How Did We Get Here?
November 13, 2017, was the turning point of Bryce Drew’s tenure at Vanderbilt, but perhaps not in the way that seemed apparent at the time.
That afternoon, Darius Garland — the local five-star recruit who had known the Drew family since he was in middle school — signed a Letter of Intent to play basketball at Vanderbilt. That night, Vanderbilt took the short drive over to the Curb Event Center, where a team featuring Matthew Fisher-Davis, Riley LaChance, and Jeff Roberson shot 4-of-23 from three-point range in a 69-60 loss to Belmont.
The latter event, an inexplicably poor offensive performance, would turn out to be the defining feature of Drew’s three years at Vanderbilt rather than the local star who finally stayed home to play for the Commodores. Actually, Garland would define the 2018-19 season, but not in the way anyone wanted: Garland played four games and two minutes for Vanderbilt before departing with a knee injury. A few days later, the team announced that Garland was done for the season; and in January, he would leave school entirely to prepare for the NBA Draft, where he was picked fifth overall by the Cleveland Cavaliers.
Without Garland, fans were left to wonder what might have been — while also seeing what actually was. The Commodores ended the 2019-20 season by losing 20 straight, becoming the first team in SEC history to go 0-18 in conference play, and the team appeared to get progressively worse as the season wore on. Vanderbilt led much of the way in early losses to Ole Miss, Kentucky, and South Carolina, though they got their doors blown off in the last ten minutes of a loss at Georgia. They took Tennessee, then ranked number one in the country, to overtime at Memorial Gym, and lost at Arkansas in the last minute. That game left the Commodores 0-9 in the SEC, and Vanderbilt managed to stay mostly competitive over the next seven games — but the closest losses were by seven points at Alabama and Texas A&M.
As late as that Texas A&M game, by the way, it looked like Drew might well keep his job — and then Vanderbilt scored 10 points in 21 minutes in an 84-48 loss to Arkansas on Senior Night, followed by dreadful performances at LSU and against Texas A&M in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. Suddenly, the same coach who had landed the best recruiting class in Vanderbilt history was out of a job a year later. That said, the signs were there as early as the day that Garland signed. The 2017-18 team would figure things out on the offensive end in SEC play, but it wasn’t a great sign that the coach could manage to have such a bad offensive performance with Fisher-Davis, Roberson, and LaChance in the fold. When those three Kevin Stallings recruits exited, and when Garland fell in the fifth game of the season, Drew was suddenly fielding a team that ranked 215th nationally — and 14th in the SEC — in offensive efficiency. And to say that Drew simply forgot to recruit shooters is false; frankly, Aaron Nesmith and Matt Ryan are capable of shooting better than they did in 2018-19.
With Drew gone, and with the job suddenly looking like a major rebuild, Malcolm Turner went outside the box and hired Jerry Stackhouse. Stackhouse comes well-recommended — he was the G-League Coach of the Year and was thought to be in the mix for NBA head coaching jobs — but with no experience at the college level. That could go either way, certainly; but then, Drew was a by-the-book hire, a mid-major coach with a good record who looked to be ready to step up. We’ll see what Stackhouse does at Vanderbilt, but nobody is going to judge him based on his first year.
|Darius Garland||27.8||16.2||3.8||2.6||0.8||0.4||NBA Draft/#5 overall|
|Simisola Shittu||26.7||10.9||6.7||1.8||0.7||0.5||NBA Draft/undrafted|
|Yanni Wetzell||18.5||5.9||3.8||0.3||0.7||0.6||transfer/San Diego St.|
It might seem strange that a team that went 0-18 in the SEC also had two players leave early for the NBA Draft; but then Darius Garland had nothing to do with the 0-18. Simi Shittu, the other five-star recruit in the 2018 recruiting class, also left after a year — but unlike Garland, he wasn’t drafted, and anybody who watched Vanderbilt down the stretch knows exactly why. In conference play, Shittu averaged 9.1 ppg and shot 44 percent on twos — numbers that don’t exactly scream that you should be drafted.
On the other hand, Joe Toye’s career arc might be one of the bigger indictments of the Bryce Drew era. Toye went from a promising, athletic freshman (in the last year under Kevin Stallings) to a competent role player as a sophomore — then turned into a role player who was, well, somewhat less than competent as a junior and senior. His 40 percent three-point shooting as a sophomore may not have been sustainable; but then, shooting 27.5 percent over his last two years in Nashville is not just “regression to the mean.”
Vanderbilt also lost two players to transfers, both of whom played one season after sitting out 2017-18. Matt Ryan looked like a deadeye shooter that Vanderbilt could use early in the season before completely collapsing in SEC play, while Yanni Wetzell came on late in the season. Wetzell may be missed (Ryan transferred to Chattanooga, which should probably tell you roughly the level of skill there.)
As an aside, in three years at Vanderbilt, Drew lost six players to transfer — and that’s not even counting Samir Sehic, who headed for the exits before playing a game for Drew. That two players a year were heading for the exits was a fairly new feature of Vanderbilt basketball (exception: summer 2013) that was never really explained in spite of requiring explanation. And three of the players were ones that Drew had brought in.
|Ejike Obinna||9.4||2.7||2.1||0||0||0.1||stats from 2017-18|
The only good news for Vanderbilt was that Aaron Nesmith and Saben Lee — the team’s two best players from about January on — decided to stick around.
