (it’s never a good sign when you have one, and it’s an even worse sign when the players-only meeting is immediately followed by... that) — was one of its worst of the season. Vanderbilt’s KenPom rating is in free fall: the Commodores ranked 63rd in the metric entering the Ole Miss game on January 5, and are currently ranked 105th. In SEC play, the Commodores rank 13th in offensive efficiency, and 11th in defensive efficiency; they’re being outscored by an average of 0.17 points per possession. For comparison, last year’s team — which we all agree was bad — got outscored by an average of 0.06 points per possession, and while the defense was a nightmare (14th in the SEC in defensive efficiency), the offense was at least competent (2nd in offensive efficiency.)
But right now we’re not interested in the reasons for this state of affairs. That’s a different topic. Right now, the fan base collectively wants to decide who is to blame for this. Some of us want to place all the blame at the feet of the current head coach, Bryce Drew; others want to blame the previous coach, Kevin Stallings. Still others think a lot of blame goes to the athletic department.
Let’s play the blame game!
The case for: It’s 2019. Players who are currently seniors in college mostly entered in the 2015 recruiting class; juniors were from the Class of 2016. Kevin Stallings was the one responsible for recruiting the 2015 class, and both incoming freshmen in the 2016 class were recruited to Vanderbilt by him as well.
The 2015 recruiting class consisted of Joe Toye, Djery Baptiste, Camron Justice, and Samir Sehic; the 2016 class was Payton Willis and Clevon Brown. Six players who should be upperclassmen on this team; only two of them remain in the program, four left the program without making any meaningful contributions. And the two who remain have never developed into anything more than role players.
Basically, Kevin Stallings laid the foundation for this year’s disaster, and that foundation had a lot of cracks in it.
The case against: Stallings left behind a considerably worse situation than commonly realized; at the same time, Bryce Drew has had two full years to recruit. And you can make an argument that some of the players who have left the program were actually not bad. Camron Justice is currently averaging close to 20 ppg at IUPUI, and Samir Sehic is averaging 12 and 8 at Tulane. Granted, they’re doing that for bad teams (IUPUI is currently ranked 189th in KenPom, and Tulane is 299th), and they probably wouldn’t be doing that here. On the other hand, they’d at least be bench players, right? With that said, Sehic left the program before even playing a game under Drew, and Justice left after one semester.
In short, Kevin Stallings leaving a bare cupboard is something that could have been corrected by now. We’ll get to why it hasn’t in a bit.
The case for: He’s the current head coach, and as such, all blame for anything wrong with the program must be laid squarely at his feet. I kid, of course, but some were quite certain that the disastrous 2014 football season was entirely the fault of Derek Mason and had nothing to do with James Franklin.
Now, this is a different situation, because he’s in his third year — a point at which even rebuilding programs should start seeing some progress. On the other hand, we’ve been sold on the talent he’s been bringing in, and yet it’s talent that can’t seem to score baskets or play defense. This is a talented team, and yet it can’t seem to get it done. The offense doesn’t appear to know what it’s trying to do, and defenders are frequently out of position.
The case against: There’s relatively little experience on this team, and while Kevin Stallings didn’t help that, another factor working against that has been the inability to add experience in the form of graduate transfers, a frequent quick-fix at other rebuilding programs. That’s not entirely the fault of Bryce Drew (oh, we’re getting there), and the tendency of a previous coach’s recruits to leave before their eligibility is up is an entirely common thing. What’s not common, though, has been the inability to field a full roster because of transfers out of the program — Vanderbilt currently has 10 healthy scholarship players (with one of those ten redshirting), and while it had a full 13 last year, two of those were sitting out the year as transfers.
Oh, right — there was also the fact that he lost his best player, and that hasn’t been the first time that’s happened. Sure, losing Darius Garland shouldn’t completely tank the season, but it’s a giant mitigating factor either way.
The case for: Look, it’s probably mean-spirited to bring this up — but as much as people pile on Bryce Drew’s offensive sets, whatever they’re doing, they’re generating open looks. The players are just missing them.
The case against: Well, somebody is responsible for recruiting them to campus and developing them.
The case for: You know all that crap we’ve been giving the administration for failing to invest in football facilities? Yeah, that’s true for basketball, too. You can debate how much effect the facilities arms race really has on outcomes, but whatever effect it has, that’s not getting done right now.
Oh, yeah, and let’s talk for a minute about some athletic department policies. The athletic department hasn’t allowed coaches to oversign. Not making a value judgment here, but here’s the problem with that. Transfers are an extremely common thing in today’s world of college basketball, and when the administration tells you that you have three available scholarships and you can only sign three players to fill them, guess what happens when somebody leaves the program? Or enters his name in the NBA Draft? Well, you’re left with a scholarship coming available in March or April and trying to fill it.
Who’s available at that time? Well, there are players who either didn’t sign in November — and most of the top recruits sign in November, or they’re dragging out their recruitment but have long ago cut their list of schools — or got released from their Letter of Intent, usually due to a coaching change. But it’s mostly the former, and if you’re trying to fill scholarships with high school seniors who weren’t signed in November, there’s a good chance they’re fringe players. Another option is transfers, and Bryce Drew has gone to that well before — but in most cases, they’ll have to sit out a year before playing, so they won’t be of immediate help.
Two other groups that have gained popularity in recent years, though, are reclassifying juniors and graduate transfers. The problem here? Vanderbilt has been rather skittish about admitting either of these to school. We can argue until we’re blue in the face about whether it’s acceptable to sign players to scholarships that might open up in the spring, but the fact of the matter is that Vanderbilt’s policy, combined with a rather unusually high amount of attrition (due to, well, the coaching change, some players not working out, and some players really working out to the point that they enter the NBA Draft), has led to a situation where there are open scholarships basically every year — and, probably, some talent left on the table.
The case against: The Vanderbilt University administration is what it is, and at the end of the day, Kevin Stallings figured out how to work within its framework. We can argue that a lot of the administration’s approach to athletics is archaic and holding the two flagship athletic programs back (and it probably is, if we’re being honest), but it’s also not something that seems terribly likely to change any time soon.
So who’s really to blame here?
Since this is the Internet, and there’s no such thing as nuance, everybody must pick one or maybe two of these groups and place the entirety of the blame there.
But the reality is that there’s a lot of blame to go around, and it took a team effort to get to this point. Kevin Stallings recruited poorly in his last two years in Nashville, leaving behind a program that wasn’t going to have any upperclassmen who were anything more than role players. The coaching change itself probably led to quite a bit of attrition from the program, as well; while the four Stallings recruits who left the program might have departed in any case, those odds increased considerably once the coach who recruited them was no longer here. The administration has also handcuffed the new coach’s ability to replace all those departed players, and particularly has handcuffed his ability to replace them with talented and/or experienced players. Bryce Drew has recruited reasonably well, but the team often doesn’t look like it knows what it’s doing on the court.
There’s also been some bad luck in getting to this point. Vanderbilt missed out on Romeo Langford, but the long, drawn-out recruitment likely led to other prospects — who might have come here otherwise — going elsewhere. A 2018-19 team with Darius Garland and Romeo Langford on it would probably be considerably better than what we’re seeing; instead, this team has neither of them.