Until the Garland injury, Nesmith seemed ticketed to be a relatively minor player for Vanderbilt as a freshman. But in the first game without Garland, Nesmith had 20 points and 13 rebounds (granted, against Savannah State) and finally broke into the starting lineup in the second game of SEC play. For most of the conference schedule, Nesmith offered a small glimmer of hope for fans, leading the team in scoring, including four 20-point outings. But he also hit a wall late in the season: from February 19 on, Nesmith averaged 9.6 ppg and shot just 33 percent from the floor. If there’s good news here, for the season he shot 33.7 percent from three while shooting 82.6 percent from the foul line. The latter number suggests the former number is capable of improving.
Saben Lee came into the season expecting to play off the ball alongside Garland, but was thrust into the starting point guard role in Garland’s absence. Lee proved capable of getting to the basket and drawing contact, attempting a team-leading 194 free throws on the season — the third-highest total in the SEC, behind noted foul-magnet Grant Williams and South Carolina’s Chris Silva. His assist numbers actually weren’t bad, though a lot of fans would like to see him move off the ball again.
The remaining returnees are less noteworthy. Matthew Moyer, declared immediately eligible after transferring from Syracuse, was a top-50 recruit out of high school who also averaged 13.5 minutes per game for that Vanderbilt team. Moyer and Clevon Brown at least have something going for them: Moyer as a rebounder, Brown as a shot-blocker and defensive stopper. Maxwell Evans figured to have a path to minutes in the backcourt after the Garland injury, but it never really happened; in fact, after averaging close to 20 minutes per game in December, Evans’ minutes inexplicably disappeared, and he barely got off the bench for much of January and February. (I say “inexplicably” because Evans actually played reasonably well in December, at least well enough to think that there wasn’t any compelling reason to bench him.) Evans has the ability to back up both guard spots, but Drew could never seem to figure out a use for him; perhaps Stackhouse will get him into the guard rotation.
(Side note: In an era where three-guard lineups are in vogue, Bryce Drew spent much of January and February playing what amounted to a one-guard lineup. Do with that what you will.)
And finally, there’s Ejike Obinna, listed as a returnee but one who did not play in 2018-19. Drew made the decision before the season to redshirt Obinna, which frankly he should have done in his freshman year (and why he didn’t has never been made clear.) After the season, Drew claimed that he could have won two or three SEC games if he had burned Obinna’s redshirt. We can only assume that Obinna is pretty good if he alone would have been worth two or three wins. As a freshman, at least, Obinna showed more promise as a low-post scorer than as a defensive stopper; it’s plausible that he and Brown could alternate in an offense-for-defense rotation down low.
|Dylan Disu||6'9"||220||#132 in 247 Sports composite|
|Scotty Pippen||6'1"||170||#212 in 247 Sports composite|
|Jordan Wright||6'5"||226||#330 in 247 Sports composite|
|Oton Jankovic||6'10"||212||#389 in 247 Sports composite|
Even before Drew left, his 2019 recruiting class looked like it was going to be a step down from the 2018 class. Dylan Disu and Austin Crowley seemed much more like the type of solid four-year contributors whom Kevin Stallings made a career from than they did one-and-dones.
After Drew was fired, Crowley asked out of his Letter of Intent a day later (and subsequently landed at Ole Miss.) Disu and Scotty Pippen Jr. (yes, the son of that Scottie Pippen) went into wait-and-see mode, and Stackhouse was able to keep both in the fold.
That was a big win, because without those two, Vanderbilt’s incoming talent would be nothing to write home about. I like to say that for bad teams, suffering some attrition (Vanderbilt returns 50.2 percent of its possession-minutes from last season, a number artificially inflated by Garland only playing in five games) isn’t necessarily a negative. But that assumes that the incoming players are better.
That might not be the case, at least not immediately. Late additions Jordan Wright and Oton Jankovic weren’t really on anyone’s radar — Wright committed to Vanderbilt over Tulane (a program that, frankly, is in the same boat as Vanderbilt right now) and Jankovic’s only other offer, at least if Rivals is to be believed, was from Siena. In a normal year, Jankovic would be a redshirt candidate and Wright would be a long shot for early playing time; but this isn’t a normal year, what with Vanderbilt only having ten scholarship players available and only two players who are proven commodities.
Stackhouse also added transfers D.J. Harvey (Notre Dame) and Quentin Millora-Brown (Rice), but both will likely sit out this season.
|11/6||SE Missouri State|
|11/22||South Carolina State|
|12/18||vs. Loyola-Chicago (Phoenix, AZ)|
|1/25||at South Carolina|
|2/8||at Mississippi State|
|2/29||at Ole Miss|
Vanderbilt’s nonconference schedule looks like they basically spent the entire summer figuring out the weakest schedule they could get past the SEC offices. There are eleven home games, one true road game, and zero games against power-conference teams.
This is, of course, designed to balance out the SEC schedule. As usual, Vanderbilt will draw Kentucky, Florida, and Tennessee twice; the other two double opponents are Alabama and South Carolina.
Whatever you think of the Jerry Stackhouse hire, Vanderbilt fans probably won’t be able to assess the hire this year. Not when he inherits a roster that went winless in the SEC last season. Yes, there are some new faces, but there aren’t any players who will really change Vanderbilt’s fortunes immediately.
In the long term, it’s easy to see how this could work: Stackhouse was known for player development while he was in the G-League, and it’s hard to imagine somebody with his personality not being a good recruiter, and I haven’t heard anything negative about his ability as a tactician. But he’ll still probably need a year or two to overhaul the roster. For this year, expect Vanderbilt to end its losing streak in the SEC and maybe even win a few — but it’s also tough to look at this roster and pick them anywhere other than 14th.